NYT Whitewashes its Japan Error

If you’re having trouble tracking the twists and turns as Japanese workers struggle at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, you’re not alone.

Yesterday, many news outlets incorrectly reported that the skeleton crew had abandoned the site. Today, that mistake was woven into a frightening New York Times piece that described how poor communication by the Japanese government and other responders is hampering a full and accurate public picture of the unfolding emergency.

But in pointing out the error on the part of other news organizations, the Times article carefully avoids admitting they made the same flub themselves:

Yukio Edano, the outspoken chief cabinet secretary, has been one voice of relative clarity. But at times, he has seemed unable to make sense of the fast-evolving crisis. And even he has spoken too ambiguously for foreign news media.

On Wednesday, Mr. Edano told a press conference that radiation levels had spiked because of smoke billowing from Reactor No. 3 at Fukushima Daiichi, and that all staff members would be temporarily moved “to a safe place.” When he did not elaborate, some foreign reporters, perhaps further confused by the English translator from NHK, the national broadcaster, interpreted his remarks as meaning that Tepco staff members were leaving the plant.

From CNN to The Associated Press to Al Jazeera, panicky headlines shouted that the Fukushima Daiichi plant was being abandoned, in stark contrast to the calm maintained by Japanese media, perhaps better at navigating the nuances of the vague comments.

After checking with nuclear regulators and Tepco itself, it emerged that the plant’s staff members had briefly taken cover indoors within the plant, but had in no way abandoned it.

Not good; if the workers had actually abandoned the site, that would imply some very serious things about how bad the situation had gotten, and how slim the chances had become to do much about it.

That’s certainly what I thought when I learned (incorrectly) that the workers had abandoned the facility—not from CNN, The AP, or Al Jazeera—but by reading The New York Times. While they’ve since deleted the offending sentence, a separate report with Wednesday’s date now carries the following correction:

A news alert associated with an earlier version of this article, relying on an English translation of remarks by Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, incorrectly stated that workers had been evacuated from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. A core group of workers remained at the plant.

As far as I can tell, the Times didn’t broadcast this false information in a headline—which, if you look carefully, is what it says the AP, CNN and Al Jazeera did.

So, technically, perhaps the paper isn’t being hypocritical. Just pretty misleading.

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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.