I was reminded recently of the quote, sometimes attributed to Mark Twain, sometimes to Winston Churchill, that “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.” One version of the quote can be traced back to Jonathan Swift in 1710.
National Public Radio (NPR) recently aired a story in which they made an egregious error concerning the number of people killed as a result of the Fukushima nuclear power plant meltdown in Japan in 2011. The story was told in the context of President Obama’s apology at Hiroshima for America’s role in ending World War II—a war that the U.S. entered after being bombed by Japan at Pearl Harbor.
The NPR reporter said, “Japan is quite pacifist, as you know, given its experiences with nuclear war and with nuclear energy. It was just five years ago that Fukushima’s power plant melted down, which killed tens of thousands in Japan.”
NPR later added a correction at the end of the transcript of the story on its website, and they removed seven words from the audio. Those seven words were, “which killed tens of thousands in Japan.” But the words are still in the written transcript on the page.
This is their correction:
“[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: An earlier version of the audio of this story mistakenly referred to the 2011 Fukushima nuclear power plant accident causing ‘tens of thousands’ of deaths. The large death toll was caused by the earthquake and tsunami, not the nuclear accident. The incorrect reference was removed for subsequent airings of the broadcast and on our digital platforms.]”
This story played to millions of people across the globe who were tuned in to NPR. Maybe one one-thousandth of that number, if that, will ever see the correction. And again, those who read the transcript will still see the original mistake.
The point of that error was to provide support for President Obama’s argument that we need to rid the world of nuclear weapons, and that even nuclear power plants pose an unacceptable risk. After all, the U.S. has been the only nation to use atomic bombs, when we dropped them on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. The Oliver Stone view of the world is that it was unnecessary, and that Japan would have surrendered anyway because they feared a Soviet invasion. Yet it was widely believed by military and diplomatic experts at that time—and, I would argue, to this day—that it saved hundreds of thousands, maybe even a million Americans, who would have otherwise died invading Japan in order to force them to surrender.
Claudia Rosett wrote a column about President Obama’s recent speech at Hiroshima, and the message he sent. Since he never said the words, “I apologize,” most media stories highlighted the angle that there was no actual apology. But the weight and the meaning of his full speech was in and of itself an apology.
“What’s missing from Obama’s ‘logic’ is the reality that mankind—no matter what Obama says at Hiroshima—is unlikely to un-invent nuclear weapons,” writes Rosett. “The practical question is how to minimize the chances that they will be used, and the main question for an American president should be how to ensure they are not used against the U.S. and its allies. It matters whether it is Britain that has the bomb, or North Korea.”
But President Obama doesn’t want responsible nations to have nuclear weapons. He argues that all nations should shed “the logic of fear” and get rid of their nuclear arsenals. “How easily we learn to justify violence in the name of some higher cause,” said President Obama in his speech.
How easily, too, NPR justifies a throwaway correction for what is a major factual error.
NPR needs to figure out a better way to correct a story. They should have announced the correction on the air, and made the change within the transcript, with an asterisk—rather than count on the very few people who might read the correction at the very end of the transcript—in order to fulfill their journalistic obligation.
Some news reports do speculate that there will eventually be deaths of people who will get cancer as a result of Fukushima. That may be true. But as Accuracy in Media reported with regard to the 1986 nuclear accident at Chernobyl in the Soviet Union, those reports are likely to be greatly exaggerated.
NPR got their shot in. The lie traveled halfway around the world, but the correction sits as a little noticed blurb at the end. The correction should have included the fact that there were no known deaths as a result of the Fukushima nuclear meltdown.