Paul Blustein, former Washington Post reporter and ex-Member of the FCCJ,
accuses some present members of propagating misinformation --
even of "journalistic malpractice."
Martin Fackler of the New York Times
and David McNeill of the Economist beg to disagree
and offer their rebuttal.
The third anniversary of the Great East Japan Disaster is looming, so no doubt many articles and broadcasts regurgitating the conventional storyline about the Fukushima nuclear accident are in the works. By conventional storyline, I’m referring to the oft-repeated claim that the accident came perilously close to irradiating the Tokyo metropolitan area.
The latest iteration of this storyline is an Al Jazeera broadcast describing Fukushima as “the disaster that could have turned Tokyo into a ghost town.” The report features former Prime Minister Naoto Kan recounting how experts told him that a severe deterioration of conditions at Fukushima Dai-ichi would necessitate the evacuation of all 50 million people living within 250 kilometers of the plant.
Captivating as this storyline may be, it is massively at odds with the facts. Propagating it is not just misinformation; it can now be fairly deemed an act of journalistic malpractice. And FCCJ members are prominent among the guilty.
It pains me to level such accusations at fellow journalists, especially members of the FCCJ, to which I was once honored to belong. I spent 27 years at major newspapers, and my half-decade as a correspondent in Tokyo is one of my proudest career achievements. I should add that I am in awe of the brilliant reporting FCCJ members did from Tohoku about the devastation caused by the tsunami.
It pains me to level such accusations at fellow journalists,
especially members of the FCCJ,
to which I was once honored to belong.
But given my long experience in newsrooms, I understand the pressures that have generated overwrought and misleading coverage of Fukushima. I am writing to ensure that FCCJ members are aware of certain facts and insights about the accident, which I hope will help inform their future journalism and be considered worthy of sober reflection.
Hark back to the period just before the first anniversary of 3/11. The media was going wild with the report by the “Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation.” Leading the pack was the New York Times, which carried a front-page story on Feb. 27, 2012 asserting that Kan and his fellow Japanese leaders “secretly considered the possibility of evacuating Tokyo, even as they tried to play down the risks in public.” Numerous stories in other media outlets echoed this account.
Less than two weeks later, an article in Foreign Affairs put this issue in an entirely different light. Titled “Inside the White House During Fukushima,” the article provided a first-hand account of how U.S. officials concluded that Tokyo – and U.S. military bases nearby – were in no danger, even if the worst case materialized. The author, Jeffrey Bader, who had served on President Obama’s National Security Council, explained that modeling of radiation plumes and weather patterns by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory – one of the government’s premier scientific facilities – had shown there was no need to consider evacuating Americans from the Tokyo metropolitan area.
Despite the obvious importance of the revelations in Foreign Affairs, the media gave them absolutely no attention (a lone exception being Kyodo News, whose articles were carried in some local Japanese papers). I was appalled; I couldn’t help deducing that I was witnessing a journalistic syndrome with which I am all too familiar – resistance by the media to running stories that contradict or undermine previous reporting.
I decided to write about the U.S. government’s scenario myself, although I’m retired from newspapers. On trips to the U.S. I interviewed key participants and found fascinating additional revelations about the episode in documents released under the Freedom of Information Act. I also researched the worst-case scenario conducted by experts at the Japan Atomic Energy Commission – the one on which Kan bases his claim that Tokyo nearly had to be evacuated. I discovered that Kan’s interpretation of the scenario – which the media has parroted time and again – is a grotesque distortion. The scenario simply doesn’t imply that an evacuation of Tokyo would have been necessary; in fact, its conclusions are consistent with Lawrence Livermore’s work. In any event, the Lawrence Livermore modeling – which the media has all but ignored – is far more sophisticated.
I discovered that Kan’s interpretation of the scenario –
which the media has parroted time and again –
is a grotesque distortion.
My article on this research was published in August by Newsweek Japan, followed by an English version in Slate.
Perhaps journalists whose bylines have appeared on the conventional storyline about Fukushima can excuse their reporting on the grounds that neither they nor their editors ever saw the article in Foreign Affairs. I’m skeptical of this excuse, because Foreign Affairs is widely perused in newsrooms, especially in the United States.
Still, FCCJ members deserve the benefit of the doubt. I would like to believe that coverage presenting the conventional Fukushima storyline was prepared in blissful ignorance of evidence about the U.S. government scenario, rather than in willful disregard of it.
I just hope that such coverage will cease forthwith, that FCCJ members will generate some corrective journalism, and that some good old-fashioned hansei will ensue about the broader implications of the information presented above. ❶
Paul Blustein was an FCCJ member from 1990 to 1995, when he was with the Washington Post. Previously he reported for the Wall Street Journal in the U.S. Currently living in Kamakura, he is affiliated with the Centre for International Governance Innovation and the Brookings Institution.
I am not entirely clear about what Mr. Blustein is criticizing. The article of mine that he is citing is a daily news story about the findings of the investigation into the Fukushima accident and its aftermath by a private think tank called the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation, started by Funabashi Yoichi, former editor-in-chief of the Asahi Shimbun. Much of Mr. Blustein’s criticism appears to be directed at the findings of Mr. Funabashi’s group, not my article.
But if Mr. Blustein is suggesting that I should not have reported on the findings of this group, then I strongly disagree for several reasons.
First, I found this report to be newsworthy because it was one of the first times that a private-sector think tank in Japan had ever done an independent investigation of this depth and magnitude, and of such significance to public perceptions. In hindsight, I think the report lived up to its expectations: even today, I hear people frequently referring to it in discussing the events at the Fukushima Daiichi plant.
The fact that such a step
was even considered . . . speaks volumes about
the sense of urgency gripping
the highest levels of power in Japan,
Also, the expanding role of non-governmental actors is something I was emphasizing in my coverage at the time. I believe this was a byproduct of the increasing public mistrust in the government and major news media’s handling of the accident, which was also a major theme in my coverage. Mr. Funabashi’s group, and the attention its report was getting, seemed a good example of this trend.
Second, I found highly newsworthy the group’s finding (using meticulous sourcing) that Prime Minister Kan Naoto had considered evacuating Tokyo. This is an astounding fact, one that Mr. Kan himself later confirmed to me. The fact that such a step was even considered, even as a contingency plan, speaks volumes about the sense of urgency gripping the highest levels of power in Japan, and shaping the leadership’s response to the nation’s biggest crisis since World War II.
Moreover, the significance of Mr. Kan’s contingency planning is not in any way nullified by Mr. Blustein’s assertion that some U.S. officials “knew” that an evacuation was unnecessary. Were those the same U.S. officials who were warning after the accident that the No. 4 spent fuel pool was emptying of water, leaving the exposed fuel rods at risk of a larger explosion that could very well have forced Tokyo’s evacuation?
I see no basis for accepting the claim
that some group of American officials
possessed an all-seeing,
There were many opinions flying around at the time, and information in both Tokyo and Washington was fragmentary and incomplete at best. Even today, we have yet to receive a full account of what happened at Fukushima. So I see no basis for accepting the claim that some group of American officials possessed an all-seeing, all-knowing perspective.
Even farther fetched, it seems to me, is the assertion that the existence of these all-knowing U.S. officials would somehow render trivial or unnewsworthy the decisions being made during those fateful, anguish-filled days by the leader of Japan.
— Martin Fackler, the New York Times
Paul Blustein says Tokyo-based correspondents are guilty of spreading “misinformation” because some of us have reported claims that Japan’s capital was in danger after the triple meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.
He singles out a recent Al-Jazeera America documentary that I helped produce, in which former Prime Minister Kan described his fears that Tokyo might have been catastrophically affected by the fallout from the plant.
Specifically, Mr. Blustein chides us for not reporting that the U.S. authorities “knew” Tokyo was not in danger.
U.S. officials in Japan
were concerned enough . . . to have destroyed
thousands of documents
at military and diplomatic facilities.
I’m puzzled by this criticism. It seems to suggest that we should outweigh or dismiss the views of Japan’s sitting prime minister at the time of the disaster in favor of those of some U.S. officials in Washington. It also seems to ignore the growing body of evidence to the contrary.
To cite only the latest intervention into this debate that I know of, Kyle Cleveland of Temple University Japan has written a well-sourced essay this year revealing that U.S. officials in Japan were concerned enough in March 2011 about the possibility of evacuation to have destroyed thousands of documents at military and diplomatic facilities.
Mr. Blustein may also be aware that Kevin Maher, former director of the Office of Japan Affairs also said in his 2011 (Japanese) book, The Japan That Can’t Decide, that U.S. officials in Japan planned to evacuate 90,000 citizens from Tokyo during the disaster.
We would also have to dismiss the first independent report into the disaster, led by Yoichi Funabashi and a team of lawyers, journalists and experts, which criticized Kan but concluded that not only was Tokyo under threat but that he had probably saved it.
Mr. Blustein may have missed a press conference last year at the FCCJ by the governor of Niigata, Hirohiko Izumida, who said TEPCO was extremely lucky to have just finished the onsite radiation-proof bunker at Fukushima Daiichi at the time of the accident. “Without that, we would not be sitting here today,” he said.
It may be that all these people are mistaken and that U.S. officials thousands of miles away knew better, in which case I hope Mr. Blustein will tell us why.
On the Al-Jazeera America program he mentions, I was one of the two Japan-based reporters who researched the show and suggested interviewees, though I had no control over final content. The producers interviewed Kan, but also METI, TEPCO, and a pro-nuclear academic. The program took pains to dismiss U.S. concerns over radiation. It was, in my view, a model of objectivity.
I'll stick to reporting what I know.
I was here in March 2011 and vividly remember the confusion, uncertainty and fear that permeated all levels of society in Tokyo, including the government. We are now asked to believe that somewhere in Washington a core of officials knew all along that we were worrying about nothing, and that to report otherwise is “malpractice.” I’ll stick to reporting what I know.
— David McNeill, the Independent and Economist ❶