Fukushima and the Battle of the Hysterical Headlines

I’ve seen some wild disinformation about the nuclear catastrophe at Fukushima in the British and U.S. media, but the Germans take the cake.  Here’s the headline and byline that just appeared on the site of Focus, Germany’s second leading news magazine:

A Super Meltdown is Imminent at Fukushima

50 workers at the Fukushima nuclear power plant are fighting a hopeless battle – it appears that a super-meltdown is now just a matter of time. The operators anticipate explosions in the last two intact blocks.

You’ll find a more sober assessment of what’s going on here.  I suspect it’s moot as far as the U.S. is concerned at this point.  For the time being, our nuclear industry is dead, and I will be very surprised if it experiences a resurrection any time in the next decade.  The Chinese will likely be the biggest beneficiaries of the disaster in Japan.  That country’s leaders aren’t stupid enough to be taken in by the hysteria mongering in Focus and Der Spiegel, and will likely proceed with the building of a series of new reactors as planned.  They will probably find the cost of fuel to be significantly lower than anticipated.

UPDATE: Today’s (March 16) Wall Street Journal has a nice graphic of the six Fukushima reactors on the front page, showing the spent fuel cooling ponds all neatly ensconced above the primary containment vessel near the roof. It boggles the mind that it never occurred to the apparently brain-dead designers that maintaining the coolant levels in the ponds might be problematic in the event of an environmental disaster.

Libyan Insurrection and German Jingoism

Back in the day, coverage of U.S. military operations in the German media consisted mainly of a melange of self-righteous posing and predictions of imminent doom.  For example, according to Der Spiegel, Germany’s number one news magazine, in an article published less than two weeks before the fall of Baghdad, the U.S. Army was “stuck in the sand,” it faced a “worst case scenario,” the Iraqis were fighting “much harder than expected,” and the war was likely to last “for months,” and then only if the troops already on the ground received “massive reinforcements.”  Unabashed when all these prophecies of doom turned out to be so many fairy tales, Spiegel immediately shifted gears to the usual fare comparing Iraq to Vietnam that Americans became familiar with in their own media.  Inevitably, as well as being another Vietnam, Iraq was a “quagmire.” By 2006, Spiegel was confidently assuring its readers, in lockstep with the NYT and WaPo, that, “The Iraq strategy of the Bush Administration has failed.”

Fast forward to the next President.  The winds of insurrection are blowing in the Middle East and North Africa.  In Libya, however, the revolutionary wave has been checked, at least for the time being, by the stubborn refusal of Muammar Qaddafi to play his assigned role and bow out gracefully.    Meanwhile, the U.S. President seems in no hurry to take any “unilateral action,” and seems to have a distinct aversion for any action more forceful than declaring that Qaddafi’s bloody massacres of his own people are “unacceptable.”  Oddly enough, Der Spiegel seems to have changed its tune.  According to the headline of an interview with delegate to the European parliament Martin Schulz, the “opportunism (Taktiererei) of the European states is a scandal.”  Schulz thinks that “a military intervention in Libya may be considered as a last resort.”  Spiegel has a long history of expressing its editorial opinion via such “expert” mouthpieces.  It would seem the Schulz interview is no exception.  For example, according to the bolded opening paragraph of another article under the headline, “Qaddafi’s Counteroffensive puts the West under Pressure,” we read,

Intervene or watch and wait? After ever more violent battles, Libya threatens to sink into civil war, and with it into chaos. There is increasing pressure to intervene, and it is falling above all on western states. Meanwhile, Germany, the EU, and the USA are standing idly by.

All this sounds harmless enough by US standards.  For the German media, though, it’s positively jingoist.  In the past, their MO has always been to wait until we actually do take action, then print a stream of articles about civilian casualties, bombings of hospitals and old folks homes, allusions to Vietnam and “quagmires,” the selfish motives of the U.S and its evil corporations which, in this case as in Iraq, would undoubtedly be oil, etc., etc.  But Obama isn’t playing along.  By all appearances, it’s starting to get under their skin.  A byline of the above article refers to the U.S. as the “Helpless World Power #1.”   The U.S. military is portrayed as “skeptical” about intervention, and “playing for time” to avoid it.  Pentagon spokesman is using the excuse of Libyan air defenses “more effective than those of the Iraqis in 2003,” to explain this “stalling.”  In a word, Der Spiegel is positively egging us on to send in the cavalry.

Somehow, I have a sneaking suspicion that the German media, along with the rest of that of “old Europe,” would turn on us with a vengeance as soon as the first boot of the first U.S. GI touched Libyan soil.  I have a better idea.  Let’s just stay out of it.  Give peace a chance!  If the Europeans are so worried about the fate of the Libyan people, I’m all in favor of letting them have a go at saving them, but without our assistance.  There are occasions when I feel positively comforted by the fact that Barack Obama, and not John McCain, is our President.  This is one of them.

A Shooting and a Narrative

There is no such thing as news.  There is only narrative.  The significance of most of what passes for news is derived from the attention the media pays to it rather than its intrinsic importance.  A case in point is the remarkable, ongoing obsession of the news media on both the left and right with the shootings in Arizona.  In this case the feeding frenzy was set in motion by the left.  Even though there have obviously always been people on both ends of the spectrum who have no life outside of politics, I was still taken aback by their desperate attempts to seize on this issue like so many drowning men grasping at straws.  Evidently their resounding defeat in November was even more galling than I imagined.  They made no secret of the fact that they were waiting with bated breath for some incident they could construe as evidence of the “violent nature” of the Tea Party movement, conservative talk radio, and the rest of their pet bogeymen.  They admitted as much. As their reaction to the shootings makes clear, they were very eager indeed. They’re acting for all the world like so many Communists marching behind the coffin of a murdered “martyr” in days gone by. All that’s missing is the red flags.

Some examples of their overwrought reaction can be found here, here, and here, all based on zero evidence that there was any link whatsoever between the shooter and the Tea Party movement, Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, or anyone else on the right. The “objective” CNN even went so far as to write a panegyric of Sheriff Dupnik, now infamous for his ham-handed attempts at political exploitation of the murders, as the soul of wisdom, complete down to everything but his birth in a log cabin.  I doubt we’ll be seeing more of the same from those quarters, as in the meantime the good sheriff has been giving off such a stench that even the stalwarts of the left have begun holding their noses.

The left’s seizing at this particular straw was, obviously, ill-considered.  Other than not bothering to come up with any evidence to back up their accusations, only to find out after the fact that there was none, they set their own hypocrisy on a pedestal for the right to take pot shots at.  After all, the left doesn’t commonly engage its opponents in reasoned discourse.  Its forte’s have always been demonization, virtuous indignation, and a style of “eliminationist rhetoric” all its own.  They gave the other side a perfect opportunity to point that out, as they did with relish, for example, here, here and here.

There is little that can demonstrate the extent to which the left overshot its mark in its crudely insensitive attempts to exploit the Arizona deaths and the grave wounding of Gabrielle Giffords than the reaction of the foreign media.  Germany’s for example, is usually reliably leftist, often taking its talking points directly from the New York Times.  It is all the more remarkable that the Washington correspondent of Der Spiegel, Marc Hujer, penned an article entitled “America’s Insane Debate,” in which he wrote, among other things, 

The very people who got so upset about the tone of debate in the past year, about the rhetoric of the Tea Party, the harsh words of the Right, the unabashed caricatures of Obama as Hitler, are now poisoning the debate themselves with shameless insinuations. Without learning the facts, they seek the guilty behind the attack, and commonly find them on the right, in the Tea Party, in Republican Party chief Michael Steele and Tea Party heroine Sarah Palin.

The language chosen by Sarah Palin and other Tea Partiers was doubtless raw and over the top, but doesn’t come close to providing any proof for the claim that they motivated the shootings in Arizona. Indeed, what is known about the shooter at this point gives no indication that he is a member of the Tea Party movement, or a fan of Palin, or that he has any clear political convictions at all. His favorite books included the Communist Manifesto, Hitler’s Mein Kampf, and Peter Pan, a weird collection. However, there is no indication that his act was motivated by politics.

The massive criticism directed at Sarah Palin is delusional, and not just because it’s a baseless accusation. The attempt to weaken Palin in this way could accomplish the opposite.

That’s strong stuff coming from a source that’s usually reliably critical of the right, in the U.S. as well as in Germany.  The left in this country might do well to take heed for their own good.  Perhaps more worrisome than their baseless accusations is what they propose as a cure; a further dismantling of the Bill of Rights.  In this case their targets are the first and second amendments to the Constitution.  If the history of the last hundred years is any guide, we have more reason than ever before to continue to fight against any diminishing of those rights.

Criticism, Self-criticism, and Thoughtcrime

Certain psychological types seem to persist across cultures.  For example, here is Stalin in a letter to writer and journalist Maxim Gorky:

We cannot do without self-criticism. We simply cannot, Alexei Maximovich. Without it, stagnation, corruption of the apparatus, growth of bureaucracy, sapping of the creative initiative of the working class, is inevitable. I know there are people in the ranks of the party who have no fondness for criticism in general, and for self-criticism in particular. Those people, whom I might call “skin-deep” communists… shrug their shoulders at self-criticism, as much as to say: … again this raking out of our shortcomings – can’t we be allowed to live in peace!

Of course, there were limits on the Communists’ fondness for self-criticism.  When Gorky criticized them in his paper Novaia zhizn’ (New Life) for their brutal excesses immediately after their seizure of power, they shut him down, and he was lucky to get away with his life. 

Here’s a similar bit from another variant of the worker’s paradise, Mao’s China during the Cultural Revolution.  It’s from the book Red Scarf Girl by Ji-Li Jiang, and describes the author’s experiences in one of the “self-criticism” sessions the Communists used to terrorize both adults and children (the author was 12 years old at the time).  She had called one of her friends by a nickname, and been overheard by one of the school bullies, who appropriately belonged to the “Red Successors,” a younger version of the Red Guards.  He dressed her down as follows:

It isn’t simply a matter of calling people by nicknames. It’s a matter of your looking down on working-class people… This is connected with your class standing Jiang Ji-li. You should reflect on your class origin and thoroughly remold your ideology… You’d better think seriously about your problems.

Moving right along to our own time, we find Greg Sargent addressing some similarly charming comments to Juan Williams in a column that appeared in the Washington Post.  Williams, you may recall, was just fired by NPR for what George Orwell once called Thoughtcrime.  Quoting from Sargent’s article:

The problem, though, is that in his initial comments he didn’t clarify that the instinctual feeling itself is irrational and ungrounded, and something folks need to battle against internally whenever it rears its head. And in his subsequent comments on Fox today, Williams again conspicuously failed to make that point.

Maybe Williams does think those feelings are unacceptably irrational and need to be wrestled with, and perhaps someone should ask him more directly if he thinks that. But until he clearly states it to be the case, there’s no reason to assume he thinks we should battle those feelings and work to delegitimize them.

Far be it for me to suggest that Sargent has anything at all in common with Stalin or Mao, or that his thought is otherwise anything but politically correct.  I merely suggest, based on admittedly anecdotal evidence, that there seem to be some psychological commonalities in human types that persist across cultures.  Apparently others have noticed the same thing.  Jim Treacher’s take in a piece he wrote for the Daily Caller was somewhat more emphatic:

It’s true, I haven’t heard Juan Williams call for the abolition of all crimethink. Thank goodness we have Greg Sargent of the Washington Post to remind us what’s permissible to think. Not what’s permissible to act on, or even to say aloud, but to think. How can we all be free if people are allowed to think in unapproved ways?

“Thoughtcrime does not entail death. Thoughtcrime is death.”

Howard Kurtz’ Lament

Howard Kurtz just penned a rather petulant article in the WaPo with the byline, “Modern journalism’s Googlian algorithm isn’t as simple as Gaga + Palin x Tiger = Page views.”  Howard laments the fact that he has to “appease the Google gods” with keywords that will grab the attention of the soulless computer minds that now hold the future of “serious journalism” in the balance.  No doubt entirely similar pieces were penned a century and more ago by the builders of horse drawn conveyances, regretting the irrational taste of their fellow citizens for those noisy, stinking horseless carriages. 

Yearning for those golden days of yesteryear when the legacy media controlled the “news” and the narrative to go with it, Howard writes,

Most people don’t read publications online, patiently turning from national news to Metro to Style to the sports section. They hunt for subjects, and people, in which they’re interested. Our mission – and we have no choice but to accept it – is to grab some of that traffic that could otherwise end up at hundreds of other places, even blogs riffing off the reporting that your own publication has done.

That’s right, Howard, we now have the right to sass back.  The Internet is a wonderful thing.  It’s the greatest amplifier of free speech since the invention of moveable type, and it has effectively nullified the power of the media gatekeepers.  All of us now have the power to “riff off,” meaning we can answer and even contradict the “objective reporting” of sanctimonious journalists from our own little bully pulpits. 

Howard is so convinced that the ideological narrative he and his pals have been flogging all these years is “news” that he becomes a caricature of himself:

Naturally, those who grew up as analog reporters wonder: Is journalism becoming a popularity contest? Does this mean pieces about celebrity sex tapes will take precedence over corruption in Afghanistan? Why pay for expensive foreign bureaus if they’re not generating enough clicks? Doesn’t all this amount to pandering?

It’s incredible, really.  He’s been living in an echo chamber for so long that he can actually write stuff like that with a perfectly straight fact, and, I don’t doubt, actually believe it himself.  So “corruption in Afghanistan” is “news,” is it?  Anyone who takes that line seriously is:

        a.  Suffering from a prolonged case of sleeping sickness

        b.  A university professor in the humanities

        c.  A “serious reader” of the WaPo, or

        d.  On drugs

Corruption in Afghanistan “news,” after we’ve been getting a steady diet of it on the dead tree media for years, in spite of the rampant corruption in every other country in the region, in spite of the abundant corruption in every major country in Europe, and, more to the point, the rampant corruption right here at home?  “News,” Howard?  I think not.  Put it in Category a (ideological narrative), Subcategory b (antiwar propaganda).  You and your pals have a right to an opinion, and we’ve been familiar with your opinion concerning wars you don’t consider “just” ever since the Vietnam era, but the days when you could fob that narrative off as “news” are over, and we’re all the better for it.

Howard concludes his piece with some lugubrious observations to the effect that Obama is more popular overseas than he is at home, no doubt because the many alternative sources of information we now have at our command interfere with WaPo’s ability to “accurately” inform us about him. 

It’s unfortunate you have to put up with the indignity of worrying what the search engines think about you, Howard.  It’s a competitive world, and if you can’t compete you’ll have to close up shop.  I suspect you’ll be surprised at how little you’ll be missed.

The Novel Crime of being “Overwhelmingly White”

Insty notes the increasingly blatant racist narrative in the mainstream media.

UPDATE: More of the “If you don’t agree with me and you have white skin you’re a racist” narrative from the NYT.

UPDATE 2:  Another interesting take on “Teaparty racism.”  (hattip Erik at Non Pasaran, who recently penned another thoughtful article on the “birther” controversy.)

About that Right-wing Islamophobe…

It turns out that the truth is somewhat more nuanced than the media narrative about a dastardly attack on a Moslem by an evil, right-wing opponent of the Ground Zero Mosque and, therefore, “freedom of religion.” Quoting from Don Surber;

The attacker apparently supports building the mosque 560 feet away from Ground Zero.

The blood is on the hands of a lefty.

From Ben Smith at Politico: “But as often at the intersection of politics and violent crime, the story doesn’t appear to fit any easy stereotype: The alleged assailant, Michael Enright, is — according to his Facebook profile and the website of the left-leaning media organization Intersections International — a student at the School of Visual Arts and a volunteer for Intersections, which recently produced a statement of support for the Park51 project and is funded by the mainstream, liberal Collegiate Church of New York.”

Even after that, Little Green Footballs made excuses: “At Politico, Ben Smith notes that Enright’s films were apparently sponsored by a left-leaning group called Intersections: Alleged anti-Muslim attacker works at pro-Park51 group. Smith’s headline is a bit misleading, however, because Intersections is involved in many different projects, not just in supporting Park51. Enright was a volunteer filmmaker for Intersections, and there’s no reason to believe he was involved with or sympathetic to their support for Park51.”

Other than the group just supported the Victory Mosque.

Sheesh.

It was a vicious crime by a 21-year-old coward.

It is attempted murder. I don’t care about this coward’s politics. But connecting this inexplicable act of violence on peaceful protesters is ignorant.

And so far, despite all the wishes of the left, the violence comes and hot rhetoric comes from the left. Need I remind readers of the beating of Kenneth Gladney?

No matter, CNN is still running with the same old narrative. Their headline: “Slashed cab driver to call for end to anti-Muslim rhetoric.” Of course, the editors there have long given up the “objectivity” charade, and realize they’re preaching to the choir. As Stalin said when one of his associates suggested that a piece of propaganda was so absurd that even his fellow traveler dupes in the West might gag on it, “Don’t worry, they’ll swallow it.”

The “Israeli” Jack the Knife; Lying by Omission

I read four or five accounts of the arrest of serial killer Elias Abuelazam in the local and national mainstream media, and in none of them was he identified as other than an “Israeli.” Apparently the editors thought the fact that he happens to be an Arab Christian, and not a Jew, didn’t fit the narrative was not significant enough to mention. These people seem to believe they can still play the same games they did back in the 60’s and 70’s when they had an effective monopoly as gatekeepers of public information. It’s as if they haven’t noticed that times have changed, and there are now powerful alternative voices that will nail them every time. They keep losing credibility and market share, but it just doesn’t seem to matter to them. Perhaps they’ve finally tired of the “objectivity” charade, and have decided to content themselves with preaching to the choir.

Wapo’s “Top Secret America” Extravaganza

The Washington Post’s editors were singularly unfortunate in their choice of weeks to publish their “Top Secret America” series, as it was quickly upstaged by Wikileaks. It’s just as well, as the content was pretty lame, and probably elicited many a sardonic scoff from the folks who work for the NSA and CIA. I’m certainly receptive to the serie’s central theme that “The government has built a national security and intelligence system so big, so complex and so hard to manage, no one really knows if it’s fulfilling its most important purpose: keeping its citizens safe.” Unfortunately, the articles are written in the time-honored “expose” style with its insinuations that the reader is being let in on “confidential” information that, like the dead tree media itself, has become an anachronism since the invention of the Internet.

In the first article, entitled “A Hidden World, Growing Beyond Control,” for example, we are presented with this spine-tingling description of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the National Counterterrorism Center at Liberty Crossing in McLean:

Outside a gated subdivision of mansions in McLean, a line of cars idles every weekday morning as a new day in Top Secret America gets underway. The drivers wait patiently to turn left, then crawl up a hill and around a bend to a destination that is not on any public map and not announced by any street sign.

Liberty Crossing tries hard to hide from view. But in the winter, leafless trees can’t conceal a mountain of cement and windows the size of five Wal-Mart stores stacked on top of one another rising behind a grassy berm. One step too close without the right badge, and men in black jump out of nowhere, guns at the ready.

Now, if Liberty Crossing “tries hard to hide from view,” it’s rather hard to divine how the second hit in a Google search of the words “Liberty Crossing Intelligence” could be the homepage of the National Counterterrorism Center itself, but it is.  Apparently the folks at NCC are singularly inept at hiding.  As for not being on any public maps, the first hit takes care of that problem by providing a satellite image of the campus and surrounding area.  The “men in black” are, no doubt, some of the ubiquitous security guys the enterprising tourist can find at any number of the Defense, Intelligence, and other federal agencies in the Washington area, many of them a block or two from the mall.  They don’t commonly “jump out of nowhere,” because, as I can confirm after having visited any number of secure facilities, they have no reason to hide.  I doubt that it would ever occur to one of them to draw their weapon because someone took “one step too close without the right badge.”

The article treats us to the first of several implausible anecdotes that run through the entire series. For example, one of the Department of Defense’s “Super Users,” the upper echelon guys who supposedly have access to everything, is quoted as complaining because,

at his initial briefing, he was escorted into a tiny, dark room, seated at a small table and told he couldn’t take notes. Program after program began flashing on a screen, he said, until he yelled ”Stop!” in frustration.

As anyone with even a passing familiarity with classified information would have been aware, he had merely to ask for a classified notebook.  Such a “Super User” would surely have known this.  I’ve been to many classified briefings, but never in a room I would consider “tiny.”  Maybe he works for the wrong agency?  As for the darkness, he probably wouldn’t have committed a security infraction by switching on the lights.  He might not have seen the Powerpoint slides as clearly, though.

We are treated to more of the same in the remaining two articles.  The next in the series, entitled “National Security Inc.,” focuses on the supposedly baleful influence of the many contractors supporting the nation’s Intelligence programs, all of them apparently just waiting for the opportunity to betray their country to promote the interests of the evil corporations that employ them.  The authors never get around to explaining exactly why it would be in the best interests of the shareholders of these companies to supply government with a stream of traitors, nor does it attempt to enlighten us concerning the reasons that virtually all of the real traitors employed by federal intelligence agencies who have been exposed in recent years have not been contractors, but federal employees.  I happen to be a contractor with a clearance myself, but it seems to me these questions are germane to the points at issue. 

The authors claim that contractors are more expensive than federal employees.  However, if that’s true, it’s only true on the basis of a head-to-head salary comparison.  It doesn’t count the generous pensions and health care benefits that feds get when they retire, all of which must be paid for by the taxpayers in the same coin.   It also doesn’t count the fact that, while feds who don’t pull their weight are almost impossible to fire, contractors can be and are dismissed at a word from the federal officials who support them.  The author’s revelation that the firms providing contractors to government are actually in business to make a profit may be shocking to the editors of the Washington Post, but it hardly proves that contractors are more expensive or less effective than federal employees at performing their jobs.

The final article in the series, entitled “The Secrets Next Door,” is the most puerile of the lot, containing such silly stuff as,

Even the manhole cover between two low-slung buildings is not just a manhole cover. Surrounded by concrete cylinders, it is an access point to a government cable. “TS/SCI” whispers an official, the abbreviations for “top secret” and “sensitive compartmented information” – and that means few people are allowed to know what information the cable transmits.

From this one can only assume that the official in question was grossly imposing on the author’s credulity.  One Jeani Burns, “who lives in the Fort Meade cluster,” is quoted as saying about top-secret workers,

I can spot them. They have a haunted look, like they’re afraid someone is going to ask them something abot themselves.

Guess I’d better take a better look in the mirror to see if I can pick out that “haunted look.”  Stuff like this does not leave one with a high opinion of the intellectual calibre of the rubes who still read the Wapo.  That’s not to say the author’s should loose heart.  They may score a Pulitzer yet.  After all, they’ve been awarded for stuff that was a lot worse.

UPDATE: From Stewart Baker at The Volokh Conspiracy, “If there’s no big story to write, and the database puts readers to sleep, why did the Post spend scarce resources on these things at a time when newspapers are in desperate shape?”  According to his theory, it was part of a complicated scheme to carve out market share.  It seems to me Stewart is over-analyzing this.  I suspect it’s more likely the editors at the WaPo are simply dinosaurs who haven’t noticed the meteor has landed.