TV coverage forced police to confront cult, alleviate concern

Asahi News (Japan), May 20, 2003
http://www.asahi.com/

The question now: Was that action really necessary?

For news value, the Pana Wave Laboratory cultists had it all.

They came across as loonies, dressed all in white, saying they had to protect themselves from harmful electromagnetic waves being emitted by communists and the former KGB. Their leader was dying and May 15, the date of her expected death, was supposed to prove cataclysmic. In all of this, the caravan of cultists blocked country roads for nearly two weeks while they tried to peacefully find their way home.

It was the perfect made-for-TV story as the nation wound down for the traditionally quiet Golden Week period.

Television networks pounced on the story, focusing on the cult‘s on-again, off-again antics. Mainstream newspapers followed suit.

Now that the media frenzy has died down, a cynic could not be blamed for wondering about the coverage. Did the networks serve the public interest, or did they fan anxiety in the name of good ratings?

As we all know, the world didn’t end, and the cult committed no criminal offenses.

What is clear, though, is the sudden increase in air time devoted to the group from late April-even though the cult had already been in quiet existence for about a decade.

Not a day went by when newspapers failed to publish television listings of the “group of cultists dressed in white.”

The media coverage dropped noticeably when the 13-strong motor caravan of cultists left the grounds of an abandoned elementary and junior high school in the Shimoikari district of Fukui city early Friday and returned to its base, about 2 kilometers north of the school.

The television coverage peaked last Wednesday when police officers entered the school grounds and searched the group’s vehicles. A battery of photographers and journalists, about 50 in all, gathered in front of the school. TV networks devoted huge chunks of air space to live broadcasts from Fukui.

For example, a show that airs from 8 a.m. on Fuji Television Network devoted the first 20 minutes to Pana Wave Laboratory. A network spokesman said such lengthy coverage occurs only a few times in a year.

Viewer ratings for that segment ranged from 10.7 percent to 13 percent, compared with the usual 9.9 percent.

The director of a rival network accused Fuji of putting on a show rather than presenting news.

On May 6, a Fuji Television announcer gained an exclusive interview with the reclusive leader of the white-robed cult. She said she had only days to live. Scooped, reporters of other networks ended up covering the Fuji announcer rather than trying to get an interview themselves.

“I have never seen networks resort to showing what someone from another company has heard,” said the director for a competing network. “However, this was an issue that could increase ratings. That must mean that there are people out there who wanted to know more about the group.”

The intrusive media coverage has undoubtedly upset the quiet routine of the 11 residents of the hamlet where the cult is headquartered. Mainly senior citizens, the residents had adopted a live-and-let-live attitude toward Pana Wave.

“No one ever pinched even a single daikon radish or an onion,” said an elderly woman resident. “No one should be able to tell those people that they cannot enter their own homes.”

A Fukui city official, noting the group had been based in the neighborhood for about a decade, said the concerns of local residents heightened only after the media jumped on the story.

The frenzy was touched off by the April 23 issue of the weekly Shukan Bunshun. The magazine ran a story linking Pana Wave with a group that was trying to capture the bearded seal affectionately known as Tama-chan.

On April 25, the six Tokyo-based television networks devoted only about 30 minutes in all to the group. But by May 6, total daily coverage had reached 8 hours.

“We decided we could not ignore the group because residents were obviously worried,” said an official at Tokyo Broadcasting System Inc.

On May 1, in a comment that news reporters spend their lives hoping to hear, the commissioner-general of the National Police Agency said the cult’s activities reminded him of the early stages of Aum Shinrikyo-the cult that was eventually held responsible for sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway system as well as in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture.

Since then, Hidehiko Sato has refrained from talking about the cult.

But police officials acknowledged they began investigating the group in an attempt to placate public concern.

“Although the group has been conducting similar activities for about a decade, the controversy started after television reports about the group,” said a high-ranking police official.

“The cult had great news value, photographically, too, during the Golden Week of holidays when there is generally very little in terms of news,” said a television executive. “However, most viewers are already bored. The coverage will likely end naturally if police don’t turn up anything suspicious about the group.”

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