U.S. Media Coverage of Japan’s Disaster: Separating the Pepper from the Fly $h!t

“Looking towards Miyagi, Fukushima, Iwate and Ibaraki prefectures, no one in Tokyo should be complaining about the inconvenient consequences of the quake, such as blackouts, empty shelves in shops, and disrupted train services. People aren’t exactly having the time of their life in the capital, but they feel extremely lucky to be there rather than in the northeast.”

Sophie Knight

This post is about the U.S. media and the hype they’ve been feeding us since the onset of Japan’s crisis. No argument here that other countries’ media outlets are just as guilty. But as far as I’m concerned, those countries can reflect on their own problems.

This is not about the reporting on Northern Japan. If anything, that’s the problem: lack of information about what’s happening in the disaster zone. And as amazing as it sounds, even the American media are incapable of over-hyping what actually is happening there. My heart goes out to the victims and to all the Japanese people. It’s an ongoing tragedy of epic proportions. We need to muster every resource available to get help and supplies to the victims and get the nuclear crisis under control. To achieve these ends, it would help if the media would focus on the real story.

What the media did outside the disaster zone is what concerns me: they fanned the flames, spread panic in Tokyo, fear-mongering that culminated in a mass exodus from the country of (according to unreliable news sources) 161,000 foreigners. Wow. Thanks CNN, thanks FOX, thanks NBC–and thanks to everyone else who breathed life into the panic. You know who you are.

At best the U.S. media was ill prepared for what they encountered. It didn’t help that they were clueless about the real story and circumstances. And yet they managed to take an unprecedented mega-disaster and somehow make it scarier than it already was.

In Search of Fly Shit

Years ago after attending a sales presentation with the Chairman of my then employer, the Chairman said to me afterwards, “To make sense of this, you have to learn to separate the pepper from the fly shit.”

The expression stuck with me. It says much with a few words, and just rolls off the tongue effortlessly. (Forgive the disturbing image.) With that metaphor in mind, here’s a sampling of the fly shit the media’s been feeding us:

Radiation Aboard Planes Landing at O’Hare (WGN TV online: See explanation below)

Tests Show Low-Level Radiation on U.S. Flights From Japan (CNN: a non-story; only one flight was cited, and it was determined that radiation on that flight was at safe and normal levels for aircraft carrying “isotopes consistent with medical supplies”)

Japan’s Nuclear Contamination Spreads to More States (At levels that don’t affect public health)

Japan’s Meltdown! (Time: implying all of Japan is doomed)

Japan’s Medical System Unprepared for Health Crisis (CBS News World Watch: A damaged hospital without electricity in the disaster zone does not logically correlate with Japan’s entire medical system.)

Tokyo is a “ghost town” (because the trains weren’t running and lots of folks worked from home, etc.)

Food isn’t reaching Tokyo (some food items were hoarded, but my son had no problem finding food–trust me, I’d have heard about it.)

Show of hands–would you say that overall the Western media acted responsibly?

Not implying for a second that the Japanese media is any better. It’s a very sorry alternative to what we’ve got in the West. But at least they stayed calm and tried to make themselves useful.

What’s so disturbing is that our respective media are at such extreme ends of the bell curve: one serenades the masses with “stay calm, stay calm” (harmony at the risk of fibbing); the other screams “the sky is falling!” (Ratings at the risk of hyperbole.)

Wouldn’t it be great if we could get rational, levelheaded discourse somewhere between these two extremes? The middle is the general neighborhood where the truth tends to hang out anyway.

A Non-Partisan Rant Against CNN, FOX, CBS, NBC and Other Hype-Mongers

If I listen to Nancy Grace for more than 10 seconds my ears bleed; after a minute my head explodes. Had it not been for my son’s posting on facebook I’d surely have missed this clip:

Like Nancy’s bombastic counterparts at competing networks, she peddles paranoia–then spices it up with a measure of outrage that no human should ever have to bear. Nancy appeals to our base emotions; she would never let facts or science get in the way of an outrage-inspiring story.

Then there’s Anderson. I used to actually like the guy, thought his calm demeanor was refreshing. Then I watched him report these past several crises. The Japan crisis was the tipping point for me: it has forever soured me on the baby-faced-gray-haired-anointed-one.

Not only was Anderson clueless about the nuclear events taking place (in his words, he “flunked science.”), he couldn’t or chose not to coral resources in the know, nor did he have even a remote clue about the local culture he was dealing with. Ditto for most other foreign commentators reporting out of Japan.

As far as the cultural angle, Western media would have done well to partner with local experts on Japan to help interpret the unfolding story, even if it was a knowledgeable university professor, or local consultants in the know. The cultural angle should have been a big part of the story, but the media missed it.

Here’s a concrete example: We caught a CNN clip in which their correspondent was interviewing an American English Teacher in the disaster area. CNN managed to get the teacher’s father on the phone to “re-unite” them. A compelling human story for sure. But just when the teacher got on a roll and started opening up, the reporter interrupted to ask the father a question:

“How worried were you?”

His answer was predictable and to the point: “Very, very worried. Very anxious”

Followed by a long, awkard pause.

Bad TV. Bad reporting. Bad CNN.

The reporter never recovered. Check it out here:

As a viewer removed from the tragedy, I’m interested in hearing what the English teacher’s story was and his take on Japanese culture and people. How he had survived under such dire circumstances? What human bonds/friendships had gotten him through the ordeal? Where was he when the quake and tsunami hit? Where had he been living in relation to where the tsunami hit? How was he surviving now? What was he eating everyday and where was the food coming from? Where was he sleeping? How was he and friends coping without electricity? Did he speak Japanese? What insights might he offer us on the Japanese victims’ perspective? What impressed him about the  people around him? (Both Japanese and non-Japanese) How was he helping victims? Was he planning on staying in Japan? Why or why not? What other human stories could he tell? etc.

At the risk of saying something nice about FOX, I have to throw them a bone here: one of their commentators, Cal Thomas, expressed the belief that the poor reporting in Japan was one of the consequences of U.S. media organizations shutting down overseas bureaus, and instead sending anchors from New York with no contacts or local knowledge, then sending them on helicopter flyovers, or to interview victims.

The panel of FOX commentators went on to discuss why the Western media was at such a disadvantage compared to Japan’s NHK (“home-field advantage” they cried). Interestingly the panel acknowledged NHK was doing a better job than all of them, along with–believe it or not–Al Jazeera! (It was kind of weird to hear a commentator on FOX giving Al Jazeera its props.)

But FOX isn’t off the hook. Nope. FOX actually gets the booby prize for most creative misinformation. If we are to believe Neil Cavuto’s graphic of Japan showing locations of all their nuclear reactors, there is one in the heart of Tokyo called “Shibuya Eggman.”

Shibuya Eggman is, of course, a dance club. This mistake was so bizarre that I immediately assumed it was a hoax. (After all, even FOX deserves the benefit of the doubt.) It wasn’t.

Why no one at FOX found it odd that a nuclear plant was named “Eggman” is a mystery. And in the middle of Tokyo? You have to wonder if a disgruntled staff member slipped it in to embarrass Neil… (If any FOX watchers know the answer feel free to chime in here.)

For the record, I have an eyewitness to confirm that Shibuya Eggman is, in fact, a dance club. My son went there personally to vet it for me😉

If you find the FOX story hard to believe as I did, then check it out for yourself:

Don’t misconstrue my point: the networks have to cover the story; they have to question the authorities, politicians, and Tokyo Electric Power Company. That’s their job. But I was kind of hoping they’d do it with less hype and more competence. That’s what the next post is about.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2011

7 responses to “U.S. Media Coverage of Japan’s Disaster: Separating the Pepper from the Fly $h!t

  1. As a guy without tv reception, I take your word for it that Diane Sawyer and the like are playing their parts as America’s Stand-in Dork or whatever they do.

    Me, I’ve been getting info from Democracy Now, NPR, and general Google news aggregate. Of these, I’ve been astounded by the repeated occurrence of nuclear industry advocates given platforms on National Public Radio; kind of exposes another truth about who calls the tune at NPR.

    Seems to me that the events in Japan, particularly the breach of radioactive substance in Fukushima, are of an unprecedented nature. As such, what Anderson Cooper is directed to say about it, or anyone, is maybe like some other reporter on camera, in front of some other unfathomable occurrence — indeterminable in its impact, so what are you gonna say?

    Check out what this guy Mike is thinking/doing in his posts, reposted here:
    http://islandnotes.wordpress.com/2011/03/15/on-the-ground-in-fukushima/
    Frankly, his understanding and appreciation for the significance of the “pepper”, if you will, is handicapped by his personal store of “flyshit”. By that I mean, (and I know a little of his context, having worked with him in Fukushima actually), he seems oddly…veiled about broken nuke reactors a stone’s throw away.

    So for me, I’ve been struck by the mutability of the underlying story of energy policy, coupled with the non-reporting (correct me if I’m wrong) of the ultimate Promethean technological backlash — brought on by the collective hubris of our collective support of the debilitating high energy inputs required to promote consumption as chief determinant of national health.

    Anyway, it’s a huge reality, that has just had the curtain pulled aside. I’m not at all convinced that institutions existing for the sake of corporate consumption can begin to expose the pepper nor flyshit — lest they head down the track of further identifying their part in it. And why would they do that?

    • As always, thanks for chiming in I.N. Appreciate your big picture perspective, but gotta admit it hurt my brain until I googled “Promethean”. My memory banks are already stretched to capacity so it’s tough fitting in a big word like that–with a capital letter no less! For future reference, a simple plebiean like me finds the word “Promethean” downright sibylline!😉

      So…what were we taking about? Oh yea, what will Japan do with the curtain pulled aside? (Not to mix any metaphors or anything.) As passive and apolitical as the Japanese can be, this may be a catalyst for them to get more vocal about their government. Problem is, if they want no more nuclear facilities, then they’ll have to make the hard choice t give up the lifestyle of convenience they’ve grown accustomed to. Who knows what the future holds? I’ll be watching with interest.

      The only thing that will motivate the media to be “honest” is if they are somehow threatened by NOT doing so. I believe that with the internet, numerous alternative information sources, combined with social media (something I know you’re not a big fan of) and other ways we’re all connected, that the mainstream media will become less and less relevant. People have choices now. Their sources may not all be accurate, but now more and more folks are realizing that the traditional media isn’t accurate either. I think the power is shifting away from the CNNs of the world. Time will tell if I’m right or wrong.

  2. Excellent analysis Tim and I thoroughly agree with your points. It’s amazing how a meteorologist and a screeching, fear mongering celebrity reporter/lawyer can suddenly be “experts” on nuclear radiation and fallout.

    The reporting from Japan was abysmal at best. I was very disappointed to not see any human interest stories such as like you alluded to above with the teacher being united with his family. I too would have loved to hear answers to the questions you posed. They were totally ill-prepared to report from Japan and they high-tailed it out of there as soon as Libya started and now we get barely nothing save for the brief news that there is a major meltdown, when hundreds of thousands are still suffering in the affected area. If it wasn’t for the 24 hr NHK live feed someone is showing on Ustream I would get no news.

    • Joe,

      The comment about “high-tailing it out is spot on. You pose a good question: why would they run away from an evolving, unfinished story? Was the Libya story a convenient excuse to leave a place that had the U.S. media folks scratching their heads? If you think about it, Libya is probably more in Anderson’s comfort zone anyway, although they’ll no doubt pepper that story with just as much fly-shit. The other attraction to Libya is that it has violence (great for the visual medium), a good-versus-evil- storyline and lots of colorful folks to demonize, starting with Kadafi (Gaddafi?) himself. And the beauty of it is that someday the story will (presumably) have a resolution, preferably with a happy ending. Either way, compelling television. Now contrast that story to well-behaved Japanese folks in the disaster zone suffering with dignity, or the rest of Japan quietly going back to work; then weigh it against ratings/revenues, and you’ll see that Libya was a no-brainer. My bias shows here, but long-term I think Japan will be a bigger story, at the very least it’ll have longer legs. If they were smart, CNN, FOX and their media brethren would start beefing up staff in Japan, or at least recruiting knowledgeable talent to complement their anchors and correspondents as the story continues to unfold. Lots of untapped human stories in Japan yet to be discovered. I will continue relying on the Japanese media to keep us informed, because our media is, and will continue to be, clueless.

  3. I’m spooked, acutely depressed, and angry. Spooked because every aftershock may be another niner; depressed because of the death, destruction, and evacuations; angry because TEPCO and the politicians they have paid off over the years* have made a large part of Fukushima and the surrounds uninhabitable for a very long time. Then there is the utter anxiety of realizing that this nuclear crisis is in its infancy.

    Now to get on topic: I don’t watch or listen to foreign mainstream media, though I have read about the distortions, omissions, and hyperbole regarding the earthquake and tsunami and the resulting nuclear crisis. Soon after the meltdown began, my brothers and sisters back home in Kentucky were urging me and family to get the heck out of Dodge (which means “get out of town” for those not familiar with movies about the 19th century American west). Of course, that’s because they were misinformed by Fox and CNN about the radioactivity levels. That’s all for now.

    Anyone got a spare Geiger counter?

    *I have no proof that TEPCO paid off our upstanding and altruistic servants in government.

  4. Caintuck, your writing style reminds me of a long-lost friend in Japan.😉

    I feel your pain. It’s much more immediate for you for obvious reasons. But even from where I sit, this is heart-wrenching stuff. And I don’t even know anyone in Tohoku! No disaster has ever been this personal, and it’s been occupying my thoughts every day since 3/11.

    I understand your anger, it’s totally justified. But I wonder if it’s worth the energy it takes to go there. There is just too much stuff in the world to be pissed off about. That’s why I subscribe to the don’t-get mad-get-even philosophy (a la Animal House). Gallows humor helps too. Otherwise, I’m gonna be pissed off until the day I die, a low quality way to live life.

    TEPCO and the politicians were no doubt cozier than they should have been (and thanks for that disclaimer at the end, lol). But isn’t everything else in Japan that way? And no one’s screaming for change, at least not at this juncture. Did TEPCO and the government behave inappropriately? Maybe–probably. But I would suggest–and perhaps it’s premature to bring it up now–that when the dust settles and healing begins, we all step back and reflect, because we (meaning most Japanese and Americans)–are complicit in living an over-the-top lifestyle of consumption, certainly in the amount of energy we consume on a daily basis. What interests me is the lessons that the Japanese will take from this disaster. Will they change direction and reduce consumption? Will they throw the rascals out of their corrupt government and take the country in a new direction? Will the young people step forward and hasten a changing of the guard? What other cultural shifts, if any, will occur?

    True to my optimistic nature, you can see I’m trying to find as many silver linings in this story as I can. The western media can have the doom and gloom.

    Thanks for commenting, my friend. Hope you’re staying safe. Let me know if you still need that spare Geiger Counter.🙂

  5. Just a couple of things:

    1) First time reader. Great post! This topic has been the source of much anger for those of us living in Japan. Glad to see it getting more coverage overseas.

    2) Just wanted to mention briefly that there is currently a lot of anger, discontent, frustration, etc. with TEPCO and, to a lesser degree, the Japanese government right now. I’m not sure to what extent they are talking about this stuff in English, but the Japanese coverage has been extensive and extremely detailed, and a lot of people are expressing their opinions about this topic on a daily basis.

    However, at this point (like you said), the nuclear power plant is still a very, very minor concern. There are so many other problems to worry about right now in terms of basic clean up, body recovery, supply restoration, etc. that focusing on the power plant seems pointless. Obviously people are concerned – I mean, when was the last time you thought about radiation when buying groceries – but we have to start putting the pieces back together if we want the country to make it out of this.

    3) As for consumption, we are already experiencing rolling blackouts despite most everyone in the Kanto region practicing extreme self-restraint. This isn’t a matter of conservation at this point. The city is barely functioning without electricity, and although conservation seems like a good way to deal with things in the short term, it will have a devastating effect on the economy if we don’t get reliable power again.

    I’ll give you an example: Right now, there is absolutely no yogurt to be found anywhere in the Kanto region. The reason is simple – yogurt production requires electricity for storage and precise cooling, and without the necessary energy, there’s no yogurt. Now think of that scenario on a much larger scale. Are you trying to sell a new product? Sorry, no plastic labels are available because that plant is experiencing a blackout as well. This is the reason other food items are currently missing from stores despite being a full production capability.

    I’ve been awestruck seeing how intertwined everything is, and although it’s not initially apparent, you start to realize with horror how much everything is being impacted by the current situation. Essentially, conservation is great for reducing personal energy consumption, but for a major developed country to be short by something like 1M KW it just won’t help. I’ve never seen Japan so dark in my life before, and nearly every escalator and elevator is shut off to conserve electricity.

    Last, I agree, it helps to be positive. We can only move forward and try to overcome the horrible situation around us. I too and looking forward to seeing what changes this event will bring to the country, but it will be at least 15 years before we’re back to a pre-earthquake infrastructure. No matter how positive you are, that’s a very gloomy scenario.

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