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.