U.S. media outlets reportage in the wake of the Japanese earthquake sounds like the screenplay to a disaster film
Unlike hurricanes, earthquakes and tsunamis do not have names. And for the most part, the tragic double or triple whammy to hit Japan does not even have a face. Most of the victims have been buried or cremated, and the survivors we see have their faces covered with masks.
For all of our professions of concern for the victims in Japan, sometimes when I turn on the TV, it sounds like the media is rooting for the ocean and the earth to prevail. Watching coverage of the “crippled Fukushima Daiichi power plant” (“crippled” now being the reactor’s first name), I had the same creepy feeling. I had to ask myself: Do these guys at some level want a meltdown?
It reminded me of the week before Katrina hit, as it came swirling through the Gulf of Mexico, and breathless announcers were suggesting, with more than a trace of excitement in their voice, that this could become a Category 5 hurricane. That same sense of creepy comes back as I watch TV coverage of the cars and ships being swept away, as the networks’ graphics departments compete to provide the best video game version of terrible events, real or imagined, past and future.
Is it just me? To find out, I spoke to Keisuke Inoue, a Syracuse University graduate student of information studies, whose family lives in Japan, who has been following the quake with obvious concern. Keisuke’s family lives near Tokyo. He has spoken to them and thus far they are all safe. His greatest angst comes from the coverage he’s seen in the U.S. media, which he considers overly sensationalized.
“There was a headline the other day in The Washington Post,” Keisuke told me on the day of the first fire at the nuke plant, “talking about meltdown and using the term ‘catastrophe.’ That just worries people here in the U.S., and it’s not what really is happening. The Japanese papers are much more calm in their approach.”
Wondering if maybe we were indeed being led to believe things are worse than they are, that night I watched two national networks. Both led their newscasts with stories about an evacuation of the remaining workers at a damaged nuclear plant--an announcement that indicated the worst had happened. You had to really listen carefully to learn that the evacuation had been temporary and the workers had returned to the site to continue the makeshift cooling operation after radiation levels just outside the plant dropped.
In the coming days I noticed that news likely to provoke alarm—such as elevated radiation levels in the spinach and milk found near the plant—were played up, while the news that this food was not being sold for consumption took some digging to find.
Through the following week the drama over the attempts to cool the nuclear power plants was played out every hour on the hour, with the breathless announcers asking over and over whether a meltdown was in the offing. This very serious threat, which Japanese engineers now appear to have dodged, led the TV in a feeding frenzy that somehow managed to make the prospect of a nuclear meltdown sound even worse than an actual nuclear meltdown.
Although serious meteorologists called the idea ridiculous, anchors were asking them again and again to discuss the risks to us here in the United States from radiation that might hypothetically be released in Japan. That was followed by days of reporting on the escapades of panicked people across this country buying iodine and other products to help them survive the radiation leak that hadn’t occurred and wasn’t coming our way.
Drama has become the currency of our national information exchange. Has too much reality TV brought us to the point where it is necessary to invoke drama in order to impart information? Are we becoming a nation of rapid fire information consumers, all suffering from Attention Deficit Disorder?
How in this type of information environment can we ever expect to have an adult conversation about the genuine dangers of nuclear power, including the unanswered questions about storage of spent fuel rods?
Or is it something worse? Is there something in us, something we never acknowledge, that secretly roots for the storm, the earthquake, the meltdown? There is certainly a part of us that wishes for something unprecedented and new, a part of us that wants a story to tell that has never been told before. Remember Katrina, when much of the media served as cheerleaders for the storm? In some strange way I’ve heard media voices serving as cheerleaders for the potential meltdown.
And I guess they have an audience. The media, it seems to me, sometimes gives voice to this subconscious sociopath, this part of us that should be kept in the attic, far from the microphone. But not to worry. The crisis appears to have been averted. Bombing Libya is so much more dramatic than watching Japan rescue and rebuild.
Read Ed Griffin-Nolan’s award-winning commentary every week in the Syracuse New Times. You can contact him at edgriffin@ twcny.rr.com.