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Thursday, March 17, 2011

On a Blue Moon Science will Bloom

Rare are the days when media stars are taken by surprise. The shows are carefully scripted. This is true not only for drama and comedy, but also for the News. Although news is sent out "live" in some markets, the newsreader is always reciting a script, normally off the prompter. At the very least, the anchor is following a plan that he or she developed earlier in the day.
   So there was Peter Mansbridge of the CBC, talking about Japan and the nuclear industry. That's how he set it up: We know what's happening in Japan; but how will that crisis impact the Canadian nuclear industry? What does Japan suggest for the relationship, between nuclear power and public safety, or pollution, or ecology?
    He said he wanted answers from the CBC's science expert; so onto the set strode Bob McDonald, the lively figure who has been reporting on Science for many years at the CBC. And then Bob took Peter by surprise.
    The first thing McDonald did was reassure the viewers: Those Japanese reactors were old, due to go offline only two weeks before the catastrophe. No other plant in Japan was designed that way. There was essentially nothing to worry about. Mansbridge gaped; he seemed to want McDonald to say more.
    The next thing Bob said was that it was a testament to the good design of reactors that they'd survived the greatest earthquake in Japanese history. The troubles had been due to the tsunami, not the quake. In fact, nuclear energy had a good track record for safety, said Bob. Mansbridge gasped. You could hear him murmur: "And what about...?" 
    No, but McDonald was emphatic: there was no reason to be against nuclear power. Not only was it soundly designed and engineered, it was the safest energy on Earth. You had to look at it scientifically and count up the risks and the rewards.
    At this point, Mansbridge recovered and leaned forward. Out came some objecting noise, not articulate, just a few mutters: "Yes but of course we know that..." and, "However, when we consider, and having seen the news..."  No, said McDonald, Nuclear Power is the safest when scientifically measured; it's safer than burning fossil fuels or any other current energy; it does not contribute to global warming, etc. Mansbridge went pale; one could almost hear the rattle of his dentures.
     Peter Mansbridge is a "rock star" of the TV news. I once heard him lecture to a group of students, students of Journalism. He was onstage to talk about his career and the role of journalists in society.
     Mansbridge made it clear that journalism was exciting, not for writing the reports, but for the influence those reports might have on society. There were many nefarious schemes that Industry was up to; journalists could uncover those. There were many progressive or alternative movements around; journalists could report on those.
    Mansbridge acknowledged that he'd never been to university. In fact, our Peter really does not have an education: his Wikipedia entry says he dropped out of high school in Ottawa. Was it necessary to get an education, somebody asked. Well, replied Peter, education is great, but you really don't need it to become a journalist; experience is everything.
     Off the set went Bob McDonald to prepare his next stint at the CBC. Bob, we really wish you were in charge down there.

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