Japan’s nuclear problem and panic as policy
First, take a look at ABC News’ coverage of the nuclear problem in Japan. I don’t know about you, but it seems tinged with emotional sensationalism to me. That’s not to say the problem isn’t obviously serious, but it has that emotional element to it that, well, isn’t very objective. It also implies that the result is likely to be from a doomsday scenario.
Now watch this segment:
What you see here is the rush to judgment. The first thing that happens is politicians, seeing this as fertile ground for image polishing (seeming to take seriously what has been trumped as serious and seeming to take action to address a perceived problem) jump in front of a camera to make the case for protecting the public by implying that we’re in the same boat as the Japanese and they’re the only ones who can save us.
Do you remember the map of the US in which the similar nuke sites to those in Japan flashed up? Remember the map I showed you about significant earthquakes in the US for the past 200 years? Theirs was up there quickly, and I may have missed it, but few if any of those plants fell in the real earthquake prone areas. So to me, getting in front of a camera and pretending we’re in the same situation as that of the Japanese is simply scare mongering and irresponsible. And that applies to both the politicians and news media types doing this.
It brings me to an Abe Greenwald piece in Commentary’s Contentions. It is entitled “Panic as a Policy”. He sets the stage by noting that Germany has gone absolutely bats over the Japanese crisis to the point that Angela Merkel, in the a political campaign, has decided to dump one of her most important policies of her second term – the extension of nuclear reactor lifetimes by an average of 12 years beyond their original scheduled phase-out date of 2012. 48 hours after the Japanese crisis, she ordered a three month moratorium on the extension. 7 of the oldest power stations will now be shut down immediately pending a 3 month safety review.
Hysteria on the largest scale possible has become the default official response to all crises. A lay public furnished with near-instantaneous media coverage can be counted on to demand immediate and absolute measures so that the crisis can be scrubbed from consciousness, however crudely or illogically. And over-monitored leaders will be sure to comply. Today a politician can lose his job if he doesn’t swiftly change historical precedent to fit the frenzied misinterpretation of a still-breaking news story. This will continue to yield atrocious consequences.
I cannot agree more. We have become, in many cases, victims of manufactured hysteria. We get a fire hose effect of media stories, most of them pushed out in a way to grab attention and many incomplete or simply wrong.
Did you note, for instance, the people ABC chose to interview for the 2nd piece? The “GE 3”. Labeled as “whistleblowers”, they layer the gloom and doom predictions with the supposed veneer of righteousness. But again, these reactors have been operating safely for 40 years and it has taken a 9.0 earthquake, 33 foot tsunami and a total lack of power to get them in this position. Also sort of blown by are the “safety upgrades” they’ve made since the reactors were built. Anyone who thinks that these reactors didn’t receive many, many upgrades over their lifetimes really doesn’t understand the industry. Finally, not a dissenting voice was sought out or if they were, their opinion wasn’t aired. So you’re left with the impression that a fatally flawed product was allowed to be produced by an evil corporation in cahoots with various power companies, etc.
And, of course, you’re left with the impression that something must be done. Which brings us to Greewald’s second point:
We have become accustomed to seeing collective shock elevated to the realm of policy. In fact, it’s what we expect of responsible leadership. There’s an oil spill? Ban drilling. A shooting? Forbid even speaking in martial metaphors. A nuclear accident? Kill nuclear energy. This crude emotionalism is actually liberalism at warp speed. It demands that governments alleviate the immediate discomfort of the onlooker without regard for accuracy or consequence. It will produce many more historic disasters than it can manage.
Again, I could not agree more. I’ve called it “panic legislation” for years and it never turns out well. The unfortunate fall-out of this (no pun intended) is probably the death knell of the nuclear power industry. And, ironically, the fallback will be fossil fuel, most likely natural gas. It is the cheapest and most efficient way to go, frankly and I have no problem with that, however, nuclear energy is still a clean, emissions free and powerful energy source that should be exploited in my humble opinion. I know President Obama has reiterated his support of nuclear energy here, but let’s be honest, that doesn’t mean much. If you think he’s going to get out in front of something panic driven polls say he should avoid, then I have some beachfront land in Nevada you might be interested in.
Greenwald’s points are important ones. While we have access to 24/7 media and the media, in my opinion, often acts irresponsibly in their reporting, we have the responsibility to fill in the voids and gather the information that paints a more complete picture of what is happening. One of the reasons for the rise of online media and blogging is a real need and desire by many to do that. And the two reports by ABC only emphasize that point.
Panic legislation based on biased reporting and hysterical public reaction are no way to run a government. One of the reasons I often don’t jump on a story right away is I’ve found the first bit of reporting is usually wrong and/or incomplete. Much of it is overly sensational. I prefer to sit back and let it develop a bit, and gather as much information as I can before offering a view or opinion. Unfortunately, that is not the media culture we have today, and for the most part we are ill served by it. We are also ill served by self-serving politicians who deem every crisis an opportunity to advance their careers by pushing more government on us (the Rahm Emanuel rule – “never let a crisis go to waste”).
I’m not sure how we break this cycle, but as Greenwald says continuing it may “produce many more historic disasters than [government] can manage.” I’m not saying what is happening in Japan isn’t critical, dangerous or important. I’m saying instead that the rush to judgment isn’t taking into context what put the Japanese in that situation (quake,tsunami,power outage). If it was we’d understand that the likelihood of such a disaster visiting our nuclear plants is probably about the same as an asteroid of devastating size hitting the earth.
Panic at this time isn’t rational and the hysteria that seems to be building is unwarranted given the context in which the situation developed. Unfortunately I don’t think that is going to stop the panic legislation that will result and, as usual, we’ll all end up being the poorer for it.