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The Ombudsman Column

The Mailbag: Blowing off Steam; Reactive and Radioactive

I usually do not get involved in the Friday night segment of the PBS NewsHour in which columnists Mark Shields and David Brooks provide their analysis and opinions about the week's news events. I don't do opinion, and I'm not starting now.

But a portion of that segment last Friday produced an unexpected amount of heat, rather little light, and a fair amount of letters, several of which are posted below, from viewers startled by the reaction of Shields, in particular. The topic, as raised by senior correspondent Judy Woodruff, was the announcement earlier in the week by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius that, as Woodruff put it, "social service providers have to include contraceptives in their health coverage, whatever a group's religious or ethical views are."

Watch Shields, Brooks on Romney's 'Silver Earplugs' on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.

This is a complicated subject but there was rather little basic information and explanation provided to help the average viewer before diving into an analysis of it. Rather, what many saw was an uncharacteristic emotional response by the normally even-keeled Shields about how "cataclysmic" the fallout would be for the White House and the president. "Really?" a seemingly surprised Woodruff asked. Then Shields — normally an Obama supporter and stating "I say this as a Catholic" — went on a rather emotional tear, claiming the policy was "indefensible." Brooks agreed, but in a more conservative manner.

In the aftermath of the Friday broadcast, almost 200 comments landed on the program's website. And the NewsHour, I think wisely, decided to follow up on Monday evening with a reported segment on the issue with health correspondent Betty Ann Bowser. That helped, but frankly I think further reporting is needed on exactly what is in the new policy, what institutions are exempt, and what it will mean in real terms. Sebelius, perhaps trying to shed more light as controversy grew over the policy, wrote a brief op-ed piece for USATODAY.com on Feb. 6 titled "Contraception rule respects religion."

On that same Feb. 3 program, Brooks said he thought the administration's policy announcement, upsetting many Catholics and evangelicals, was "the most under-reported story of many months." That is proving to be a wise observation. The press coverage and commentary have clearly intensified since the program. And, as it turns out, the case of the exercised columnists may not have been as excessive as it seemed to some at the time. By Tuesday, the Associated Press was reporting hints of a compromise by the White House. Surprise.

The Other Letting Off of Steam

Several of the letters about the Shields and Brooks discussion are next.

But posted below those is a very long exchange about a Frontline documentary on Jan. 17 titled "Nuclear Aftershocks" that examined the broad impact of the earthquake/tsunami-stricken Japanese nuclear facility at Fukushima last year.

The New York Times' blog Dot Earth gave the program a good review, but several viewers wrote to me who were critical of it.

This, also, is not an easy subject and many of the letters were extremely long. I sent a representative few of them to Frontline to get a response and chose one of the more comprehensive critical letters to post in this mailbag, along with the response.

First, About Those Commentators

I have always listened to Mark Shields and David Brooks with their incredible comity discuss issues that split us apart as Democrats and Republicans. In particular, I have always felt that Mr. Shields has one of the most remarkable pundit minds on the current scene. That view had to be revised when I heard Shields declaim in support of the Catholic Church and its Bishops demanding that the Obama administration retract its demand that Catholic health organizations be required to support birth control.

I was raised in the Catholic Church. Their pretense of helping the "poorest of us" always struck me as ludicrous when there was a pompous Pope living in luxury, while he demanded that the poor have as many babies as possible. Contraception is about aiding women in poverty to escape their poor conditions. Mark Shields needs to rethink his position.

Tim Ryan, San Jose, CA

~ ~ ~

I appreciate that Brooks and Shields are supposed to provide balance on hot political issues, but the system did not work on Friday Feb 3 regarding contraception. What a surprise to find that Mark Shields is a fundamentalist Catholic opposed to universal access to birth control. On this issue, you should find someone else to provide balance. Aside from airing his personnel convictions on the matter, he failed to describe accurately the important nuances in the administration's position. This lost PBS some credibility.

Ronald Smith, North Haven, CT

~ ~ ~

Check what Brooks and Shields as well as the moderator said Friday about the HHS rule for insurance coverage for religious organizations. They all parroted what Gingrich has said on the subject: all religious institutions must provide contraceptive counseling etc. PolitiFact has ranked Gingrich's statements mostly untrue because the HHS rule provides an exception for churches (but not for church hospitals and schools with employees of other beliefs). The tone on Friday was that Obama has made a massive, inexplicable mistake (Obama's Waterloo, like Romney etc.). A discussion over whether the exemption should also apply to church-owned schools and hospitals would be enlightening and interesting. The misleading "analysis by Brooks and Shields" on Friday hurt the integrity of the News Hour.

Dan Curll, Alstead, NH

~ ~ ~

I would like to speak out about the conversation between David Brooks and Mark Shields regarding Catholics and the Obama decision and health requirement to provide birth control in insurance . . . give us a break; a long harangue with NO factual data. As a Catholic woman, I'd like PBS to remind that 98% of American women use birth control, including CATHOLICS. Mark was way off base . . . and just wrong about Catholics, and the amount of time was Not at all appropriate. Brooks happily agreed it was so wrong of Obama. I turned you off. First time in 50 years!

Naples, FL

Not for Men Only

Please send this comment to Judy Woodruff and Mark Shields/David Brooks: Yesterday's discussion of the alleged betrayal by Pres. Obama of Catholics was one sided: You should have had a woman, preferably Catholic, in that discussion. Does Mark Shields seriously think that Catholic women don't need (and use) birth control from the employer-based health insurance? 98% of Catholics use birth control! When will this hypocrisy end? Please pass this on to the NewsHour. I don't know how else to contact them.

Helma Lanyi, Washington, DC

~ ~ ~

There is a difference between accepting government funds and then trying to impose special religious standards on the program in question — or simply paying for your own program and then insisting on your special religious ideas. Government has a right to ask for services to be provided without restriction if they pay the bill.

Gwynedd, PA

~ ~ ~

Last evening, both David Brooks and Mark Shields criticized the decision by President Obama to require church-affiliated institutions to provide insurance coverage for contraception, and it concerned me as well. However, today I received an email from Mitch Stewart of BarackObama.com indicating that "There will be an exemption for churches who mainly employ and serve members of their own faith. But to make sure women of all faiths can get the care they need, other religious-based institutions that serve the general public will be included in this new law." In addition he stated that ". . . these rules will also cover the 'conscience clause,' meaning no doctor will be forced to prescribe contraception." With these exemptions, I fully support President Obama's decision and wonder if Mr. Brooks and Mr. Shields were aware of these details at the time of their criticism. Should this information change their opinion, I hope that they comment on this the next time they appear or in some other public manner.

Lois Tigay, Montclair, NJ

A Tough Issue

This is an extremely difficult issue, and in theory we don't want to force anyone to provide a service that they find to be immoral — as a health care professional, I don't want to be in this position. But this issue cannot be discussed with integrity unless one adds two facts: (1) Most Catholic health care facilities receive a lot of government money; and (2) the Catholic health care organizations have become such huge actors in the hospital and health care industries that in some communities there simply are no other health care options available. If we are going to permit the Catholic hospitals to take government money and impose their choices about available health care in these communities, we should not have allowed them to take over so much of the health care delivery sector.

Similarly, there are some towns where women cannot buy plan B at any pharmacy. That leaves poor women being expected to take the bus to the nearest large city the day after they are raped. On one level, you can say that Mr. corner pharmacist shouldn't have to offer a product that they find to be immoral and Komen doesn't have to give $ to planned parenthood. But if either Walgreens, the Catholic Church or Komen have enough of a corner on the market, the prohibition is effective even if not official.

It is possible that Mr. Shields does not agree with this position. Or perhaps he thinks that Catholic hospitals should make this available to patients but not be required to provide it to their employees. Either way, the NewsHour neglected to address the issue of either government funding or whether non-Catholic services are available to the women in those communities. Your neglect of that issue makes this purely a political story and utterly neglects the health care dimension. None of this makes this an easy issue and I understand Mr. Shields' feelings, but he should not be "shielded" from these facts.

Los Angeles, CA

~ ~ ~

I watch your news every night and you do a pretty good job until last night [Feb. 6]. On the mandate for catholic institutions to pay for contraception you neglected to tell the public that any institution can forgo the mandate if it decides to stop taking tax money. Catholic charities received $73 million federal tax dollars in 2011. All the Catholic Church cares about is the money not their church principals.

Michael Teply, Chico, CA

On Frontline and Fukushima

Here's the exchange about "Nuclear Aftershocks." Sorry about the length but stuff about this subject has a long half-life. The first letter is from a viewer in Massachusetts. It is followed by a response from Frontline Managing Editor Phillip Bennett.

A 'Few' Points from a Viewer

Horrible. Unbelievable whitewash. Gigantic public disservice. Just a few key points:

  • Shoddy work from the get-go — there were 5 plants operating at Fukushima Daiichi, not three. (5 and 6 may also be in trouble.) Also not mentioned that Daini, 7 miles away, has plants in trouble.

  • The meltdowns were triggered by the earthquake, not the tsunami; and meltdowns can and do happen by human fault, rather than nature (Three Mile Island, for example).

  • TEPCO knew they had 3 meltdowns almost immediately and covered it up for months. Nuclear officials and experts in the US figured it out pretty quickly as well, and by not publicly contradicting TEPCO and media reports, participated in the cover-up.

  • NOT true that nuke plants are carbon-free; construction, decommissioning, uranium mining, other support activities are energy and carbon intensive.

  • False equivalence made between paid for lies of Giuliani (NOT cheaper, not cleaner) and factual statement of responsible official Andrew Cuomo (siting of the plant was never a good idea in the first place).

  • Opponents of Nuclear are made to seem irrational, fearful. Supporters of nuclear technology are given most of the quality time; there are absolutely no renewable energy experts consulted, and none of the many former nuclear industry experts that want all the nukes shut down.

  • None of the inherent design flaws and dangers of the GE Mark 1 plants are discussed. Nor is it mentioned that an NRC report recommended that they all be shut down in 1972(!). In 1976 three GE engineers actually publicly resigned in protest. "Gregory Minor, Richard B. Hubbard and Dale G. Bridenbaugh resigned from the division of G.E. that built nuclear reactors in 1976, because they believed "nuclear power presented a profound threat to mankind". All three were managing engineers who had spent most of their working life building reactors, and their defection galvanized anti-nuclear groups across the country."

More from the Critic's Corner

  • False impression that the only danger of Indian Point is from an unlikely natural disaster; no mention of the several years it was shut down for egregious safety issues, or the ongoing radiological contamination of groundwater and the Hudson River.

  • There was no mention of the spent fuel tanks left exposed to the air by the explosions, no mention that uranium and plutonium became airborne (and have been detected miles from the plant) no mention that the spent fuel pool in 4 probably caught on fire, no mention that there was a nuclear explosion of Unit 3, no mention that the total radiation released so far into air and water is vastly greater than that of Chernobyl (misleadingly only mentioning that the initial release from one of the plants was only 10% of Chernobyl), no mention that the meltdown and release of radiation has continued all these months.

  • Irradiation is vastly worse than was reported — MUCH MUCH higher than the figures given, and are continuing to increase; Miles completely fails to mention vast amounts of irradiated food stuffs on land and in the sea; in fact, most of the radiation is in the ocean, and has migrated for thousands of square miles. And meanwhile, people are actually dying from radiation poisoning every day in Japan.

  • NOT true that a small increase in radiation has no danger. No amount of radiation is safe, it's cumulative, so more is bad, regardless. Much worse is the false comparison made between external radiation sources (like CAT scans) and internal (ingested or absorbed). IT'S AN OUTRIGHT, EVIL LIE that they are comparable.

  • The publicly announced evacuation zone (20km) was vastly smaller than what government officials and other countries (including the US) were told privately. (The US directed US officials and citizens to move at least 80 km from the plant; we now know that Japan shared data with the US government that it withheld from citizens.)

  • People in Japan are scared because they've been lied to by TEPCO consistently, and because they're increasing getting sick. Lots of workers and citizens have actually died from radiation poisoning, all of this is being hushed up as much as possible (one Japanese radiation specialist recently told a journalist that a woman publicly complaining about radiation sickness (teeth, nails, and hair falling out, skin blistering) was just a problem of women being overly sensitive to stress. A prominent TV personality who ate irradiated food from areas near Fukushima on the air to show it was safe, was subsequently hospitalized with acute leukemia.

  • Also not mentioned — the radiation in the US. Infant mortality in several major US cities has significantly increased as a result. This week it was disclosed (by a Nuke-supporting graduate school) radioactivity in milk in San Francisco has increased from 6 months ago. There is probably severe contamination in Alaska that's being hushed up; dead seals are washing up on shore.

  • The Baseload argument is nonsense, and widely debunked. All forms of power generation, and, more importantly, power consumption, are intermittent to varying degrees.

  • Nuclear plants aren't being built because they make NO ECONOMIC SENSE. The fact that a single accident can have such catastrophic effects is the nail in the coffin.

  • Solar and wind are already cheaper than Nuclear, and are expanding exponentially. Not mentioned in the program is the percentages of power ALREADY gleaned from renewables.

  • Nuclear is only going to get even more expensive, because it requires fuel that we're running out of faster than oil at current rates of consumption. Also not mentioned in the program is that almost half of the US supply will end in a couple of years, and then we'll be competing with China, India, and Russia — the pressure to build new plants is coming in large part from energy companies (and commodities traders) looking to make a killing. There's also considerable pressure to restart nuclear weapons manufacturing in the US to "replace aging nuclear weapons".

Frontline's Managing Editor Phil Bennett Responds:

Thank you for your message regarding "Nuclear Aftershocks," which was forwarded to me by Michael Getler, the PBS ombudsman. I have discussed the many points you raise with Jon Palfreman, the film's producer. Mr. Palfreman presented evidence contesting your claims of errors of fact, and offered some of the following arguments to counter your assertions of inaccurate analysis or sloppy reporting:

  • There is agreement among the principal accident investigations that only three reactors were operating at Fukushima Dai-ichi on March 11 (the other reactors were shut for refueling and maintenance). The IAEA report, for example, says: "Although all off-site power was lost when the earthquake occurred, the automatic systems at TEPCO's Fukushima Dai-ichi successfully inserted all the control rods into its three operational reactors upon detection of the earthquake, and all available emergency diesel generator power systems were in operation, as designed."

  • The claim that "The meltdowns were triggered by the earthquake not the tsunami" is not supported by the reports, which attribute the meltdowns to the loss of emergency back-up power caused by the tsunami. The NRC report, for example, says: "Approximately 40 minutes following the earthquake and shutdown of the operating units, the first large tsunami wave inundated the site followed by multiple additional waves. The estimated height of the tsunami exceeded the site design protection from tsunamis by approximately 8 meters (27 feet). The tsunami resulted in extensive damage to site facilities and a complete loss of ac electrical power at Units 1 through 5, a condition known as station blackout (SBO). Unit 6 retained the function of one of the diesel generators.

  • Despite the actions of the operators following the earthquake and tsunami, cooling was lost to the fuel in the Unit 1 reactor after several hours, the Unit 2 reactor after about 71 hours, and the Unit 3 reactor after about 36 hours, resulting in damage to the nuclear fuel shortly after the loss of cooling."

  • FRONTLINE identified the General Electric Boiling Water Reactor design in a detailed animation. But there is no evidence as yet that the GE design (including the Mark I containment) was responsible for the accident. It turns out that units 1, 2, and 3 had hardened vents that should have vented the hydrogen. But due to power failures this system did not work.

  • The issue of Fukushima Dai-ichi's spent fuel pools turned out to be not as serious as initially thought. Most experts aren't now certain there was a fire in the unit 4 spent fuel pond. The current theory says hydrogen from unit 3, which shared duct work with unit 4, found its way into unit 4 and caused an explosion in that reactor building damaging the spent fuel pool.

  • The estimates that the Fukushima radiological release is about 10% of the Chernobyl release come from the International Atomic Energy Agency. This is a very complicated estimate to make as it depends on different radioisotopes with different half-lives.

  • Since March 2011, radiation has been tracked by many organizations inside and outside Japan. There is no credible evidence that anyone in Japan has died from Fukushima related radiation exposure. There is also no evidence that radiation released in Japan has led to an increase in infant mortality in the US or to dead seals in Alaska.

  • Fukushima's radiological releases caused massive dislocation to the Japanese people, with some losing their homes and others — like fishermen, farmers, and food vendors — having their livelihoods adversely affected. That said, there is no evidence that the radiological releases have been under-reported. The map the viewer encloses (http://jciv.iidj.net/map/) has figures that are in line with the official plume data (http://www.jaif.or.jp/english/). But it's necessary to convert the units for an accurate comparison. The 20 milliSv/yr (thousandths of a sievert per year) evacuation criteria corresponds to 2.28micro Sv/hr (millionths of a sievert/hour) which equals 2283 nanoSv/hr (billionths of a Sievert/hour). To take one example, the map that the viewer encloses measures Iidate Mura Nagadoro Community Center at 4,500 nSv/hr (nanoSv/hour). That is 4.5 µSv/hr (microSv/hour) or about 40 milliSv/yr (above the evacuation threshold). By comparison, the commonly used map of the plume puts the town of Iidate in the 3.8-9.5 microSv/hr zone. So the two maps (and data sets) are quite compatible.

  • It's true that some radiological release ended up in the ocean. This was reported in the FRONTLINE film.

  • Once a nuclear plant is operational, nuclear reactors generate electricity without greenhouse gases and air pollution. It's true that greenhouse gases are generated before and after the plant is operational. But this is equally true for other forms of energy. Coal plants, gas turbines, wind turbines, hydro plants and solar plants, also produce greenhouse gases during mining, fabrication, construction and decommissioning.

  • Regarding the safety record at Indian Point, FRONTLINE was focused on a Fukushima scale accident and concentrated on what we felt were the major safety concerns — seismic preparedness and adequacy of evacuation plans. Indian Point's safety history is not markedly worse than most US reactors.

  • Nuclear energy is not cheap, and the high cost of new reactors ($4-6 billion) is one factor limiting its future. But there is no immediate shortage of uranium in the world. There is an estimated five million tons of naturally occurring recoverable uranium. Even with the loss of the Megatons to Megawatts program, at current usage supplies should last 70 years.