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Number 1 Shimbun

Stop It Already & Counterpoint

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.

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.

 

 

The Rebuttal

 

 

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,
all-knowing perspective.

 

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

 

 

 

Published in: February

Leave a comment

7 comments

  • Ron Sizely

    posted by Ron Sizely

    Monday, July 18, 2016

    The two rebuttalists are being disingenuous. Mr Blustein didn't say they should not have reported or should have "dismissed" what Mr Kan said. His point is they ought also to have reported the contrary view. He wonders if they failed to do so because it would have contradicted their earlier stories. Why don't they answer his clear point, instead of professing themselves "puzzled"?

  • E.P. Lowe

    posted by E.P. Lowe

    Friday, February 14, 2014

    Mr Fackler's comments are reasonable on the subject of his article, though he does not identify the political leanings of the Asahi Shimbun, and thus portrays Yoichi Funabashi as an independent, non-partisan figure.

    Some commentary would have been useful, for example the quote:

    "We barely avoided the worst-case scenario, though the public didn’t know it at the time”

    ...is demonstrably false, as the article states the fuel pool was always full with water.

    Mr. Fackler's rebuttal is more problematic. As for U.S. officials saying "that the No. 4 spent fuel pool was emptying of water", that would require some reference material. The U.S. NRC Blog states that they did not know what the water level was, which is a different thing. I quote:

    "While “spent fuel pool #4” at Fukushima Daiichi did keep its contents safe during the March 2011 accident, no one could confirm that during the accident. The plant’s staff and other experts, including the NRC, simply didn’t have enough information to know what was going on in the pool. Why not? There was no reliable way to measure the pool’s water level."

    His statement that "leaving the exposed fuel rods at risk of a larger explosion that could very well have forced Tokyo’s evacuation" shows a basic lack of scientific understanding - the risk from the fuel rods was not explosion, but fire. Even those seeking to hype the disaster know that.

    Lastly, his statement that "I see no basis for accepting the claim that some group of American officials possessed an all-seeing, all-knowing perspective" ...shows more scientific ignorance. Is it not possible that such officials have expert information from the scientists at Lawrence Livermore, Sandia, and other National Labs?

    Google Scholar is available for those who wish to do research into the scientific background of the disaster, and the U.S. National Labs are contactable. I know - I did so to get information on the worrying claims that were spreading like wildfire in 2011. I learned that Spent Fuel Disasters were unlikely to be apocalyptic, and that the disaster scenarios being promulgated by a section of the press were "unphysical", i.e. they couldn't occur because they violated the laws of science.

    Would that most journalists do the same.

    Mr McNeill's response is more troubling - we have a claim that U.S. officials destroyed documents, and a source - Kyle Cleveland. However, what we do not have is a document. It is stated to exist - but cannot be found on the internet. In fact, all that can be found is McNeill's assertion and articles pointing to his assertion.

    As for his trumpeting of Kevin Maher, it would have been nice to mention that he was stripped of his position the day before the Tsunami for derogatory and impolitic comments on the people of Okinawa.

    I would also take task of McNeill's use of the words "planned to". Officials plan for many thing that have little or no likelihood of coming to pass - this does not equivalate to "planned to".

    Finally, McNeill's comments on the governor of Niigata and radiation-proof bunkers show his reliance on single-sources of information of dubious qualifications to be foolish. I quote Lucy Birmingham and David McNeill, "Meltdown: On the Front Lines of Japan's 3.11 Disaster"

    "Radioactivity began seeping into the bunker and all around the plant..."

    So what is it, a radiation-proof bunker, or a non-radiation proof bunker?

    We also learn that "Many were digesting the most terrifying news of all: 1500 fuel rods in the reactor four building, normally covered 16 feet below water, had boiled dry, raising the specter of a nuclear fission chain reaction and contamination far worse than a reactor meltdown."

    Really? There was the possibility that the SFP was losing water, but "had boiled dry?" Sheer hype – we know SFP 4 did not lose a significant amount of water. Now the operators might have thought that SFP 4 had boiled dry, but then that should have been clarified in the text.

    Here's what I would like all journalists covering the issues and effects of the Fukushima disaster to do: get scientific information from reputable, qualified individuals and institutions on your stories. Check your references. Educate yourselves on scientific matters too. Correct your previous stories that have been shown to be erroneous. And please stop trying to instill panic in the people of Japan and the world.

  • Woody Epstein

    posted by Woody Epstein

    Monday, February 10, 2014

    Mr. Bluestein mentions the Lawrence Livermore Lab report on the analysis of radioactive material dispersion and that it predicted no impact on the Tokyo area. Moreover, he noted that the LL analysis agreed with the dispersion analysis done by the JAEC.

    I believe that the JAEC analysis was done using data from the SPEEDI system of the JAEA and that their analysis was done, albeit incorrectly, by CSA of Japan Co., LTD.

    In short, the SPEEDI system gave wrong and inconsistent results. The The Emergency Response Support System (ERSS) forecasts the release of radioactive emission, while SPEEDI predicts its dispersal based on the ERSS data being provided. ERSS failed to function during the accident, though, because the sensors had been knocked out by the tsunami.

    Without knowing exactly was being emmitted at Fukushima Daiichi, even a sophistaced system such as the one used by LL could not predict anything with accuracy.

    Please read the Diet Summary (pages 38,39) as well as The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol 11 Issue 19, No. 2, May 13, 2013 (http://japanfocus.org/-Alexandra-Sakaki/3937)

  • S. Urista

    posted by S. Urista

    Saturday, February 08, 2014

    > "Mr. Blustein may have missed a press conference last year at the FCCJ by the governor of Niigata, Hirohiko Izumida"

    Oh, well, if you have a quote from a politician that majored in...er, law...well, yes, that clearly outweighs the opinions of, you know, scientists and actual experts.....

  • Nancy Snow, Ph.D.

    posted by Nancy Snow, Ph.D.

    Wednesday, February 05, 2014

    As a scholar/writer doing my own book on Japan's nation image brand in the aftermath of 3/11, I'd like to see the Al-Jazeera America's Fukushima documentary and draw my own conclusions about propagation of the facts, but my cable network doesn't carry it. From what I have gleaned about the immediate post-3/11 period, it had a "China Syndrome" apocalyptic feel and all scenarios, including the possibility of evacuation of Tokyo, were being considered, at least behind the scenes. Reporting on those worst case scenarios is what good journalism is all about, isn't it? Fackler deserves a lot of credit for these elements of journalism: "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."

  • G.R.L. Cowan

    posted by G.R.L. Cowan

    Wednesday, February 05, 2014

    I approve of journalists who share the big Fukushima picture with us -- especially if they do so literally, as at http://extras.mnginteractive.com/live/media/site515/2013/0903/20130903_043444_Japan%20Nuclear_Shaf.jpg

  • Ken Nannichi

    posted by Ken Nannichi

    Tuesday, February 04, 2014

    Since I am a reader of the INYT, and actively followed reports by Mr Fackler and Onishi during that crisis period, I am not intended to claim to be neutral.

    But I guess that, first of all, the timeline of events need to be clarified.
    1. When Mr Kan thought that he might had to order the mass evacuation of Tokyo?
    2. When the US officials feared that Tokyo’s evacuation might be necessary because of possible explosion of fuels rods of the No. 4 spent fuel pool?
    3. And when the US officials concluded that Tokyo were in no danger?

    My hunch is that there was a bit of time gap between 1&2 and 3.

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