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The Media and Civil Defence
By Barrie Zwicker
"FINDING SHELTER from the Bomb" was the essentially misleading headline on page B8 of The Toronto Star on June 25.
The Star, as a paper, has done more than any other Canadian daily to give the danger of nuclear war the visibility it deserves, so this is not to criticize the paper in general.
But this particular story, by Jack Cahill, echoes for the most part the emphasis, and creates the tone that Canadian "emergency preparedness" planners want.
The main emphasis is that a nuclear war is essentially an "emergency" that can be "managed." The tone is one of reassurance. Facts about nuclear explosions known to atomic scientists (see, for instance, "The 'Physics Package' " elsewhere in this issue) are downplayed or absent in the talk of the "emergency planners."
The entering assumptions of the planners are debatable in the extreme. One is that a nuclear war would follow a deterioration period of at least 30 days between the nuclear superpowers. The two planners quoted, Frank Jewsbury, chief of plans for Ottawa's directory of emergency preparedness and Bill Snarr, head of Emergency Planning Canada, are quoted by Cahill as saying shelters would be "of tremendous value" even in the "worst possible scenario, in which a bomb is detonated directly over a Canadian city."
It appears that Canadian civil defence officials are taking the same line as their American counterparts. Insofar as they are, and insofar as the media transmit that line uncritically, they are joined in a potentially incinerating deception of the public.
Consider an analysis of the theories, plans and publicity of the American counterpart of Emergency Planning Canada.
South of the border (a border irrelevant to radioactive clouds) the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has been granted increased powers and funding by the Reagan administration. FEMA is launching an extensive public "education" campaign which includes providing all newspapers in the United States with camera-ready articles "describing all aspects of evacuation and shelter." These "are to be printed during a 'crisis-buildup' period."
The minds of the young in the United States are to be reached by FEMA through a "curriculum on emergency management, divided into four sections according to grade levels." This curriculum was pilot-tested in 22 states in 1982.
"An incomplete and optimistic assessment pervades this curriculum," write Jennifer Leaning and Matthew Leighton in a special 16-page supplement to the June-July issue of Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. "In the list of suggested readings there is no reference to The Effects of Nuclear War by the Office of Technology Assessment or the report of the UN Secretary General, Nuclear Weapons. Nuclear war is presented as one more in a series of manageable disasters, along with earthquakes, floods, toxic spills and hurricanes." (Leaning is an emergency physician and internist in the Boston area and co-editor of the forthcoming The Counterfeit Ark: Crisis Relocation and Nuclear War. Leighton is a city planner and staff researcher at the Traprock Peace Centre in Deerfield, Mass.)
The supplement's three analyses of FEMA show that
Reagan's appointees are proceeding under the following assumptions:
Here are some of this network's claims:
Why is the Reagan administration — with our Canadian authorities apparently following in their familiar bowed stance of obeisance — trying to fool the public to this extent?
It is because everything — paradoxically including the very society ostensibly protected — is incidental to the Cold War ideology through which the White House sees the universe. Lest this be considered ungracious rhetoric, ponder the objectives of the U.S. civil defence program, as defined by President Carter in Presidential Directive 41 and then revised by President Reagan in March 1982. Those objectives are to:
The American public, note, is mentioned only in the third part, and then as incidental (or central, take your pick) to the nuclearist abstractions which the Reagan administration takes for reality.
A question remains. Wouldn't a civil defence plan actually save at least a few lives, and therefore be worthwhile?
John Lamperti responds to this question in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists special supplement on FEMA. "The life-saving, humanitarian argument would be entirely appropriate," Lamperti writes, "if we were preparing for a natural catastrophe . . . But a nuclear attack is not a natural disaster. Whether nuclear weapons are used depends on human acts, judgment and perceptions. Any sort of large-scale preparations for nuclear war, including civil defence, will have an effect on the chance that there will be a war . . ."
In other words, civil defence activities actually place people in greater danger, increasing the very risk of nuclear war while giving the public a false notion they can survive it. This is a wide garden path indeed.
Consider a scenario put forward by Lamperti. An international crisis develops. The United States puts its massive evacuation program into effect. Then no attack takes place. Days and weeks pass with the crisis unresolved. Millions of Americans are living under conditions of great discomfort. The economy is almost at a standstill, food supplies are short and discontent and confusion become widespread.
"Will we decide," Lamperti asks, "to endure these conditions as weeks become months? Will we end the evacuation and return to our homes while the danger of war continues? Or will some of our leaders feel that matters must be resolved quickly; that a showdown would be preferable to continuing the stresses of relocation?
"It is at least possible," Lamperti, a mathematics professor at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, argues moderately, "that the crisis would be less stable with evacuation than without it, and so the danger of nuclear war could be increased."
Large numbers of physicians are declaring that it is unethical for them to participate in any planning regarding nuclear holocaust. Their reasoning is similar to Lamperti's. Such preparation both deceives the public and increases the risk of the event.
There are at least three areas of ethical implication for journalists and media managers in the current drift in civil defence planning.
First, how ethically bound are journalists to acquaint themselves in more depth on the civil defence issue? If for no other reason than to be ready should a big peg come along?
Second, how big should the issue be played now? Is it as important as the deaths of the babies at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, for instance? Less important? More important? How do media managers decide?
Third, to what extent should the media acquiesce in the thinking of the authorities? To what extent do journalistic ethics require investigation of the thinking of the authorities? Whose welfare is at stake? To what extent are the media the public's detectives and to what extent the state's messengers? How should the notion of "national security" be considered in dealing with these questions?
One role is already clearly envisioned for the media by the authorities. "Emergency preparedness" planner Jewsbury told The Toronto Star's Cahill that a new system to warn the populace of impending nuclear attack "will use TV and radio channels." In one of the proposed electronic systems, given the cuddly acronym CHAT (for Crisis Home Alerting Technique) "radio and TV sets will utter a loud screech if left on low volume during 'quiet' hours," Cahill wrote, "and this will be followed by an informative message."
The time for informative messages about the threat of nuclear war is now. As the lead editorial in the summer edition of Media Development (the quarterly journal of the World Association of Christian Communication) began: "War is the ultimate failure of public communication; peace is its ultimate aim."
It's a life-and-death matter that our radio and TV channels, and our newspapers and magazines, bring us now a great deal of important — even if unwelcome — information about just how deep the needle has gone into the red zone.
Personally, should the screech come, I'm not going to listen to an "informative message" from my local TV station. I'm going to curse it for not having done more to avoid the calamity that will then be much too late to stop.
Published in Sources Summer 1983