The New York Times‘ reassuring reporting on the radioactive plume drifting across the U.S. continues the paper’s troubling tradition of parroting comforting words from officials in the midst of modern-day environmental crises–like the environmental fallout post-9/11. Let’s compare headlines:
As I have documented (Extra!, 11-12/06), in the months and years following the September 11 attacks, the Times ignored studies and voices that cast strong doubt on official proclamations that the air and dust near Ground Zero were not a serious hazard. Andrew Revkin, the Times‘ environmental reporter at the time who was responsible for much of the reassuring coverage, explained the stance taken by the paper:
The Times‘ Revkin told American Journalism Review (1ÃƒÆ’Â¢ÃƒÂ¢”Å¡Â¬“2/03), “We were, I think, bending over backwards to be sure we were reporting a risk only if we knew it, whereas others, I feel rather strongly, were flipping it the other way.” Revkin cited the Daily News as an example. When asked how he thought the 9/11 health story would end, Revkin told AJR, “I think it’s going to fade away.” Unfortunately, the chronic health problems already measured among those exposed to Ground Zero pollution ensure that this story is going to be with us for years to come.
News outlets certainly shouldn’t be spreading unnecessary panic in the aftermath of disasters. And no doubt there are many differences between the radioactive plume and Ground Zero dust and air. But the Times‘ failure and culpability on 9/11 reporting should have taught it something about official reassurances and role of journalists in questioning them.