Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Media Hedge (or Lack Thereof): Asahi, The New York Times and the Yoshida Deposition

Panicked Workers Fled Fukushima Plant in 2011 Despite Orders, Record Shows”, the NYT headline reads. Now that’s a very serious allegation, portraying as craven cowards all but several dozen of the TEPCO employees at Fukushima Dai-Ichi Nuclear Power Station at the time of the 9.11 disaster. But the very first sentence of the report lets the first cat out of the bag:

“At the most dire moment of the Fukushima nuclear crisis three years ago, hundreds of panicked employees abandoned the damaged plant despite being ordered to remain on hand for last-ditch efforts to regain control of its runaway reactors, according to a previously undisclosed record of the accident that was reported Tuesday by a major Japanese newspaper.”

Okay, so the NYT posted a meta-report if you will. This made me laugh a little, because I’d always thought the international news in Japanese newspapers that were essentially summaries of one US media report or another being reported ot of New York, Wahington and other chouise locations funny. (Did the Japanese media really need Japanese reporters in New York and Washington and elsewhere producing summaries of newspaper and magazine clippings? At least if they could understand TV broadcasts…) To Martin Fackler’s credit, he had his local staff do a little more reaserch.

“At a regular news conference, the top government spokesman, Yoshihide Suga, the chief cabinet secretary, did not challenge the accuracy of the Asahi report. He said the transcripts of interviews with Mr. Yoshida and others involved in the accident had not been disclosed because they were not intended for the public record, though he did not explain why.”

Now, a neutral rendering of Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga’s comments would be along the lines of:

“At a regular news conference, the top government spokesman, Yoshihide Suga, the chief cabinet secretary, did not address the accuracy of the Asahi report…”

And that would have been a safer hedge, because—but I’m getting ahead of myself. In any case, Fackler further insulates his report from criticism by writing further down the story:

“A spokesman for Tepco, Ryo Shimizu, disputed one crucial aspect of the Asahi report, saying that company records showed Mr. Yoshida issued a more vaguely worded order to withdraw to “low radiation areas,” a term that could also include the neighboring plant six miles away. Thus, he said, Tepco did not view the fleeing employees as actually having violated an order.”

That said, the article concludes with the following, reinforcing the impression that the TEPCO employees fled the scene against Yoshida’s explicit orders:

“The newspaper said Mr. Yoshida told investigators that he was surprised to learn that so many managers had fled, prompting him to contact the other plant to order their immediate return.
“‘Actually, I never told them to withdraw to 2F,’ Mr. Yoshida was quoted as saying, referring to the second nuclear plant. ‘When I was told they had gone to 2F, it was already too late.’”

Days later, though, Sankei got its hands on the same Yoshida testimony—hard not to think of it as a deliberate Abe administration counter-leak—and launched its own series of articles directly refuting Asahi’s most serious allegation—fleeing the scene of the accident against Yoshida’s explicit orders. We will know soon for sure who is making up what, since the government has apparently decided to make the Yoshida testimony public, which had been withheld at Mr. Yoshida’s request (which explains the laconic Mr. Suga’s refusal to elaborate on the document), after obtaining the deceased’s family’s consent. In the meantime, here is the most relevant part of the testimony (as revealed by Sankei in excerpts):

“Q. In the morning of the 15th, the people who had evacuated to Fukushima Da-Ni return…
“Mr. Yoshida: Actually, I didn’t tell them to go to Fukushima Dai-Ni. When I said to have automobiles at the ready, the person who delivered the message gave an instruction to the drivers to go to Fukushima Dai-Ni. I had thought that I had told them to evacuate for now to some place near Fukushima Dai-Ichi where the radiation level was low, but since they’d gone to Fukushima Dai-Ni, so I was like, oh my. So after they’d reached Fukushima Dai-Ni, we had the group manager-level people come back.”

“Q.  The people who’d evacuated to Fukushima Dai-Ni return in the morning of the 15th...
“Mr. Yoshida: I’d said what I’d said meaning that I wanted them to evacuate to a place where the radiation level had stabilized, but when you think about it, they’re all wearing masks. If they remain evacuated for hours [with the masks on], they’ll die. When you really think about it, it was much, much more correct to go to Fukushima Dai-Ni.”

Yes, it’s possible that Yoshida is covering for his subordinates. But the existence of a possibility does not justify the spin that Asahi put on its story. Coming on the heels of its comfort women revelations, it will be interesting to see how it wiggles out of this one, assuming that the government actually releases those document for the public record. In the meantime, Martin Fackler has wisely covered his butt. But not the NYT editorial desk. Now, I guess my questions are: Will there be an Asahi mea culpa (if indeed there is need for one)? And an NYT follow-up?

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