CAPTIVATING AS THIS STORYLINE MAY BE, IT IS MASSIVELY AT ODDS WITH THE FACTS. AND FCCJ MEMBERS ARE PROMINENT AMONG THE GUILTY
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 oftrepeated 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 Daiichi 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.
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.
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.