Japan, US View Each Other Through TV's Powerful Lens

Conscience is needed to guide the priorities networks set for coverage around the globe

BESIDES the trade gap, there's another gap between Japan and the United States - the television news gap. Japanese television carries 12 times as much news about the US as American television carries about Japan.

This information was disclosed at a conference in Tokyo last weekend on the way in which both countries cover each other on their television networks. The conference was sponsored by the Mansfield Center for Pacific Affairs of Missoula, Mont., and by the NHK Broadcasting Culture Research Institute of Tokyo.

Researchers preparing for the conference compared news programs of the three major US networks, plus PBS, and the five major Japanese networks, including NHK, the partly state-owned network. They found that the Japanese gave more than 30 percent of their news time to news about the US while the US networks gave just three percent to Japan. The research covered a seven-month period, from September 1992 to May 1993.

However, overall, US networks covered more of the world, with Japan receiving the same amount of attention as France, but less attention than Britain. Japanese networks concentrated heavily on the US and Asia. One speaker suggested that while American networks give too little attention to Japan, the Japanese networks pay too much attention to the US. ``America is not one-third of the world,'' said Prof. Ellis Krauss of the University of Pittsburgh.

My own impressions of the conference were twofold. First, aside from the question of sheer volume, there are significant differences between American and Japanese television that arise from the different cultural backgrounds of the two nations. As one Japanese participant observed, Japanese media practice a kind of pack journalism, keeping in such close touch with the officials, politicians, and businesspeople who are their sources that their objectivity is endangered, while American journalists take a more hands-off approach.

When US-Japan trade talks broke down last month, with Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa voicing a clear ``No!'' to US demands, the Japanese media treated it as a great victory, whereas the American reaction was both cooler and more varied, with a careful effort to give the Japanese side of the story as well as the American.

My second impression was more disturbing: Whether American or Japanese, television news tends increasingly to trivialize and distort. Tom Bettag, executive producer of ABC's ``Nightline,'' told conference participants that the fall of the Berlin Wall got less time on US networks than last month's contretemps between Olympic figure skaters Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding.

Mr. Bettag noted a growing trend of blurring the line between news and entertainment - a trend that seemed tailor-made for the Kerrigan-Harding story. Japanese television has been taking the same direction - driven mainly by a desire to generate advertising revenue. In the US, PBS stations do not follow this trend, but their viewership is one-tenth that of the commercial networks; and the Japanese public network, NHK, is conscientious but often boring.

At its best, television is a wonderful medium, combining visual and aural images with the underlying text to create an impact no other form of information can rival. I was not in Berlin when the Wall fell, but having seen the Wall on previous visits and knowing friends who experienced first hand the anguish of living in a divided city, I could share, through television, the exhilaration and glory of the Wall's dismantling.

But the Wall does not fall every day, and while there should be a place for human stories such as the Kerrigan-Harding saga, it is all a question of judgment and of proportion. When trivialization and distortion start crossing national boundaries, the potential for misunderstanding and mutual resentment is dangerously magnified.

Currently, Japan and the US seem to be on a collision course in their angry dispute over Japan's huge trade surplus. Nevertheless, the totality of the US-Japan relationship covers many more aspects than trade, and there is an underlying warmth that is not often brought to the surface, either in the print media or on television.

In October 1992, the fatal shooting in Louisiana of a Japanese high school student who failed to heed the command ``Freeze!'' was a tragic exercise in misunderstanding. Yet, as US Ambassador Walter Mondale told the conference, the determination of the student's parents to extract some meaning from the tragedy brought them into the gun-control movement in the US and helped pass the Brady Bill. This year, the parents are hosting an American exchange student.

Television brought the tragedy into living rooms in the US and Japan, but it did not necessarily contribute to greater understanding between two countries. Someone likened television to a flashlight in an attic, focusing on one or two items and leaving the rest in darkness. Television can also be magic, as Bettag says, but whether it works as magic depends not only on the skill of reporter or producer but on things as old-fashioned as conscience -

individual and corporate conscience.

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