03/19/2011 06:41 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Friday Talking Points [159] -- From Japan to the Shores of Tripoli

Normally, I begin these articles with a few words on the most amusing idiocies of the week, served up by both the political world and the media universe. This week, however, we have two very serious subjects to tackle (although I will slip a little media-bashing in at the end, I promise) -- our next war, and the nuclear crisis in Japan.

It looks like we're about to enter our next war, which could begin literally at any moment (the bombs have not yet begun to fall, as I write this). We're already militarily involved with Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen, so Libya will actually be the fifth country America's military will be engaged with. Whether this will turn out to be a good idea or not is an open question, but within the next day or so we'll be patrolling the "no-fly" zone, with United Nations approval. The media, of course, will go along for the ride. There's nothing like some video of cruise missiles launching and fighters taking off from an aircraft carrier to boost ratings, right?

If I sound a bit pessimistic, well, I apologize. I've previously come out against the idea of the no-fly zone, for two main reasons: it is open-ended, and it might not achieve the main objective. I'm now a little more optimistic on the latter, since the U.N. resolution goes farther than just declaring a no-fly zone, it actually seems to authorize attacking the Libyan ground forces from the air. This means it may be more effective at providing a safe haven for the rebels than simply barring Libyan aircraft from the skies.

The open-ended nature of the no-fly zone still worries me, though. Not because it would be particularly difficult to smash Gaddafi's air force to smithereens, but because it is going to tie up American military assets at a time when they are already stretched pretty thin, and at a time when they might be needed elsewhere quickly. But I've really said most of all that before, so I'll just note my misgivings and move on to the other big story of the day.

One week ago, Japan was hit with a multi-layered tragedy of almost unimaginable proportions. The country was shaken by the largest earthquake they've ever had -- a stunning 9.0 on the Richter scale -- and then hit by the first tsunami to be accurately and extensively recorded on camera. The images and video of the wall of water were truly sobering. Sure, we've all seen Hollywood movie versions of natural disasters many times before, but this was reality -- real people were dying down there, by the thousands. As I said, sobering.

The quake and the tsunami dominated the news for the first few days, but soon the focus shifted to the ongoing nuclear power plant crisis. This is where the vapid and shallow nature of the mainstream media came shining through in all its ugly glory. American "journalists" have the science I.Q. of your average meatloaf, apparently. And even though they've had four or five days to brush up on some facts, they are still on television every night, failing miserably to communicate what exactly is going on, what exactly the dangers are, and what exactly is being done about them. The only ones who seem to be able to speak intelligently about the situation are on (no surprise) public television -- which is ironic, considering the Republican attempt to de-fund public broadcasting.

Here's a quick test for whether you are being fed speculation and fluff, or whether you are being told real information: Are there numbers involved? If so, then thank a scientist (and the editor or producer who allows such science on the air, I guess).

In other words, I'm getting a little tired of yelling at my television screen: "WHERE are the freakin' NUMBERS?!?"

Because I am addressing the blow-dried "journalist" segment of the population here, I will use small words. You see, there is this thing called "science." What science does, it measures stuff. It puts numbers on things, usually using a scale so that comparisons can be made. Nuclear power is, actually, part of this "science" stuff. Radiation is, actually, measurable. Your viewers would benefit if you started communicating these measurements on the air.


The Japanese media, from what I can tell, are indeed providing this information to their public. Japanese journalists are, apparently, smarter than your average American journalist, and can handle the concept of measuring things, and numbers.

In America, the only number the "journalists" have grasped is the single-digit scale of how bad the accident is. Initially the accident was called a "4" on a scale that goes up to "7." Now, they're calling it a "5," but the anchors are much more interested in determining whether it is "worse than Three Mile Island, or even Chernobyl" than they are in actually quantifying the danger in Japan.

There are a number of different measurements which could be used. The old (pre-metric system) measurement of the dosage of nuclear radiation for humans was the "rem." This has been updated to the metric "Sievert." Japanese media report the radiation danger using "millisieverts" (1/1,000th of a Sievert) and "microsieverts" (1/1,000,000th of a Sievert) per hour. These numbers can easily be compared to normal background radiation (which we all get a dose of every day), and the tried-and-true "chest X-ray" example ("the equivalent of two chest X-rays"). It takes about ten seconds to explain the concept -- ten seconds the American media has so far not spent.

The raw radioactivity could be measured another way, in "curies" (or millicuries, etc.). Either way, using numbers gives people a way to compare the situation, day-to-day, and can be used to calm worries about how much radiation has been picked up by the winds and is now hitting the West Coast of America.

To date, the only numbers I have seen from the American media have come from PBS' NewsHour. Every single other media outlet I have seen has been content to use such non-specific terms as "there are high levels of radiation near the plant" or "low levels of radiation have been measured in Tokyo."

Which is why I'm going to end this introduction with a plea, to the American mainstream media: Please, please, for the love of intelligent conversation about real data, please report the numbers. Pretty please?

Oh, and someone needs to remind you folks of one other important issue: the word "fallout" has a very specific meaning, when talking about radiation in the atmosphere. Very specific. It is not a generic word, when speaking of nuclear explosions. Please stop using it generically, because your casual use of the term is freaking me out. Dig into the archives -- back into about the 1950s -- and read up on what the definition of "fallout" actually is in these situations. Please.


[Continue reading this full article at, complete with our weekly award picks for "most impressive" and "most disappointing" Democrats, and a special talking points section where we suggest how President Obama could fire up his base, heading into the re-election season.]


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