“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.”
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