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Adverse Effects of Political Desks in Mass Media Revealed by the Kake Gakuen scandal

Shiro Segawa
Professor, Faculty of Political Science and Economics, Waseda University

Explanation from a Government Lacking in Sincerity and Transparency

Ministry papers mention 'Prime Minister's intent' for new school
(May 17, 2017, The Asahi Shimbun morning edition)

Coverage of issues related to the establishment of a new veterinarian medicine faculty at Kake Educational Institution began to move forward with The Asahi Shimbun's reporting on the existence of certain documents at the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT). What became clear from subsequent press reports is that the reporting stances taken by the political and city news desks in the mass media (specifically newspapers, television and news agencies in Tokyo) differ and that reporting on Tokyo is polarized, with the Asahi, Mainichi and Tokyo newspapers at one end and the Yomiuri and Sankei newspapers at the other. This report focuses on the internal structure of the mass media, particularly in relation to the political and city news desks, from the perspective of "power and the media."

With regard to a proposal submitted to the Special Zone Advisory Council (chaired by Japanese Prime Minister Abe) by Kake Educational Institution (Kake Gakuen, a school at which a longtime friend of Prime Minister Abe serves as chairman of the board of directors) concerning the establishment of a new faculty of veterinary medicine, allegations are being arisen about favoritism and the legitimacy of the government's handling of the request. In an interview published in the Asahi Shimbun on May 25, former MEXT Vice-Minister Kihei Maekawa claimed that the "administration is distorted." Rejecting this criticism and denying the existence of the documents, Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga and the Cabinet Office in charge of the special zone insisted that "everything was done according to protocol." Furthermore, MEXT stated that "the documents in question cannot be found."

City News Reporter Causes a Stir at the Chief Cabinet Secretary Press Conference

A significant development was triggered by a press conference held by Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga on the morning of June 8. Isoko Mochizuki, a city news desk reporter from the Tokyo Shimbun repeatedly questioned Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga about the possibility of MEXT reopening an investigation regarding the existence of certain documents or a third-party investigation being conducted. Despite the moderator urging her to stop repeating the question, she refused to relent, saying: "I am repeating the question because I do not believe that the Chief Cabinet Secretary has given a clear answer." Such press conferences usually only last about 10 minutes, but this one went on for 37 minutes. It was even reported that Mr. Suga went straight to the Prime Minister's office after the press conference. The next day, MEXT announced that they were reopening the investigation into the existence of the documents in question. As a result of this reinvestigation, the existence of the documents that the Asahi Shimbun reported in May was confirmed.

A key point that needs to be highlighted here is that Ms. Mochizuki, the reporter who had aggressively questioned the Chief Cabinet Secretary, is a city news reporter. According to the Press Office, Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga's press conferences—which are held twice a day, in the morning and the afternoon, on weekdays—are attended by members of the Cabinet Office Press Club. Normally, political reporters responsible for covering the Prime Minister's Office attend the press conference, but non-political reporters from the member organization are allowed to attend as well.

According to the results of a national opinion poll (conducted on June 17 and 18) by the Yomiuri Shimbun, 70% of respondents were "not satisfied" by the explanation given by the government with regard to Kake Gakuen, and only 18% were "satisfied." Similarly, opinion polls conducted by other media organizations also showed that about 70% of respondents expressed dissatisfaction with the explanation given by the Prime Minister and the government. The only two reporters that persistently asked for explanations from Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga, however, were Ms. Mochizuki and Japan Times reporter Reiji Yoshida (covering the Cabinet Office), who supported Ms. Mochizuki in her pursuit of an answer. It seems that is customary for political reporters covering the Cabinet Office to avoid asking difficult questions.

Conflict between the Political and City News Desks at NHK

Conflict has also been observed between NHK's Political and City News Departments in the broadcaster's reporting on Kake Educational Institution. The difference in the departments' stances became clear in the Close-Up Gendai + news program that aired slelon June 19. One reporter each from the Political and City News Desks participated in the program to comment on reports concerning the existence of new relevant documents at MEXT. The political reporter stated that "all decisions are noted in the minutes" and that "the government emphasized that all procedures were appropriate and legal." In response, the city news reporter acknowledged the transparency of the publicly disclosed record but then pointed out that "the Cabinet Office and MEXT have been repeatedly negotiating behind the scenes, and the document is a record of their negotiations" and that "the justification and transparency related to the selection of Kake Gakuen's proposal needs to be examined, including the negotiations between government agencies." This indicates that while the political reporter commented from the perspective of the Prime Minister, Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga and the Cabinet Office, the city news reporter stood firm in expressing the view that the explanation was insufficient.

Although NHK conducted an interview with Mr. Maekawa before the Asahi Shimbun did, the station held back on airing it, thereby missing out on what would have been a big scoop. This fact came to light at the Japan Press Club conference held on June 23. It seems to be the city news desk that is moving forward in its reporting on the documents and broadcasting interviews. It can be assumed that the reason behind NHK's decision not to air the interview is conflict between the Political and City News Desks within NHK.

Match-ups between Political Desk Reporters and Politicians

I did examine the structure of mass media organizations based on my own experience with news coverage in my book The Truth of Scientific Coverage [Kagaku Hodo no Shinso] (2017, Chikuma Shinsho). In this book, I indicated that although newspaper and TV companies that should be conscious of their audience (readers, viewers), they actually tend to be conscious of the reporters and coverage of other companies. As a result, newspaper and TV companies have established a closed mass media community.

I described the circumstances that brought about the match-ups of interviewers and interviewees, and these include shared values. With regard to the press bureaus in the mass media in particular, the organizations separated the desks responsible for handling politics, finance, city news, foreign news and science, with each desk having different coverage targets centering on the press club. This created a structure that has led to political desk reporters being matched-up with politicians, finance desk reporters with people in the financial world, city news desk reporters with investigative agencies, and science desk reporters with researchers.

The following chart indicates the relationships between the interviewers and interviewees.

Interviewers Interviewees
Political Desk Politicians and representatives of political parties, the Prime Minister's Office, and government offices (politics related)
Finance Desk Representatives of economic organizations, government offices (finance and economy related), corporations, and finance companies
City News Desk Representatives of the police, public prosecutor's offices, the courts, the Ministry of Justice, government offices (society related), and the general public
Science Desk Researchers, representatives of government offices (science related), and medical personnel
Life Affairs Desk Consumers, ordinary citizens, specialists (lifestyle related), and government offices (lifestyle related)
Cultural Affairs Desk Authors, artists, cultural figures, and entertainment and performance-related figures

Political desk reporters who share the same values as the politicians tend to stand on the side of the politicians, and their interests lean toward cabinet management and the political situation rather than the pursuit of truth (this does not, of course, apply to all reporters). City news desk reporters, however, tend to share the same values as the investigative agencies that they cover, and focus on discovering new facts and exposing illegal acts. These differences in the values, consciousness and interests of the political and city news desk reporters were made abundantly clear in their respective coverage of the Kake Educational Institution.

The Power Structure of the Editorial Desk as a Microcosm of Society

To understand the conflict that exists between the political and city news desks, there is a need to first understand the power structure of the mass media. My experience tells that the editorial desk at a newspaper or TV station (press bureau) is a microcosm of society. The articles made by the political desk covering the government and politicians in power are taken to hold the most weight. This is followed by the city news desk covering investigative agencies, and the finance desk covering the financial world. It's not the case regarding the science desk, the sports desk, the cultural affairs desk or the life affairs desk. The influence a news desk holds depends on its contribution to the news pages. Political news often appears on the front page, so the political desk tends to have greater power.

The power structure of the editorial desk is reflected in news reports. If the political and city news desks have different tones, the stance of the political desk is generally reflected in the news pages and broadcasts more often. It is this internal structure that results in political press releases being giving greater prominence in newspaper and TV coverage, thereby resulting in the political desk becoming a public relations agency for the government.

The Elements of Journalism: Truth, Citizens and Monitor of Power

A book that anyone studying and practicing journalism should read is The Elements of Journalism by Bill Kovach, etc. The book describes 10 elements that are common to all good journalism. Three of these elements that are directly related to this report are explained below (the key words are enclosed in square brackets).

・[Truth] Journalism's first obligation is to the truth.
・[Citizens] Journalism's first loyalty is to citizens.
・[Monitor of Power] Journalism must serve as an independent monitor of power.

Journalism must pursue the truth for the sake of citizens and monitor power. Why is this kind of journalism needed? The book notes that the objective of journalism is to "provide citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing." The most important role of journalism is to respond to the right of citizens to know the truth.

Political desk reporters who tend to have similar values and attitudes as elite politicians stand in close proximity to power. Viewed from the perspective of the fundamental elements of journalism, the job of the political desk in mass media is becoming distanced from journalism.

I hope that the political desk will become more aware of its structural problems and undertake reform from within the organization.


Website of the Prime Minister of Japan and His Cabinet: Press Conference by the Chief Cabinet Secretary (June 8, 2017, AM)
NHK [Close-up Gendai +] June 19, 2017: "Special Zone Selection Creates Ripples—Independent Procurement of New Documents on Kake Educational Institution"
M.A. Program in Journalism, Graduate School of Political Science, Waseda University
The Ishibashi Tanzan Memorial Journalism Award

Shiro Segawa
Professor, Faculty of Political Science and Economics, Waseda University

Brief Biography
Professor Segawa graduated after completing the History and Philosophy of Sciences course at the Department of Arts and Sciences in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Tokyo in 1977. He has served as a correspondent in Washington, D.C., head of the Division of Science and Environment, deputy head of the Editorial Department, and other such positions for the Mainichi Shimbun. Professor Segawa has also been the program manager for the M.A. Program in Journalism at the Graduate School of Political Science at Waseda University since January 2008. He is a member of the selection committee for the Ishibashi Tanzan Memorial Journalism Award. In 1998, he was awarded the JCJ Incentive Award (now the JCJ Award) as a member of the group of reporters that reported on depleted uranium ammunition. In 2017, he was awarded the 2017 Science Journalist Award for his book entitled The Truth of Scientific Coverage—Journalism and the Mass Media Community (Kagaku Hodo no Shinso—Jaanarizumu to Masumedia Kyodotai) (Chikuma Shinsho). His field of specialty is Journalism Research.

Major Publications
The Site of Heart Transplants [Shinzo Ishoku no Genba] (Shinchosha), The Truth of Scientific Coverage [Kagaku Hodo no Shinso] (2017, Chikuma Shinsho), etc. Co-authored and co-edited publications including the following: White Paper on People Studying Science [Rikei Hakusho] (Kodansha), How Should Journalism Face Science and Technology? [Jaanarizumu ha Kagaku Gijutsu to Dou Mukiau-ka] (Tokyo Denki University Press), Illustration: Japanese Media [Zusetsu: Nihon no Media] (NHK Books), and How Did the Media Report Environmental Issues? [Media ha Kankyo Mondai wo Dou Tsutaetekitanoka] (Minerva Shobo).