Some of the US TV coverage of the Japan disaster was pedestrian, verging on the foolish. Hundreds of thousands homeless, tens of thousands missing, nuclear reactors melting — and at least two outlets used their precious time to produce little human interest stories — which smacked of being manufactured — about two Americans who they had found to be safe, as if that had really been in question.
— NHK TV live and on the internet — is a comprehensive way of learning about the breadth of the tsunami-earthquake-nuclear story.
The premise of two pieces on CNN and NBC segments involved two cases where young family members had been unable to contact their parents back home, who
were worried. That’s fine, but it was less a case of being missing than the case of not having a telephone. Both involved young Americans who had been too busy checking on the safety of people around them than to wait in line for a hard-to-get phone call. OK, it was American and it pulled at the heartstrings; at the same time there was almost a smug look on the faces of the reporters who had hauled in the human interest.
But come on. The journalistic story at a disaster is to analyze systems, identify problems, represent the public — the American public included. How does this really affect us? What can we draw from the collapse of public systems? And what can we do to help? Human interest yes, but with a little dignity rather than old parochial formulas.
CNN continues to be the best game on U.S. mainstream TV, and they did some good work. They finally brought in an eminent nuclear specialist without an agenda, a step-up from their weekend choice, Prof. Glenn Sjoden, a nuclear advocate who is also a consultant for industry. At their best, U.S. networks also questioned the openness of Japanese officials on the nuclear story. One of the good analysts on the airways was James Acton of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Acton was concise, well spoken and authoritative. Let’s hear more of that.
Other than CNN, there was a dearth of televised news in the United States shortly after the Japanese earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power plant troubles. Most U.S. outlets don’t do news weekends very well.
The English language service of NHK, the public Japanese broadcasting Company, is a great alternative, a relatively unfettered source for comprehensive information. It is available on the Internet live and on many local TV cable and wired networks, such as Verizon. They’ve done a great job, focusing on excellent explanations of the nuclear issue and have been a source of pictures and information for American TV. Switching over the NHK directly has given a better understanding of the story.
This event apparently didn’t rate much more than the normal attention and expense of coverage by the waning U.S. broadcast news business–the allotment of television network news on the weekend is small. U.S. public television has little foreign coverage — and less since funding lapsed on World Focus, a daily international program I worked with until 2010. PBS doesn’t do live news on the weekend at all.
CNN did a typical job of covering the event — and the network has some excellent reporters. But American commercial television is often jarringly brief and superficial; bookers often don’t find the best specialists to help them. Instead of having a top academic, for example, such as Dr. Michio Kaku of City College in New York (who is a consultant for ABC, but too sparingly seen on their broadcasts), CNN relied on brief commentaries by anchors beyond the limits of their knowledge base and correspondents who had no access while in the field to their own information. They also booked a a nuclear engineering professor, Dr. Glenn Sjoden of Georgia Tech, who minimized the dangers of the nuclear power plants at Fukushima. Too much hype, he said; the radiation discussed is no more than the radiation one receives during a typical CT scan. I suspect that Professor Sjoden is somewhat of a proponent and damage controller for the U.S. nuclear industry.
NHK, by the way, is supported by public licensing fees. Anybody with a TV is supposed to pay, similar to the BBC system in the United Kingdom. The Japanese system isn’t perfect, and it has been subject to controversy, but NHK excelled in covering this story with expertise and compassion, while not sinking to the overly produced human interest and melodrama that American TV often employs.