For nearly two decades before becoming editor of the Journal just a few short weeks ago, I worked in mainstream media -- corporate media as some have cursed it, myself included, especially whenever I was forced to report on the Big Story of the day, which often involves big helpings of FUD – fear, uncertainty and doubt.
This week’s big story is the earthquake in Japan, the tsunami it caused and the fear that badly damaged nuclear reactors might send radioactive contaminants across the Pacific to the North Coast.
As a reporter, I hated mega-stories because I knew it was only a matter of time before us locust-like news-gatherers reported every fact and started scrounging for speculations to justify the great expense of rushing to the scene.
And on Friday and Saturday, as the tsunami eviscerated the Crescent City Harbor but thankfully spared Humboldt Bay, I thought I had broken free of this editor-driven descent into stupidity because I was the editor at long last.
Until, that is, I visited a friend and business associate on Sunday and was told that I should do a story about where to get iodine in case the Japanese reactors explode and radioactive clouds are blown this way by the prevailing winds.
At that moment I realized there was no escape from the downward gravity that comes when a mass audience develops around any story. There is just no way to answer all the questions or calm all the fears, and there is no incentive whatsoever in the media to calm things because big news is a firestorm that consumes everything in its path until it runs its course and the restless public eye moves elsewhere.
Richard Stepp, a professor at Humboldt State University who is an expert in the dispersal of airborne pollutants -- someone who has studied the Russian Chernobyl disaster -- has been monitoring reports from the World Health Organization and other international organizations. He said a person standing right outside one of the damaged Japanese reactors for an hour would receive about the same radiation as an X-ray -- hardly a danger sign for folks an ocean away.
“The media ought to be ashamed of itself,” Stepp said. “They basically yell ‘Fire’ in a crowded theater and then interview the people they frightened to see if they are afraid.”
Sensationalism is neither new nor exclusively American. For instance, read British satirist Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, a book that describes a 1930s newspaper war that revolves around a fictitious country and a fake war covered by a mis-assigned gardening columnist.
Of course now we have the Internet, which has increased the speed at which information can travel around the world. It could be good and heart-warming information, such as when flash mobs throughout the Arab world sent their dictators into hiding. And it could be misinformation, such as this concern just in that a bubbling in the ocean off the coast of Mount Fuji could be Mothra awakening, and if that occurs, surely Godzilla will also rise with possibly catastrophic effects.
Has the U.S. Navy been mobilized?
So while we muster the fleet or hunt for iodine -- which my friend says block this as-yet un-materialized radiation from affecting me -- we miss the unarguable lesson that could begin to change the world. It’s really simple. We all know that one person’s freedom ends where the next person’s begins. I’d say it holds for countries, too. So if Japan’s reactors can affect our health then we ought to be able to have some say in the safety, design and reviews of those plants. I don’t need to see mutations occurring on the sidewalk to prove that there is a problem. The problem is evident -- I get no power from those plants, and I want no risk from them whatsoever. Whoever is in charge of such stuff ought to start fixing it.
Meanwhile, if you are worried about radioactive fallout, I’d stay away from iodine and go with chicken soup because, like they say, it couldn’t hurt.