Not long ago, representatives from a Japanese television program associated with a liberal-leaning newspaper requested an interview with me to discuss prime minister Shinzo Abe’s economic-reform strategy, known as “Abenomics.” I was interviewed for about an hour, with my answers to be included in an episode centered on a panel discussion held in the studio.
The result was not what I expected. To be sure, I wasn’t entirely shocked to find that the panelists denied the recent achievements of Abenomics and espoused the strange view that monetary policy cannot boost an economy, and yet can suddenly cause hyperinflation. Such claims have persisted, despite the ongoing monetary-policy-driven, low-inflation recoveries in the United States, Europe, and Japan.
But the distortion of my own words was significant. In my interview, I highlighted the successes of Abenomics. And I argued that a strong labour market and rising business profits would be among Abenomics’ enduring legacies, even if Abe’s administration faced political challenges. The program included just two minutes of my interview, emphasising the part about the potential political challenges, rather than Abenomics’ great successes.
In recent years, much attention has been devoted to “fake news” – outright disinformation that spreads widely, often through social media or other online platforms. But my recent experience highlighted another danger: biased news, in which strategic edits surreptitiously advance the views of a journalist, editor, or broadcaster.
Such reporting, which may be delivered even by traditional news organisations, can be very damaging, not least for political leaders. Without a doubt, Abe’s political standing has been vulnerable to the effects of biased journalism.
For example, several months ago, Abe was addressing a crowd gathered in Akihabara, a district of Tokyo. A number of attendees, in a clear attempt to sabotage his speech, booed and heckled relentlessly. Eventually, Abe shouted, “I am not addressing a crowd shouting like you!” The next day, his words were reported widely; the behavior of the crowd, however, was not, leaving readers with the impression that their prime minister had, completely unprompted, yelled coarsely at Japanese citizens.
Similar distortions characterised accounts of hearings in Japan’s Diet to investigate allegations, originally made by former vice minister of education and science Kihei Maekawa, that Abe rigged the decision-making process behind the opening of a new veterinary department at a university run by a close friend of his. Not only did Abe himself deny the accusations; Tatsuo Hatta, formerly of Osaka University, and Moriyuki Kato, former governor of Ehime Prefecture, testified that the process had been conducted fairly and lawfully.
Yet many media organisations, including two leading newspapers, Asahi and Mainichi, continued to report on the supposed scandal – leaving out the testimony of Hatta and Kato, while providing an extensive account of Maekawa’s accusations.
Such biased reporting can easily turn voters against a leader. Fortunately for Japan, its voters have not been duped. Abe just scored a landslide victory in the general election on October 22, easily returning his ruling coalition to power.
In the United States, by contrast, biased news stories, especially on social media, appear to be having a powerful effect on voters, and have propelled political polarisation to unprecedented levels. This is particularly true with regard to president Donald Trump, who has repeatedly attacked the media – often wrongly, to be sure – for its coverage of his administration.
Trump, who has been known to disseminate problematic news himself, is no innocent victim of media bias. But the state of US politics today does highlight the need for voters everywhere to have access to complete and objective accounts of what is happening in their country and the world. Only then will they be truly empowered, as a democratic system requires, to make informed choices about their collective future.
Koichi Hamada is professor emeritus at Yale University and a special adviser to Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2017