People fly into the air as a vehicle drives into a group of protesters demonstrating against a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017. (The Daily Progress via AP)
The smartphones that are so popular these days provide surprisingly good camera functions, and even professional photographers often put them to use. But the lens on these cameras is generally a “standard lens,” which does not provide wide angles or long-focus functions. Everyone reiterates the same poses and the same patterns. The photo only captures a portion of reality and never offers the whole picture.
In order to better understand what’s going on in the world, it’s necessary to reinforce long-focus, wide-angle viewpoints, and the media’s job is to play that role.
But in recent years, it seems that news media have all been using the same kind of “standard lens” and mass producing short-focus portraits of merely “marginal utility.” Indeed, it feels like they are not fulfilling their role as professionals. They go after “facts” suitable for themselves, and one worries that the spirit of providing a journalistic service for readers and viewers may be in decline.
Looking at the reporting on the attack that recently occurred in the American town of Charlottesville only deepens these feelings and fears.
Most of the Japanese media offered reports on this incident that presumed—or mouthed—a basis of disgust with US President Donald Trump. The media scripted a simple, good-and-evil morality play of “white supremacists versus public citizens.” I have no intent or responsibility to defend the words of Mr. Trump, and, indeed, I think Trump’s attempts at acting presidential have been rather off.
But doesn’t Japan’s media have a responsibility to cover the incident impartially and objectively? Should we not be going more in-depth to explain details which Japanese people may not understand, including the origins of the protest and its background?
As shown in the work of professor Naoyuki Agawa of Doshisha University, Charlottesville is a moderate, tranquil college town in the South founded by Thomas Jefferson. In 1924, a bronze of Civil War commander Robert E. Lee was placed in its town park. General Lee was commemorated as a “hero of the age” and “historic figure,” not only in the South but in the North as well.
Recently, the city council decided to remove and sell off this statue. There was much deliberation over this decision, including involvement from Virginia authorities, and some opposition. The forces that moved for the removal also had the name of the park changed from Lee Park to Emancipation Park. American mainstream media referred to these forces as “counter-protesters” and “counter-activists.”
A Challenge to ‘Tolerance’
What is the objective of these forces? Various institutions—including parks, roads, highways, military bases, as well as schools across America, particularly in the South—bear the names of Confederate generals. They include Washington and Lee University, famous among Japanese students and researchers.
Generally speaking, if protesters maintain the position that all things South and Southern are the “bad guys,” then this fuss that begun with name changes will continue endlessly, and in the process historical resources precious to America itself will be lost. This poses a serious challenge to America’s tradition of tolerance.
When you get down to this group’s claims of expunging racism (with the not insubstantial angry energy of black Americans at their basis), they also call for George Washington and Thomas Jefferson to be censured as racists. To that extent, I think Trump’s defense of the statue is correct.
The unfortunate truth is that the impetus behind this attack in Charlottesville include the ill-played involvement of white supremacist groups. And, indeed, we must recognize that the election of Donald Trump was a chief cause that created this environment.
But we must also acknowledge that the essence of the problem goes beyond this dimension of mere distaste for Trump, and indeed goes to the heart of how Americans see their own history.
A Vicious Cycle
A vicious cycle appears to be beginning: the backlash against trends like name changes and statue removal has caused undesirable effects, like Trump’s election, and the backlash against Trump invites unrest.
The responsibility for putting an end to this lies with Americans alone. But if America loses its traditional tolerance, the effects will be global. We hear that Japanese left-liberals and and Chinese elites now frequently send their children to America for study abroad. They make this choice on the basis of America’s real intellectual and scientific progress.
We can assume that Trump’s approval ratings will sink, and reporting and commentary on America’s loss of credibility will continue. But what I would really like to know are the objective facts that can be fully employed to offer a long-focus, wide-angle view. I expect that it is not only me who expects the media to fulfill that role.
(Click here to read the original article in Japanese.)
Ryozo Kato is a former Japanese ambassador to the US. He served as the Commissioner of Nippon Professional Baseball and Corporate Advisor at Mitsubishi Corporation. He joined Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan in 1965 and served as its Director General of Asian Affairs Bureau, Director of General Affairs, Director of Foreign policy and Ambassador to the U.S until 2008.