THE BLOG

When Japan Sneezes, Germany Catches a Cold

04/29/2011 12:57 pm ET | Updated Jun 29, 2011

By Ralph Martin

In recent news coverage of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, German newspapers and television portrayed the world as a very bleak place, one that Germans would nonetheless protect themselves against by divesting from nuclear power. In America, however, the world went on as usual, with heroes fighting against the clock to stop the nuclear annihilation of a country -- and succeeding, against all odds. Americans have a Hollywood worldview; whereas the executives at one German network, Pro7, were so freaked out by the disaster that they doctored episodes of The Simpsons to remove satirical references to the bumbling employees of a nuclear plant. This is an anti-Hollywood worldview: a story, wherever it happens in the world, is seen only in terms of how it might affect the home population -- or audience.

If one takes the New York Times' website and Spiegel Online as reasonable indicators of what Americans and Germans are reading, then we see vastly diverging coverage during the Fukushima debacle. The most popular articles in the Times, after the news of the tsunami and subsequent crisis emerged, were about the "Fukushima 50," the engineers who stayed behind at the reactors to fight the possibility of a meltdown, at great danger to themselves.

The Times provided timelines, giving the story a beginning and a middle, if not yet an end. And there were, initially, a few articles that announced that President Obama had reassured the American public that American nuclear facilities were safe. That was the extent of 'could it happen here?' coverage, in spite of the fact that many nuclear facilities are closer to fault lines that make earthquakes highly likely.

Not so, Germany. Spiegel's most popular online feature as the drama unfolded was an evolving digital map of the "radiation plume" that moved away from the reactors, carried by the prevailing winds, before it dispersed over the Pacific Ocean. The attention paid to this feature suggested that a large number of Spiegel readers feared that a cloud of radioactive fallout would travel across the world and land on their heads. The subsequent handling of the nuclear issue by the Merkel government and Baden-Württenberg's Minister President Mappus was remarkable, to an American, not only for its ineptitude but for the way the German electorate made nuclear power their top concern -- they made Fukushima theirs. This in spite of the fact that a single person had not yet died from radiation exposure in Japan.

Of course, one can read the nuclear issue in Germany as a matter of trust, which is to say, that it isn't about nukes themselves, it's about how the authorities handled the issue. This obscures the fact that governments handle a great many issues at one time, and they are apt to screw up a great many of them. Of course, the reaction of American media to Fukushima seems incredibly blasé by comparison, regarding the events as yet another story, without any larger social ramifications -- another earthquake/flood/avalanche that kills a bunch of people somewhere distant in the world.

Both reactions are ultimately illustrations of naïveté and the willingness of media organizations to make hay out of the news based on what they known their viewers want. Germans, apparently, are concerned first and foremost with what affects them, with isolating themselves from danger. Americans seem to be eternally in search of entertainment, a story to attach themselves to briefly before moving on. In both cases, the victims of the tsunami itself barely earn a mention -- both Germans and Americans look at the world but see only themselves.