Burying Japan’s Nuclear Secrets

Awards over responsibility to readers

2020.05.13 18:43 Makoto Watanabe

6 min read

To distract from its heavily criticized decision to pull a column by Akira Ikegami, The Asahi Shimbun retracted an article on the Fukushima nuclear disaster. The events surrounding Ikegami’s column were described in this series’ previous article, “The lie at the press conference.”

The Fukushima article, which detailed plant manager Masao Yoshida’s account of the accident, was published in the Asahi on May 20, 2014 and retracted on Sept. 11 of the same year. During those three and a half months, what was the paper’s plan for the article?

If we look at what went on behind the scenes, we can see how the Asahi’s ambition repeatedly prevented it from taking action and contributed to the fall of its Fukushima coverage.

Chasing an award

At first, the Asahi was confident. It objected to and demanded apologies from magazines that criticized the Yoshida article. It was prepared to go to court.

Not only that — the Asahi also hoped the article would win the prestigious Japan Newspaper Publishers & Editors Association award, the industry’s highest honor and the object of fierce competition. The Asahi had received the award in 2012 and 2013 for articles produced by its special investigative section. Both had been on the Fukushima nuclear accident: “The Prometheus Trap” in 2012 and “Decontamination Cuts Corners” in 2013.

I remember President Tadakazu Kimura’s proud words at a party with the paper’s investigative reporters, held at a restaurant named Alaska in the Asahi’s Tokyo head office.

“You should have seen the Yomiuri execs’ faces when the Asahi won two years in a row for reporting on the nuclear accident,” he said.

The Yoshida article also receiving the award would make three years running. The Asahi submitted it for consideration on July 3, 2014.

Although the article failed to pass the initial screening on July 25, the Asahi continued to use it to promote the paper.

On Aug. 28, the CSR Department emailed a draft PDF intended for the 2015 company brochure to the team responsible for the Yoshida article.

The section was titled “Messages of the Yoshida testimony.” And it contained photos of the article’s two reporters, the two who would be punished following its retraction.

Blocking the follow-up

As a consequence of busily promoting the Yoshida article as an achievement for the company, the Asahi consistently failed to publish a follow-up.

The article’s headline had been “Workers evacuated, violating plant manager orders.” The wording garnered criticism for making it seem like the Fukushima No. 1 workers had fled. However, the expression “fled” never appeared in the article. Its focus had been on who will do the dangerous work of reigning in a severe nuclear accident.

The criticism missed that point, and the Asahi wanted to explain the article’s basis and central message in response. At a meeting with members of the Editorial Division and Public Affairs Division head Jun Okamoto on June 4, it was decided that the investigative section would prepare a follow-up article.

The follow-up was originally scheduled to run on July 4, covering multiple pages of the paper.

But on July 2, that plan was scrapped. The decision came from the crisis management team, which consisted of Executive Editor Nobuyuki Sugiura, President’s Office Director Ken’ichi Fukuchi, and Public Affairs Director Hisashi Yoshizono.

The investigative section reporters working on the piece were told by their desk editor that “the reason would be explained later.”

The next day, July 3, the Yoshida article was submitted for consideration for the Japan Newspaper Publishers & Editors Association award. One executive said the paper’s leadership did not want to risk damaging the value of the article with a follow-up before the association reviewed it.

The follow-up was next set for publication on July 24. The coverage team was instructed to prepare it to coincide with the award submissions’ first screening. But in the end, publication was again deferred: Management couldn’t decide whether a follow-up would impact the screening positively or negatively.

While management was dallying

The Yoshida article failed to pass the first screening on July 25. Although the Asahi was no longer chasing an award, August brought with it a rapidly changing environment for the paper.

On Aug. 5 and 6, the Asahi published articles about its inspection of its past comfort women coverage. The paper was criticized for retracting erroneous articles without issuing an apology for the mistakes.

On Aug. 18, the Sankei Shimbun also obtained a copy of the Yoshida testimony and used it to attack the Asahi’s coverage. The Asahi had released its article on the testimony transcripts on May 20 and for months had enjoyed sole control of the scoop. That all changed as other media organizations obtained their own copies, around the time the government decided to make the document public. The dam had broken.

The story was covered by: Nippon Television on Aug. 23, national broadcaster NHK on Aug. 24, the Yomiuri Shimbun on Aug. 30, and Kyodo News and the Mainichi Shimbun on Aug. 31.

In the midst of all this, on Aug. 25, the Asahi decided it would run a multi-page follow-up article on Sept. 1. The coverage team’s desk editor conveyed a message from Sugiura to the reporters: “Really go for it — never apologize.”

Ambition, again

At this point, the Asahi executives once again let slip their ambition.

Although the Yoshida article hadn’t been selected, it was tentatively decided that the newspaper association award would be presented to the Asahi for its series on Tokushu-kai Hospital’s 50-million-yen bribe to former Tokyo Governor Naoki Inose. Since the award would be officially announced on Sept. 3, publication of the follow-up Yoshida article was postponed from Sept. 1 to Sept. 5.

But on Sept. 2, weekly magazine Shukan Bunshun revealed that the Asahi had pulled Ikegami’s column. The paper was hit with a whole new level of backlash.

In the end, the follow-up article scheduled for Sept. 5 was cancelled too.

The Asahi planned four times to publish a response to the criticism of its Yoshida article, on July 4, July 24, Sept. 1, and Sept 5. None made it to print.

Reportage is often criticized. Journalists’ intentions are misunderstood.

When this happens, we make amends by producing additional material. Provided the story wasn’t false, that is our responsibility to our audience. Retraction is unthinkable.

But the Asahi prioritized its ambition and corporate interests over its responsibility to its readers.

The Yoshida article was first used to chase an award, and then, when the paper was in trouble, offered as a sacrifice to protect the president from backlash for pulling Ikegami’s column.

Next time, Tansa will reveal what the follow-up article had to say.

… To be continued.

(Originally published in Japanese on May 22, 2019)

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