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Inside The Mushroom Cloud
WE LIVE IN a perceptual crisis. The external parts of our nervous system — primarily the mass media — are delivering signals dangerously out of accord with the real world.
As Donna Woolfolk Cross wrote in her article "Junk-Food Journalism" in the February issue of Penthouse: "Our survival as a species may well depend on the nature of the information we get from the news media."
And as news consultant Frank Magid explains: "It is not surprising . . . that research indicates (TV) ratings rise when the broadcaster is successful in exposing the listener to what he wants to hear . . . In terms of news, this means ratings are improved when listeners are told not what they should know but what they want to hear."
Media critic Edwin Diamond summarizes: "Press-guideline values . . . may work against the basic task of getting at and facing 'the facts.' "
Seymour Hersh is one of the top investigative reporters — if not the top one — in the world today.
Commenting June 19 on the CBC's "Sunday Morning" program on the fact many Americans are scarcely able to believe the facts in his new book on Henry Kissinger — for instance the extent to which former U.S. President Richard Nixon lied to the people — Hersh said it "could not have happened without the kind of press coverage" accorded the White House. And he spoke in the present tense as well as past of the towering problem of media distortion.
While the media are thus self-disabled there is no shortage of those filled with certainty about their worldview and about what is of ultimate significance, those would-be arbiters of what it means to "get back to the basics." (It also happens that most of these voices of certainty are the very voices of the status quo which it is the media's disabled norm to accord greatest play.)
Our synthetic perceptual environment — both created by and lived within by the media — predominates with these voices which in Canada resonate that "our main task is to get this country moving again," that "the most important thing is to restore full employment," that "the private sector must be freed to do its job," that "the key thing is to reduce government waste," that "we have to get government off the backs of the people," "get back to the Three R's," and so on.
Are we in journalism so befuddled by such abstracted concerns that we cannot see (even if we have to do it against the tide of distraction) that the reality most legitimately called "basic" is life? Life and its building blocks: atoms and molecules of elements and compounds making up the sacredly complex web of the ecosystem of which the human species is a part? And that it must follow that the most basic concern of human beings — for our own sake and for the sake of the system, which are in any event the same — must be to preserve life — to survive?
Without life and its support system there is no philosophy (no "meaning of life"), no morality (no "good guys," "bad guys" or any kind of "guys"), no education (no Three R's version or otherwise), no economy (no enterprise — state, private or mixed) and no journalism (good, bad or indifferent).
Physicists are by their general training as scientists and by their particular specialty more likely than most to remember the basics. This may explain why the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists for 37 years has paid attention to the basics. The Bulletin has judged politics and public policy by the degree of threat or assistance they provide to life and its support.
The accompanying piece, "The 'Physics Package,' " comprises edited excerpts from Part 2 of a "weapons tutorial" which appeared in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in January and February of this year. The series was written by Kosta Tsipis, co-director of the Program in Science and Technology for International Security in the Physics Department, MIT, Cambridge, Mass. He also serves on the Bulletin's board of directors.
Just as physicists know most about the nature and scale of destruction that awaits unleashing, so do physicians know most about the effects of assaults on human flesh (and the limits on protecting and regenerating cells, the building blocks of human tissue).
"The Human Package" comprises edited excerpts from an article entitled "Casualties in a Nuclear War" by Prof. Brian F. Habbick of the Department of Pediatrics, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon. 2
Dr. Frank G. Sommers is a lecturer at the Department of Psychiatry at The University of Toronto and founder and president of Physicians for Social Responsibility, Canada. In Nuclear War and Public Health he writes: "In light of the medical realities, to offer to help plan for a post-nuclear war world can be a profoundly unethical act," and "Physicians of whatever background as they practice their new specialty — preventing nuclear war — are living up to the most noble aspect of their calling: the preservation of life. This, truly, is a medical issue."
Can it be a journalism issue any less?
2Melded in are excerpts from three other sources, primarily an article by Prof. V. L. Matthews, head of the Department of Social and Preventive Medicine at the same university.
Another excerpt is from an article by Prof. Donald G. Bates of the Department of Humanities and Social Studies in Medicine, McGill University, Montreal.
Finally, a short quotation, as noted in the text, is by Dr. Helen Caldicott, of Physicians for Social Responsibility, from a talk she gave at the Riverside Church in New York City in November 1981.
The articles by Professors Habbick, Matthews and Bates appear in Nuclear War and Public Health, reprinted for Physicians for Social Responsibility by The Canadian Journal of Public Health, official publication of the Canadian Public Health Association (Vol. 74, No. 1, 1983).
Any mistakes of omission or emphasis are mine. — B.Z.
Published in Sources Summer 1983