NYT Radiation Reassurance: Ground Zero Deja Vu

The New York Timesreassuring 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:

“Radiation Over U.S. Is Harmless, Officials Say” (3/22/11)

“Workers and Residents Are Safe, Officials Say”

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 (1â┚¬“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.

About Julie Hollar

Managing Editor of Extra! Magazine
Julie Hollar is the managing editor of FAIR's magazine, Extra!. Her work received an award from Project Censored in 2005, and she has been interviewed by such media outlets as the Los Angeles Times, Agence France-Presse and the San Francisco Chronicle. A graduate of Rice University, she has written for the Texas Observer and coordinated communications and activism at the Lesbian/Gay Rights Lobby of Texas. Hollar also co-directed the 2006 documentary Boy I Am and was previously active in the Paper Tiger Television collective.