JPRI Critique Vol. VI No. 1 (January 1999)
Corruption by Access
by Murray Sayle

"To debate," says the Oxford English Dictionary is "to engage in discussion or argument, especially in a public assembly," Merriam-Webster defines it as "discussing a question by considering opposing arguments." On these definitions, nothing like the promised debate on Japan's notorious press clubs, the kisha kurabu, took place in Tokyo at the Foreign Correspondents' Club (FCCJ) on the evening of October 23, 1998. What the packed meeting of gaijin and Japanese got instead was proof that East is still East, West is West, and the twain are still a long way from a meeting of minds, even in the supposedly international news business.

Language made, as ever, a formidable barrier. Nobuaki Hanaoka, the deputy chief editorial writer for the Sankei Shimbun, enthusiastically defended the press club system, all in Japanese. Hanaoka blamed his lack of English on a Japanese education, although he knew enough to salute his opponent, Texan David Butts, the outgoing (in both senses) Tokyo bureau chief of Bloomberg Business News, as a "good guy." Butts, with a Japanese wife and serviceable Japanese, chose to speak English. Thus, on the Confucian principle of the rectification of terms, vocabulary had already locked the would-be debaters into the rigidities of two very different languages, before many words had been spoken in either of them.

Addressing a mainly English-speaking audience, Butts needed only to relate his story, already well known among the Tokyo foreign press, to make his case. Formerly with United Press International in Tokyo, Butts was recruited in 1991 by Michael Bloomberg, the colorful founder of the eponymous agency, to open their Tokyo operation. Butts discovered that the all-Japanese press club at the Tokyo Stock Exchange would not admit him to membership, although he was grudgingly allowed "observer" status. This meant that Bloomberg got Japanese company press releases significantly later than the club members, in particular one of his direct competitors, the Franco-Japanese hybrid news agency AFP-Jiji. When he complained, Butts related, it was suggested that Bloomberg subscribe to AFP-Jiji to get stock exchange information, just as the rest of the foreign press was then doing.

Butts eventually resorted to direct action in the style of Mahatma Gandhi and stood in the press club room with his hand outstretched as the information was deposited in members' boxes. He was removed by force--actually a polite tug on the sleeve, but even this low-key, good-humored response soon attracted the attention of the foreign, and then the Japanese press and TV. Stung by the bad publicity, the Stock Exchange Press Club relented and admitted the Reuters agency, which had long been waiting for membership. Three months later it also admitted Bloomberg's man, who has slowly been accepted at other press clubs having a business interest, notably MITI's and the Ministry of Finance's, although some, like the LDP club, are still entirely closed to foreigners.

Here a wily debater might have objected that we were hearing about a commercial rivalry, unconnected to high-minded concepts like the freedom of the press. Certainly, the Bloomberg agency runs on unusual lines. The founder, a successful bond salesman, departed Salomon Brothers in 1981 with a $30 million "golden handshake" and a good idea. Stock transactions have to be reported and the prices posted, an objective basis for stock market indices like the Dow and Nikkei. But there is less public posting of bonds, and what a bond is worth is a matter of judgment and experience. The unbashful Bloomberg decided his opinions were as good as, if not better than, anyone else's, and his Bloomberg Fair Value has become a financial industry standard, in the absence of any real rivals. This estimate is worth money to businesses. Gradually Bloomberg added other financial information and, as computers made it possible, an interactive archive service, enabling his subscribers to check on what, for instance, a share or bond was worth many years ago.

This may be a classic case of a one-time customer knowing other customers' needs and supplying them, but is it journalism? Bloomberg has been giving his service away free to the media to advertise it and himself, an offer which some 800 self-conscious upholders of a free press, including the New York Times and the Washington Post (and the Sankei Shimbun) have not found it in their wallets to refuse. Bloomberg's (mega) income comes from the $1,640 a month, plus $395 if they want access away from the office, that his business subscribers--some 6,000 in Japan alone, 104,000 worldwide--pay to rent his dedicated terminals.

It is a useful interim service, probably to become obsolete as soon as all financial information is posted directly on-line. Bloomberg has thought of this, and is preparing to add general news to his service, on the sound ground that any important event is quite likely to have business implications. Students of media history will see that Bloomberg is here retracing the path along which cheeky young Julius Reuter, flying the stock prices by racing pigeon out of Aachen in 1849, gradually added the other information his clients wanted, and eventually became the first Baron Big of the news business.

The Japanese Response

A fascinating aspect of the FCCJ's non-debate, for a non-Japanese, was the spirited defense of the press club system by Nobuaki Hanaoka, who has never worked outside Japan and is thus largely uncontaminated by Western illusions or rhetoric. Hanaoka's description of the clubs closely agreed with that given by Ivan P. Hall in his excellent Cartels of the Mind, although their interpretations could scarcely be more different. The club system, Hanaoka said, was a notable triumph for Japanese journalists, the result of a hundred years of struggle against the secrecy of successive Japanese governments. "We have more than a thousand press clubs in Japan now," he said, "all frontline strongholds in the battle for news reporting. And what's more, they cost us journalists nothing!" (They do indeed get a free room, desks, tea and telephones from their news source hosts.)

The clash of outlook was already obvious in his choice of terms. Butts used the first person singular and the vocabulary of commerce: "AFP-Jiji," he said "is my direct competitor," while Hanaoka stuck to the plural "we" and military language: "struggle," "invasion," "terrain under our control." Butts was the lone, heroic individual defying tyranny (and winning!), whereas Hanaoka spoke for a clan that has broken through the enemy's front line and bravely holds territory on the other side.

Against this background, Hanaoka's account of why the club system exists made more sense. Their members are not individual journalists, but the firms belonging to the Nihon Shimbun Kyokai, the Japan Newspaper Publishers' Association. (The big Tokyo press clubs are similar: members of the FCCJ are individual journalists; those of the rival Nihon Kisha Kurabu, the Japan Press Club, represent companies.) Bloomberg and Reuters are not Japanese firms and therefore not eligible for membership. When this argument was challenged, Hanaoka-san produced another: with one or two journalists each in Tokyo, the foreign press lacks the manpower to assign a full-time reporter to each club, and especially, could not undertake the time-consuming post of kanji, or press club captain (another military term!) who negotiates embargoes and suchlike with news sources. He was surprised to learn that Bloomberg has a staff of 200 in Tokyo and Reuters 120. He might have probed further: no Japanese organization can remotely match the world-wide resources of these two outfits (Bloomberg has 4,500 news gatherers world-wide, more than the Associated Press, which has 3,800). The Japanese might, with some justice, claim to be loyal company men defending their employers' commercial interests against the big world. This line of argument was overlooked.

Question-time brought few questions, but more revelations about the press clubs. Their members, we heard, are not accredited to the various ministries and other sources, as they would be in the West, but are admitted by the existing members. Questions for press conferences are supposed to be submitted in advance (as I have often had to do, for instance, as an "observer" at the Prime Minister's Press Club, which has no foreign members). Tokyo Correspondent Gebhard Hielscher of the Sueddeutsche Zeitung reported his discovery that his questions were being vetted not, as he thought, by the news sources, but by the members of their press club.

But this raises another question of perspective. Much, if not most single-source reporting anywhere is the result of of trade-offs. "Who's paying you guys to bad-mouth Nixon?" a naive Republican once asked me when I was working for Newsweek, and I have often wondered what motivated Deep Throat's revelations--not, at a guess, patriotism. Given Japan's group style of work it is perhaps deplorable, but not surprising, that a group of reporters should cut deals with news sources in return for breaks that the source alone can deliver--"corruption by access," we call it in the news trade, and it beats bundles of unmarked non-consecutive bills every time, since the journalist's trade is to turn information into money.

Nor is this trade secret confined to Japan. By definition we don't know what we are not being told, but an example leaps out of history: the White House press corps and the rest of the American media hid the not unimportant fact that Franklin Roosevelt was unable to walk unaided, and the English-language foreign press loyally cooperated to keep the secret--and stayed accredited to the White House. The most recent Japanese prime minister, Ryutaro Hashimoto, was accused of a liaison with a Chinese woman reported to have links with Chinese intelligence, and this story, widely reported in Japan, did not come from the Prime Minister's loyal press club either.

Knowledge to What End?

Japan's press club system is in many ways a formalized version of what goes on world-wide. All politicians, police and bureaucrats try to use their media for their own purposes. The time-honored trade-off is access and special breaks. It is vanishingly rare for the foreign press to be granted these. Americans or Australians, after all, have no votes in Japan, no need to cooperate with the schemes of Japanese bureaucrats. And, just as important, why should we promise, implicitly or otherwise, to put the spin a source demands on our stories?

The case, then, for the admission of the foreign press to Japanese financial press clubs is strong mainly on the grounds of fair trade, and to political press conferences on the basis of reciprocity within our respective countries. Aside from that, many foreign journalists (myself included) think we have no business getting into "off-the-record" deal-cutting, and are better off with our own circle of contacts who talk to us for their own reasons, whatever they may be.

As to the future of the clubs as they stand, Hanaoka-san (and most of his colleagues) want them bigger and better, whereas Butts wants them abolished. The latter would be harder than it sounds to foreign ears. Any Japanese who meet regularly are likely to form organizations, modeled on a village chonaikai, for common action (see my JPRI Working Paper #32 "The Buddha Bites Back"). Even the homeless of Osaka, now some 8,000, have formed one to police their cardboard-box "homes" and see that their meager trash is gathered and sidewalks swept. As most reporters covering Japan are Japanese, this disciplined clubbiness is likely to continue.

A deeper point emerged from the venue of the debate. As Ivan Hall's book relates, the press clubs in their Japanese form date from the military regime of 1941-45 which (like its Allied counterparts) used the media for national mobilization. They are still the way most wars are covered, by corps of correspondents spoon-fed optimistic stories by HQ briefers (the exception was Vietnam, but that golden age of untrammeled reporting is not likely to come again).

The FCCJ also began life as the occupied Tokyo war correspondents' mess after the Second World War, where reporters drank deep, mocked the new Shogun behind his back, but still submitted to self-censorship and not rocking the boat--because otherwise they'd be booted out of the club and out of Japan. But Japan has now been at war with the world, at least mentally, for 1600 years, a military dictatorship for most of 800. There's a lot of vocabulary and outlook there to demilitarize!

MURRAY SAYLE is a former war reporter and Asian editor of Newsweek International. He has also worked for Reuters, Agence France Presse, and many newspapers and magazines around the world.


Masahide Ota Joins JPRI Board of Advisers

JPRI is pleased to announce that Masahide Ota, two-term governor of Okinawa and a distinguished historian, had agreed to join JPRI's Board of Advisers. Governor Ota's article about the battle of Okinawa will appear in JPRI's forthcoming book of essays, Cold War Island. We also hope that Governor Ota and others will be able to participate in a Spring 1999 conference being organized in Washington, D.C. by JPRI, the New Mexico U.S.-Japan Center, and the Economic Strategy Institute on the theme of U.S. Defense Strategy in the Asia Pacific Region with a major focus on Okinawa.


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