Colorado writer Kristen Iversen has recently published a damning expose of US government malfeasance at the former nuclear weapons plant in Rocky Flats, Colorado. The book was profiled yesterday by Fresh Air on NPR. In a nutshell, the government and the private contractors running the facility completely disregarded the safety of the public, allowing it to seriously contaminate the surrounding area, including the city of Denver, for decades, producing serious public health consequences.
As I listened to this, two things crossed my mind. First : I am never going to Rocky Flats. The plant was closed down in 1989, and they are now going to reopen the place, after a controversial "clean-up", as a wildlife refuge and public park. In fact, I'm going to be wary of visiting Denver from now on. Maybe I'll even stop listening to John Denver songs. No more Country Roads for me.
Secondly, as all this happened during the Cold War, it struck me how differently this has been treated by our media compared to the Soviet Union's environmental record, and how our media treats the world in general.
But before I go into that, let's look at what went on at Rocky Flats.
1.) In 1969, a horrific fire in the plutonium facilities sent a radioactive cloud over the Denver metropolitan area. It is unknown how much radioactive material was released into the atmosphere because the fire destroyed all filters and sensors in the building. The building's roof bubbled and expanded like a marshmallow. Had the roof blown, which it came very close to doing, the incident would have become a Chernobyl scale disaster. That it did not was due to both luck and the brave actions of the firefighters who fought the blaze.
2.) Plutonium particles from the fire were found in elementary schools 12 miles away. Millionths of a gram of plutonium are enough to cause cancer if those micrograms manage to enter the body (through, for instance, inhalation.) The fire left contamination of various levels all throughout the Denver metro area.
3.) From 1959 to 1970, 5000 barrels of radioactive waste were stored in poorly managed, unsafe conditions on site. The bottoms rusted out from many of these, leaking waste into the soil, the water table, and finally the local water supply. Levels of radiation beneath the barrels were found to be 15 million times the level considered safe.
4.) Oh, there was a another big fire in 1957.
5.) The bottom of nearby Stanley Lake is contaminated with plutonium laced sediment. Yet it is still used a a source of drinking water for local communities. The rationale is that as long as the particles aren't stirred up, they won't flow into people's taps, therefore it's safe. The lake is off limits to swimmers, because swimming, you know, moves water around and churns stuff up.
6.) It got so bad that the FBI and EPA raided the plant and shut it down in 1989, but only after four decades of operation.
7.) No-one went to prison. No-one was even indicted. Rockwell, which ran the facility in 1989, was fined $18.5 million, which seems like a lot of money until you consider that that is how much the company was paid that year as a bonus for running the plant.
8.) The grand jury report and all related evidence and exhibits were sealed on national security grounds. The grand jurors were infuriated by the outcome of the legal process, and would very much have liked to have made a great hue and cry over the matter, yet were and are unable to disclose most of what they know because they could be thrown in prison for revealing state secrets.
9.) The author grew up in Rocky Flats. Her family as well as those of her friends and neighbors have long faced abnormally high cancer rates, without any apparent explanation, until all this came to light.
And that's just a taste. The litany of incompetence, cover-ups, and blatant not-giving-a-damn about the public's well being just goes on and on.
Now all that's bad enough. Imagine that this had happened in the Soviet Union. (Or even Russia today, since many of the same stereotypes are being revived.) Just imagine it. Now see how much worse that seems, without my having to say anything else? It seems that way because we're accustomed to hearing about those countries talked about a certain way in our media.
I grew up in the 1980's. And I began paying attention the news in 4th grade. (Yes, I was that kind of kid.) And I remember quite clearly how often the Soviet Union's enviromental record was trotted out, how it was depicted as being very bad, and how that was framed as evidence that their entire system was rotten and corrupt.
Now, I am not an expert in these matters. I do not know whose pollution was worse. But I do very clearly remember the types of abuses that our press documented in their country, and can't help but notice that they're often the exact same ones that our same press documents in ours.
On the one hand, our media says theirs was much worse. That could be true for all I know. On the other hand, there is this 1974 paper from the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management which says otherwise. (Confession, I just now Googled that, as I am not an expert in this field.)
Also, I remember very clearly reading in the 80's that Soviet air pollution then was no worse than American air pollution before the Clean Air Act. (I read that in a mainstream American news source, something along the lines of Time - I wish I had had the foresight to save the reference for twenty years later, but I didn't, so you're going to have to take my word for it.) That's bad, but America before the Clean Air Act is not depicted in our media as a toxic waste dump, in contrast to how they depict the Soviet Union.
I also know quite a few people who grew up in the Soviet Union or in Communist Eastern Europe. Whatever their other complaints, what they have told me doesn't make it sound like they lived in a toxic waste dump.
I am not saying that I would prefer a Soviet system to ours. I rather like actually being able to call a plumber and not having to wait two months for him to show up, and also easily being able to find a restaurant that has decent service. Not to mention that we have decent video games. And the whole democracy thing.
My point is that our media has a massive double standard when reporting on the Soviet Union. Government corruption and malfeasance here is simply a phenomenon, a thing that exists, part of life, and does not reflect poorly on our entire system. The exact same corruption and malfeasance over there is presented as evidence that they generally sucked. The Soviet Union is gone, but when speaking of that past era, the prejudice persists.
And this is important for the present day because our media is still biased against countries and movements that the people who have power in our country don't like, and don't want the rest of us to like.
Big recent example : Libya. Muammar Ghaddafi is consistently presented as a thoroughly evil person with no redeeming qualities. The rebels who overthrew him are usually depicted as the good guys, fighting for human rights.
Our media manages to depict things this way even as they occasionally acknowledge that the rebels frequently murder, torture, and terrorize their political opponents. And this is done in the same way that the USSR was demonized. The other side's faults and atrocities are reported repeatedly and frequently, and the reporting is framed as evidence of their general evil. Our allies' and our own faults and atrocities are only occasionally reported, and when they are reported, they are at the least not taken to be evidence of general wickedness.
And it frequently goes beyond that, as these abuses are often minimized. "Waterboarding" is given a neutral and innocuous name when we use it, and whether it is even torture is a subject of serious debate in our media. Yet the United States and its allies executed Japanese military commanders after World War II for using the exact same technique on Allied servicemen because it was considered a war crime.
All of this is simply a way for people who have power in our country to get everyone to support the policies they want us to support, and when they want to drop the bombs, to fight the battles they want us to fight. It's very similar to what the Soviet Union did, in fact. In their case, the people who had power were essentially the small group of leaders at the top of the Communist Party.
In our case, it is much more diffuse. It's a class of people who have both money and power, whose interests align, rather than a highly visible organization. These include politicians, their rich backers, the rich owners of our media. This is not a conspiracy theory. Rather, it's a statement that people whose material interests align are generally, though not always, going to work towards the same goals in a general way. No central conspiracy is required. And what they want to defend is our system, something which rewards them so richly, from a competing system, the Soviet system. (Again, I'd rather live here than the USSR, but my point still holds.)
And until we recognize this, there will be more Iraqs. There will be more Vietnams. In fact, we may soon be facing a Syria or an Iran. If there is, it will be because people will be duped into going along with it by our media.
It will be because our media can look at Rocky Flats and say (rightfully) that America is not evil, while concluding, in blatant contradiction, that the same abuses show that the Soviet Union was evil. It will be because our media disseminates propaganda. And most of our citizens don't even realize it.