More Media Fail in the wake of 3.11 . . .

LESSON 1: Fukushima, Japan is not All of Japan.

Over the past year I’ve noted several occasions where the American (generally Western) Media has put its proclivity for boneheadedness on display when covering the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011 (and accompanying tsunami and Fukujima Daiichi nuclear disaster).

Well, it’s happened again.  As I traveled through the Deep South this past Monday, March 5, 2012, I listened to a National Public Radio talk and news show called “On Point,” produced and broadcast out of Boston’s WBUR (I won’t link to that show).  The hour-long segment I happened upon promised to be interesting:  interviews with Yoichi Funabashi (who lead an independent investigation of the government’s response to triple disaster for the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation) and Tokyo-based reporter Kenneth Neil Cukier.

Let me get to the nut of the matter.  On Point host Tom Ashbrook (@tomashbrooknpr), in discussions with his guests, took several opportunities to display his shocking ignorance of Japan’s geography by pumping-up the narrative that farms and farm products throughout Japan bore the risk of radioactive contamination (!).  There’s zero doubt that crops and livestock in the immediate vicinity of the Fukushima Daichi plant have suffered contamination.  There is and has been apprehension among farmers and families in the general area of the disaster and, certainly, throughout Japan about rice and other products coming out of Fukushima Prefecture, about potentially unsafe levels of contamination may have been reached or exceeded and that the danger persists.  This is true. There are, and should be, continuing concerns, even serious ones, about products coming out of the the area around the Fukushima Daiichi.

I Go National

However, although Japan is not a large country (by, say, U.S. or Canada or Russia standards), neither is it Belgium or Rhode Island or Vatican City.  Ashbrook’s breathless excitement about — so it seemed to this listener — discovering that virtually all the rice and milk throughout the length of Japan glowed with radioactive goo was too much for me to take.  I called-in to the show when Ashbrook invited people to contact On Point, “if you have a comment or question.”  I got on the air.  I made a point not to jump on Ashbrook personally, but, rather, said that I was very disappointed in the lack of geography acumen displayed by the American Media.  That while areas around and near the Fukushima Daiichi plant certainly have been contaminated, down into the Kanto Region and certainly Kansai (areas well south of Fukushima and Tokyo*), and certainly down in Kyushu (Japan’s southernmost island) and Sapporo, up in Hokkaido (Japan’s northernmost island) were not near the plant and that it’s irresponsible to imply that they are.   Well. . .

His On-Air Indignation

Ashbrook sounded like I’d just killed his pet gerbil or made fun of this paperclip collection.  He was indignant and sputtered words to the effect that one of the guests, Ken Cukier, had reported that there had been some danger of contaminated milk from Fukushima getting out into other parts of Japan.  Ashbrook had missed my point by a country mile.  I never stated or argued that this or that product had not entered the distribution chain.  I merely pointed out that Fukushima is not all of Japan and that it’s a disservice to farmers in other parts of Japan to imply that their products were at risk.

I didn’t get to the point that Fukushima is not exactly “Japan’s Dairyland” — Ashbrook cut me off before I could.  I had spoiled his narrative, to wit:  that Japan, all of Japan, from the northern tip of Hokkaido to the southern tip of Kyushu, and down into Okinawa, lay ankle-deep in fine, gray, radioactive powder.  No, he didn’t say this, but Ashbrook’s almost giddy narrative to this effect left little room for people not familiar with the lay of the land in Japan to imagine otherwise.  He went on to the next caller immediately, without asking Mr. Funabashi or Mr. Cukier if I had raised a legitimate point.  So it went.

Is It Too Much to Ask?

Is it too much to ask of radio show hosts and reporters to actually take 5 minutes to look over a map of the country they may be talking about before an interview?  Is it too much to ask of radio hosts that they resist the temptation to construct dimwitted syllogisms (Fukushima’s in Japan, Japan is a country, Fukushima’s got problems, therefore, farmers all over Japan are growing radioactive rice.  I mean, sheesh)?  Is it too much to ask that NPR radio stations expect their hosts to conduct themselves with a modicum of professionalism?  In this case, it seems the answer it, “Yes, it’s just too much to ask of Ashbrook and WBUR.”  Gad.


Currently not all is o.k. in Japan regarding agricultural products affected or potentially affected by contamination from the Fukushima Daiichi disaster of March 11, 2011, and succeeding days, weeks and months.  However, those affected areas, even the region, is not all of Japan.  Here’s an excellent summary of many of the frustrations and challenges involved regarding local agricultural products.  Excerpt:

In [neighboring] Ibaraki prefecture, radiation tests on milk are conducted on a biweekly basis. Milk is trucked from various farms to cooler stations. Samples are taken from every truck and mixed together. If the mixed samples fails the safety test, shipments from the entire region will be banned. On the day that the TV crew visited one cooler station, no radioactive contamination was detected in the milk. ( The safety limit for cesium in milk is 200 becquerels per liter – the testing machinery is capable of detecting cesium if it exceeds 20 becquerels per liter.)

After the report, the anchors discuss the issue in their news studio. They mention how prefectural governments have been frustrated by the national government’s instructions, which do not go into minute detail about the types of food that need to be tested and how often the tests need to be conducted. Consumers would obviously prefer that every shipment of every type of food be tested, but that is not realistic. Many of the machines used to test radiation are imported, and there is now a huge worldwide demand for the equipment. Japan may want to buy many more testing machines, but it won’t be able to get them soon.

Protestors outside of TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power) Headquarters. Tokyo. August 3, 2011.

By the way, here are some distance comparisons (approximations), in case Tom Ashbrook wants to bone-up before his next Japan segment:

Fukushima to Osaka:  348 air miles, 560 kilometers.

Fukushima to Hiroshima:  504 air miles, 811 kilometers.

Fukushima to Kagoshima:  705 air miles, 1134 kilometers.

Fukushima to Sapporo:  370 air miles, 595 kilometers.

London to Paris:  213 air miles, 343 kilometers.

Washington, DC to New York City:  204 air miles, 329 kilometers.


*Tokyo’s at the top, north end of the Kanto — Central Honshu Island — Region.

  1. I could not agree more with a recent statement in an interview of an Japanese artist Kota Takeuchi in the Japan Times: “Since March 11, 2011 how can we really verify for ourselves anything that we are told?” My perception of information has completely changed; whether it is media, newspaper or discussion with other people. I have now naturally a high doubt level whether someone is telling the truth or is avoiding to say anything at all. Sadly I find more and more people speaking up with limited actual knowledge of a situation or those who actually know a lot stay quiet.

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