News Zero: The New York Times and the Bomb
By Beverly Ann Deepe Keever
Common Courage Press
Reviewed by Karl Grossman
The New York Times has for decades downplayed—indeed suppressed—the dangers of radioactivity, according to an exhaustive study by a professor of journalism at the University of Hawaii.
Beverly Ann Deepe Keever is a former reporter (and Vietnam correspondent) for outlets like the New York Herald Tribune, Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. Her book News Zero: The New York Times and The Bomb, just published by Common Courage Press, begins with the birth of the nuclear age—and finds that distortion and suppression of nuclear information by the Times started then.
"From the dawn of the atomic-bomb age," writes Keever, "[William L.] Laurence and the Times almost single-handedly shaped the news of this epoch and helped birth the acceptance of the most destructive force ever created."
Laurence, the Times' science reporter, was the granddaddy of embedded reporters—and then some. He was actually an employee of the Manhattan Project, the World War II crash program to build an atomic bomb; while working for the government, Keever relates, he remained on the Times payroll, his weekly salary from the Times going to his wife while he was also paid by the government.
The arrangement was made by the Manhattan Project's head, Gen. Leslie Groves, with Times publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger and managing editor Edwin James. "To sell the bomb, the U.S. government needed the Times...and the Times willingly obliged," Keever relates. It was "hardly the nation's biggest newspaper then," but its readers were influential: "Government officials handpicked the Times because of the quality of its readers."
At the Manhattan Project, Laurence participated in "the government's cover- up of the super-secret Trinity shot." Held a month before the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Trinity test was the world's first nuclear explosion.
There was concern about public inquiry over the explosion that lit up the New Mexico night sky, so Laurence prepared press releases to "disguise the detonation and resulting radiation." The "fake news" distributed as a "cover story" was a release Laurence wrote claiming there had been a "jumbo detonation of an ammunition magazine filled with high explosives at the 2,000–square mile Alamogordo Air Base."
He didn't stop with this deception. After the bombs fell on Japan, the Times ran (9/26/45-10/5/45) and then "on behalf of the government" distributed free to newspapers across the country a 10-part series Laurence readied while at the Manhattan Project that glorified the making of the atomic bombs and all but ignored the dangers of radioactivity.
Laurence's avid pro-nuclear writings continued when he returned to the Times and, Keever finds, this became an institutional stance. The Times "became little more than a propaganda outlet for the U.S. government in its drive to cover up the dangers of immediate radiation and future radioactivity emanating from the use and testing of nuclear weapons."
The paper tolerated or aided the U.S. government's Cold War cover-up that resulted in minimizing or denying the health and environmental effects arising from the use in Japan and later testing of the most destructive weaponry in U.S. history in Pacific Islands once called paradise. . . . The Times aided the U.S. government in keeping in the dark thousands of U.S. servicemen, production workers and miners, even civil defense officials, Pacific Islanders and others worldwide about the dangers of radiation.
Another Times writer who participated in the pro-nuclear spin was military editor Hanson Baldwin. "In editorials and articles, the Times clearly favored Operation Crossroads," a major nuclear test in the Pacific, and when President Harry S. Truman "postponed the first scheduled dates for the test, Baldwin wrote that 'well-meaning but muddled persons, in and out of Congress, are proposing the permanent cancellation of the tests."
The atomic dysfunction of what was becoming the U.S. paper of record continued unceasingly. The nuclear testing–caused tragedy "from 1947 to 1991 unfolding in the faraway Marshall Islands," for instance, was "largely untold by the Times."
"A huge outcry followed the revelation of a breach of reporting ethics by a single individual when the Times in mid-2003 exposed the plagiarism and fraud committed" by Jayson Blair, notes Keever, "yet the issues raised" by her research "are far more pervasive and more importantly condoned and institutionalized as part of media management policies and practices. This investigation serves as a wake-up call for journalists of today and tomorrow."
Karl Grossman, the author of Cover Up: What You Are Not Supposed to Know About Nuclear Power, is the host of TV programs on nuclear technology for EnviroVideo (www.envirovideo.com) and a professor of journalism at SUNY/College at Old Westbury.