Japan: Bloggers debate Uesugi's Collapse of Journalism

"The collapse of journalism" (ジャーナリズム崩壊)

In his new book “The Collapse of Journalism” (ジャーナリズム崩壊), released in July, freelance journalist Takashi Uesugi [上杉隆] strips down the murky Japanese media system and offers a glimpse inside. Uesugi, among other things a former New York Times journalist and currently contributor to numerous Japanese magazines and TV programs, points out anomalies in Japanese journalism when compared with other democratic countries.

Basing his criticisms on his own personal experience in both Japanese and American journalistic environments, the writer highlights how most professional Japanese journalists, who resemble company employees more than they do representatives of the fourth estate, are used to burying their head in the sand, and are comfortable simply maintaining the status quo. This status quo in Japan consists of the powerful so-called kisha [reporters’] clubs (記者クラブ), where journalists, subordinate to power, act like bureaucrats working at a press office. Journalists in the kisha clubs despise freelance reporters who, rather than getting their news from the top, pursue deeper truths and publish them in the magazines they write for.

Uesugi develops the discourse highlighting practical examples of good and bad journalism in the history of journalism in Japan and at the New York Times, demonstrating that in Japan, a rotten system leads good journalists either to surrender to the status quo or become freelancers, in the latter case risking being banished from the usual news collection channels.

In 深町秋生の新人日記 (Fukamachi Akio no Shinjin Nikki), blogger Akio Fukamachi [深町秋生] criticizes the book for being overly focused on the kisha club problem and on appreciation of the North American media system. Ultimately, however, the blogger agrees with Uesugi's view on the journalistic profession.

Fukamachi writes:


Although I was very critical of this book, I couldn't help nodding in agreement at his idealistic [stance that] “this is what journalism should be like”. For example, if an incident takes place, media rush to the location of the incident worried about being the only “loser” not able to report it. In this way they cause what is called a “media scrum”, which results in human rights being neglected and hysterical news reports all coming out at the same time. I believe that, as Uesugi points out, there are plenty of wire services already reporting such accidents as fast as is possible. They all compete to be the first to report the news one minute or even one second before the others, swallowing every statement by police or the government, stuffing news reports with formated sentences similar to mass-produced goods, full of taboos, and then they altogether quickly move on to the next case or accident. I suppose there are some differences [in their reports], but inevitably they all taste like fast food: even if the flavor is strong and the calorific value supplied to the readers is high, there are no nutritious elements inside. They're the same kind of differences as those that differentiate MacDonald, Wendy's and Kentucky Fried Chicken.


As I said before, I like fast food, but from the bottom of my heart I hope for a slower information system. Undoubtedly, it is necessary to report in the fastest way possible about incidents or events, but I think that the pursuit of speed should be left to the wire services. But well, I suppose you can't keep a business going this way, can you?

Expressing his disdain for the meddling of bureaucracy in the Japanese media system, another journalist and blogger Kinny, in the blog ハレルヤ新聞 (Haleluya Shinbun), addresses his criticisms directly at Uesugi:


What I understood [from your book] is that while your suggestions may seem like criticisms of the journalist, you are in fact questioning the whole Japanese media system.
I of course have no dispute with you about that, being of the same position.


My approach, however, is different.


I do not think that a person who harbors concerns about the state of modern media and who, given the opportunity, tries to express concerns, should be bashed and condemned at precisely the moment when they take action.



Readers are customers but above all they are citizens, and I consider reporting that is ultimately directed at the destruction of citizens to be a major problem.
That said, if you allow me to express my personal opinion, I would say that your criticism of the bureaucracy is too mild, while some of your remarks about journalists are more severe than necessary.


Of course, as I am myself a journalist, I do understand the content of your book. And, being someone in the same profession as you, I think that it is natural to feel the need to cry “what the hell happened?!”


However, in the part where you let the politicians — and the bureaucrats in particular — off the hook, I think you are too easy on them, even if the aim is to draw a parallel with journalism. Wise people know what really happens, that there are a portion of journalists who, in order to obtain leaked information from government officials, cut deals and cozy up to them. An acquaintance of mine, a former government official, laid out to me how easy it is to manipulate politicians and media like pawns.


In other words, journalism is a profession where there is an incentive to let yourself constantly be manipulated by bureaucrats.

Another central topic of the book is the practice in Japan of newspapers publishing anonymous articles. Not only are journalists not accustomed to signing their articles, but when journalists quote another source, for example an article published in a magazine, they do not typically mention it. It is thus impossible for a reader to go back and find the original sources used in an article.

Uesugi, who experienced a foreign journalistic environment in which anonymity is the norm only among wire services, analyzes this point thoroughly and explains what should be fairly obvious. That is, he points out the fact that an author who remains anonymous cannot be credited, but also does not have to take responsibility for what they wrote. Either way, the article's raison d'être is nil.

In the blog 続ドクバニッキ (Zokudoku Panikki), blogger Bolt69 raises questions about the authoritativeness of anonymous articles with reference to Uesugi's remarks:


To me the most interesting topic was the one about blogs.
Uesugi evidently belongs to the real-name-party, i.e. “write an article using your real name”, because if people remain anonymous it is impossible to individuate responsibility and attribute credibility to an article.

匿名派の自分はこの本のブログに関する文章を読んでいて、匿名派と実名派が何故に食い違うのか? がちょっとわかったような気が。

Reading the part in this book about blogs, I myself, who am in favor anonymity, feel that I came to understand a bit why it is that people in favor of anonymity and those in favor of real names come into conflict.
What people who write using their real names are aiming for is “pro-journalism”, whereas people who remain anonymous are aiming for “amateur journalism”.
Seems to me that these two opinions, real names vs. anonymity, clash as a result of their aims being different.



For example, suppose that we aim at pro-journalism through the use of a blog. In this case, anonymity is more of a disadvantage, because by writing an article anonymously, a superficial approach to verification, analysis and news collection is completely revealed. A problem is also created if verification, analysis and criticism are also anonymous. Ultimately, this is like a journalist strangling themselves with their own hands.
If you publish an article with your real name, on the other hand, you will make an effort to write something that you won't be ashamed of. And it is this high hurdle that you set for yourself which is what a real journalist needs. This is how I feel that I came to understand, by reading this book, [the position of] the anti-anonymity camp.




However, I say “NO!” to Uesugi's statement when he writes that “the blog is a tool for professional journalism”. In fact, I believe that the job of the pro-journalist is “to dredge the bottom of news dispatched anonymously”.

A freelance journalist comments on the stagnant Japanese media system at his blog 行政書士開業日記&読書日記 (Gyōhsei Shoshi Kaigyō Nikki & Dokusho Nikki):



Regarding the “kisha club” issue, I realized for the first time how serious a problem this is when I became a freelance journalist.
It seems that it was identified as a problem a long time ago and is getting better little by little.
However, I have the feeling that, for the time being, a substantial revolution, i.e. abolition [of this system], is unlikely.
Besides, if abolition results from foreign journalism, then that would be a real “collapse of journalism”.
And that is no laughing matter.


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