Common-Sense Meltdown

An earthquake kills thousands but nuclear power strangely engrosses an obtuse media.

An old joke in conservative circles takes the gloomy occasion of the world’s end to make an amusing point about media coverage. On the eve of Armageddon, the Wall Street Journal’s headline announces: “Planet’s Demise Imminent; Dow Plummets.” Us Weekly’s cover reads: “Earth Extinction: Who Will Lady Gaga Be Wearing?” The headline in the New York Times? “World to End; Women and Minorities Suffer Most.”

The Gray Lady’s coverage of the apocalyptic scenes in Japan illustrates why the joke worked. Leave it to the Times to insert its unrelated political tics into its chronicling of a major event. Instead of focusing on the actual tragedy of lives lost and homes gone, the Times fixates upon an imaginary one: the terror unleashed at damaged nuclear reactors. But the nuclear power plant in question has thus far witnessed the death of a single human being who died in a crane accident. Times reporters forever lose the story in front of their noses for politicized abstractions that massage their worldview.

Such headlines as “Risk of Meltdown Spreads at Japanese Plant,” “Partial Meltdowns Presumed at Crippled Reactors,” and “U.S. Nuclear Industry Faces New Uncertainty” suggest to Times readers that a politically-charged manmade catastrophe is what ails Japan. In reality, Japan has endured a one-in-a-lifetime natural disaster.

John M. Broder reported Sunday in the Times that “the world watches the unfolding crisis in Japan’s nuclear reactors and the widespread terror it has spawned.” But the crisis the world watches involves an earthquake and a tsunami. That real crisis has killed upwards of 10,000 people, left hundreds of thousands homeless, and caused billions in property damage. The crisis of the Times’ narrative? It doesn’t warrant constant, above-the-fold attention, particularly when competing with the worst disaster in an industrialized nation in recent memory.

“Operators fear that if they cannot establish control, despite increasingly desperate measures to do so, the reactors could experience full meltdowns, which could release catastrophic amounts of radiation,” Hiroko Tabuchi and Matthew Wald wrote in the Times Monday (emphasis added). “The two reactors where the explosions occurred are both presumed to have already suffered partial meltdowns—a dangerous situation that, if unchecked, could lead to full meltdown.” Who has time for facts when there is conjecture to be made?

The opening line of a Times editorial Tuesday might be read as a tacit indictment of its news coverage: “Any comment on the disaster in Japan must begin with the stunning scale of human loss.” This is precisely what the Times has not done. Sensationalistic accounts of the problems at Fukushima Daiichi have been allowed to dwarf the catastrophe that dwarfs it. The editorial, after noting the human tragedy, obsesses over potential calamities involving nuclear power: “this four-day crisis in Japan already amounts to the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986.” Unmentioned is the inconvenient fact that nobody has been killed in a nuclear accident since Chernobyl.

There is something profane about bumping a human tragedy on such an enormous scale to the sub narrative. This indecency is compounded by leading with Godzilla scenarios and frenzy-inspiring what-ifs. The disproportionate coverage is obtuse in a profound way.

Hyperpolitical reporters feel lost without a black-hat to crusade against. Geological disturbances lend themselves neither to politicization nor anthropomorphization. So, reporters invent boogeymen to propel story arcs.

The Indian Ocean Boxing Day tsunami of 2004, some conspiracy theorists in the Muslim world suggested, unleashed so much destruction because U.S. officials withheld information that could have warned those in its path. After Hurricane Katrina, Al Gore and others suggested global warming as the culprit. In Japan, where an earthquake and ensuing tsunami damaged, among much else, nuclear power plants, nuclear power overshadows the earthquake and the tsunami as the villain among Western journalists. Part ideological slant, part yellow journalism, the overblown Fukushima Daiichi coverage represents the worst of journalism.

The Fukushima Daiichi plant has experienced radiation levels rise above normal (and then has experienced a drop down to the level of a common X-ray). One worker has been treated for radiation exposure. There have been fires and explosions. But nobody has died, save for in the crane accident, as the result of undeniable problems at the 40-year-old plant. This is a news story. This isn’t the news story.

The Times coverage tells us less about the tragedy in Japan than it does about the Times. We glean from the reporting that journalists working for the newspaper of record are skeptical about the proposed expansion of nuclear power in the U.S. Less apparent to readers is what is happening a half-a-world away. In Rahm Emanuel fashion, the paper has not let a good crisis go to waste.

Daniel J. Flynn is the author of A Conservative History of the American Left (Crown Forum, 2008), Intellectual Morons (Crown Forum, 2004), and Why the Left Hates America (Prima Forum, 2002). He has appeared on Fox News, MSNBC, CNN, Sky News, PBS, CSPAN, and other networks. He writes a Monday column for Human Events and blogs at