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Lying 101: How Industry Is Manipulating The US Coverage & Debate On Fukushima

In early March a series of articles came out all quite strangely declaring the Fukushima nuclear disaster to be a non issue that would have no impact on workers or the public, That exposure screenings should end and that evacuees should move home. Anyone who has actually been following the disaster in Japan was either in shock or laughing in disgust at these claims. Informed people were not the target audience of this carefully crafted media stunt. It was intended to place “sound bites” of ideas in the heads of casual readers and those who only followed the disaster in a peripheral manner via mainstream media.

A group called the Health Physics Society whom we covered previously here, held a press panel. This involved feeding the journalists that attended some bad hotel coffee, doughnuts and a healthy dose of unsubstantiated propaganda. Apparently coffee and doughnuts are all it takes to get journalists from some of the US’s major media outlets to repeat your claims with absolutely no fact checking. That is quite a cheap date.

These major outlets repeated the HPS claims without any fact checking or investigation:
The New York Times (in their green environmental blog of all places)  - MaTthew L. Wald
The Wall Street Journal  - no admitted author
Time Magazine (their eco blog) – Bryan Walsh  (@bryanrwalsh)
Scientific American – Katherine Harmon

This isn’t the first salvo in a bizarre propaganda effort in the US to frame the Fukushima disaster and mislead about the facts. Back in January Frontline did a piece on Fukushima produced by Miles O’Brien. We did an extensive fact check on the claims in the documentary and some of the claims made by the show’s producers afterwards. What was even more of note than the inaccuracies in the PBS produced documentary was what happened after it aired. After the initial airing there was an invitation to join a public discussion on twitter under the #frontline tag. The discussion was initially flooded with posts from various nuclear industry corporations like Areva, Entergy and NEI (the US nuclear industry lobbyists). Of course these tweets made sweeping claims about the safety of nuclear power and how people should accept it all at face value. Apparently not everyone is falling for their propaganda. People began asking specific questions about aspects of nuclear safety and glaring holes in many of the industry claims. As the debate became something they could not control the corporate accounts stopped posting.

The next day there was a previously unannounced do-over on the public debate for the Frontline show. They had arranged a Cover It Live discussion on short notice that was of course fully moderated so questions asked by the public could not be seen unless the moderators (Obrien and the other producer) allowed it through. A number of our members were made aware of this new “debate” and posed questions. Of the over 200 people in the event they answered a hand full of soft ball questions, ignoring a known volume of specific questions about the show and related safety issues. When you can’t win a debate, gag the dissenting views and ta-da, a faux public discussion with public opinion tailored to your agenda.

This odd do-over at PBS had many people shaking their heads. PBS still tries to give the impression of unbiased public news while putting out something like this with an obvious attempt to try to control public perception and feedback.

This wasn’t the only rather unusual episode of a journalistic “do over” when the public didn’t fall for a story on Fukushima.

Richard Harris ran a piece on NPR titled “Trauma, Not Radiation A Key Concern In Japan” this aired nationally on Morning Edition.
This report again cites members of the HPS and their boilerplate claims of no bad health outcomes at Fukushima.  They also cite Robert Gale, someone who has
been actively trying to downplay Fukushima for months. Gale incorrectly cites worker dose limit as being 50 mSv when it is currently 250 mSv and many workers have already
exceeded that higher amount, some by as much as over 500 mSv. 167 workers have already hit their exposure maximum. This is just some of what listeners and readers took issue with
about the NPR piece. There was considerable reader/listener criticism. So much so that  NPR did a very unusual “do over”. NPR cites considerable criticism from listeners and a couple
of experts who wrote the show as reason for the do-over. NPR did not print the expert criticisms but gave Harris eight paragraphs of “do over” to try to re-make
his case that the public didn’t buy the first time. Rehashing an article is unusual, doing so in such a controlled manner is even more unusual. Yet we have seen many instances of this in
the recent US media push to frame Fukushima as “no big deal”.

Forbes magazine gave special treatment to Dr. James Conca in a piece he wrote titled “Fukushima’s Refugees Are Victims Of Irrational Fear, Not Radiation”. Conca is a con artist of the highest degree. Here he claims to be an environmental activist but buried in his article, it is actually a proposal to increase nuclear power from 9% capacity (he claims it is 20%) to 33% of total US capacity.

Conca works for RJ Lee Group, something not mentioned in the Forbes article. RJ Lee Group is a company of paid experts providing scientific opinions and information for their clients.

He starts out by comparing exposures at Fukushima to eating a bag of potato chips and then seemed irked that people were angry at his article. He attempts to discredit the long standing adoption of the Linear No Threshold theory on radiation exposures. Conca complains it is policy due to some twisted politics and ignores that LNT is something the scientific and medical community have concluded as solid theory.

“The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation (BEIR) report, NAS BEIR VII was an expert panel who reviewed available peer reviewed literature and writes, “the committee concludes that the preponderance of information indicates that there will be some risk, even at low doses”.[4]” (On LNT)

What Conca doesn’t come right out and say is what he is promoting in this article is radiation hormesis.  Something that is considered junk science by the large majority of the scientific and medical community.

Consensus reports by the United States National Research Council and the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements and the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) argue that there is no evidence for hormesis in humans and in the case of the National Research Council, that hormesis is outright rejected as a possibility. Therefore, the Linear no-threshold model (LNT) continues to be the model generally used by regulatory agencies for human radiation exposure. wiki

So nobody seems to buy Conca’s initial argument. A few people try to defend it by citing Conca’s CV as justification for his claims rather than providing facts to back up his claims. In short “trust me I’m a doctor”. So what does Forbes do when Conca’s article gets a resounding jeer from the public? They give him a do-over.

Conca responds with another entire article insulting readers and making more unsubstantiated claims with a good dose of hyperbole about radiation exposure. (Note he cites no sources for any of his claims). Not only did Forbes give him free reign they gave it to him twice. Looking at these articles really calls into question the quality of anything at Forbes. At least the majority of independent bloggers and  journalists covering Fukushima feel obligated to cite their sources and document what they present.

Many more of these articles based on the HPS talking points that Fukushima was minor and will have no impact on people or the environment keep popping up.
New Scientist ran yet another piece of the same kind and Salon picked it up.

The Propaganda Machine:

Biased and inaccurate news reporting is nothing new. There are plenty of examples of biased reporting and gross inaccuracies in the media. Large labor protests in Wisconsin were inaccurately reported as violent riots with video footage showing angry protesters with a background of palm trees. In January. In Wisconsin. Anyone who has followed the occupy protests has seen the purposeful misrepresentation of events by US news media. Polls show a growing distrust of the media.

Activities such as agenda setting cooperation between the media,  corporations and government distort what we are presented with. Under the wiki definition of astroturfing you will find the Nuclear Energy Institute (the nuclear industry lobbyists) listed as an example of a known group engaging in astroturfing along with many drug and energy companies. Astroturfing is manufactured fake public support. It is frequently seen in political issues where companies or individuals are paid to post comments online, call or write letters claiming public support while posing as “average citizens”. The NEI has a big budget for this kind of misbehavior. They spend more than $600 million a year to pay experts, manipulate media reporting and astroturfing activities. This is all part of larger efforts by the nuclear power industry to try to claim nuclear power is green, the manufactured “nuclear renaissance” and to shore up Wall Street investment banks gamble on nuclear power as they pursue the new government subsidy gravy train earmarked for nuclear power. Something NEI and Goldman Sachs pushed for as part of their financial strategy to pull the public into their investment risk.

What is different about some of these recent incidents in the post Fukushima nuclear debate is how they have been orchestrated. People posing as experts, that have a specific financial stake in something that will benefit from the opinion they are giving is quite common. A simple Google search on the names of many of the experts that appeared on TV during the first days of the Fukushima disaster shows many of them have significant financial ties into the nuclear industry and a few undisclosed partial ownership in nuclear companies. Of course these ties are not mentioned to the public through either sloppy journalism or outright deception. These recent incidents are a bit different in how the information and “experts” were handled. In each situation the information presented was rather soundly rejected by a large number of readers and the expert or topic then was given a rare follow up or “do over” by the media. The original stories lacked any  opinions from other experts or  groups that had dissenting information. The original and follow up stories lack citation of where information or statistics came from with the exception of those that refer back to the Health Physics Society or their members. But the HPS has released no paper. The media was reporting on un-cited and unsubstantiated comments their members made at a press conference. Most decent reporting will at a minimum cite sources for information or statistics.

These media events all carried some or all of the following talking points:
Nobody died from Fukushima
There will be no or very few cancers or deaths from Fukushima
Fukushima is not bad because of Chernobyl
Any concern about aspects of Fukushima is just hysteria

Anyone following the disaster knows these are red herrings at best and outright falsehoods. These of course are not intended to convince people who know. They are intended to put sound bites in the heads of those not closely following the disaster. They are short and easy to recall. They don’t need to be true or verifiable, they just need to be repeated around the water cooler at work.

So how does one spot this kind of junk journalism? The lack of sources for claims is a big tip off. While it can be hard for media outlets to cram in everything they need to in a short article or brief news report, excessive statements without any reference to where the facts came from can hint at a manufactured story. Over dependence on the “experts” credentials is another huge tip off. This happened frequently in the recent news stories about Fukushima. Journalists hype the person’s credentials and some even later used it to try to squash debate about the article or show. If the justification for a position is someone’s credentials rather than facts to support the opinion it is likely more propaganda than news. Attempts to squash discussion or control comments are another tip off your dealing with less than honest journalism. Most media outlets will try to keep public debate on topic and filter out spam. When journalists begin brow beating or insulting the public, that certainly isn’t public debate.

Astroturfing is also common in the comments or public discussion opportunities in major media. These are very easy to spot if your paying attention. They frequently repeat the same set of catch phrases or comments. Some will be literally a cut and paste of the same comment or sentence you saw elsewhere. They frequently state a flurry of confusing “facts” of course without citation of sources. One even more common tactic is to insult anyone questioning their position claiming they are either ignorant or hysterical.

Standard astroturfing plays:
Call you stupid, ignorant or otherwise insinuate it
Call entire argument baseless or wrong without any actual information to refute it
Call people alarmist, fearful, irrational or emotional
Make sweeping claims but never cite sources
Fall back on someone’s CV or credentials rather than facts.

Probably the best thing you can do is to be able to recognize when media reports may be less than honest. Calling out obvious propaganda also helps. Overwhelming comments pointing out the discrepancies or dishonesty in an article or show can help the uninitiated realize the story may not be accurate.  It also to some extent weighs on journalists and the media outlet. You can’t lose the trust and alienate all of your audience and stay in business.

Why all this effort to deceive the US public about Fukushima? Follow the money.

 

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