A New Mexico climatologist's forecast of a 50-50 possibility of calamitous earthquakes in early December, including one from our own Wasatch Fault, has drawn considerable press attention and upset a lot of people.
The Deseret News featured the story on page one in August, then a follow-up story about the report of a group of quake experts last week on an inside page under the headline, "Quake forecast has no basis.""Quake" is one of those hot-button words here, generating intense interest, and quake stories are frequent. This year alone, the Deseret News has used an astounding number - 138 stories either about quakes or mentioning them.
For that reason, and because the disaster pieces always make great copy, the use of the story was understandable. Also the predictor was no mere kook but a scientist with a plausible theory about the effect of tidal forces. Some people credit him with having foreseen the San Francisco earthquake of Oct. 17, 1989.
- THE STORY'S PROMINENT play, however, gave the prediction an unwarranted believability. The lead paragraph also was lurid, "Hundreds of Utahns will be killed, injured and left homeless Dec. 2 and 3 if the projection of a New Mexico climatologist comes true." Farther down, happily, the story essentially knocked the props out from under the forecast by quoting quake experts to the effect that while a quake here is certain in the indefinite future, no one can yet predict dates.
According to national press reports, the reassurances of quake experts who are far more credible than the prognosticator (they found the predictions "hokum - no better than throwing darts at a calendar") haven't been enough to calm the nervous folks in the Midwest. There it focuses on the New Madrid fault, which slices through seven states. According to one report, some school districts will cancel classes and many Midwesterners are planning December trips.
Predictions of gloom are commonplace. When I was a small child I was scared half out of my wits by radio reports of one before I was calmed down by the adults around me, who found the prediction silly.
- SOOTHSAYERS STILL intrigue a straight-faced press, and not just those that lead to mental epidemics or overt responses like the setting up of doomsday communes. And not just the supermarket press, which dotes on mysticism and the occult and predictions by such seers as Jeanne Dixon.
When I was living in Northern California, in the 1950s, I was appalled to see the rather unsophisticated Eureka newspapers give generous attention to a mystic who predicted widespread cataclysm on a specific December date. She foresaw, among other disasters, a horrendous quake that would literally split the nation along the Mississippi. On the predicted day, the local daily ran a page one story under the headline, "Today Is It."
- AS IT HAPPENED, we had a pretty sharp tremor up there that very day, of 5.6 Richter magnitude, which was followed by some disquieting rumbling aftershocks. It shook up people literally and, because of the bogus prediction, emotionally as well. Of course the mystic pointed to the California quake as proof of her prescience.
To the extent that they alerted us to the very real dangers and help us prepare for them, earthquake stories can do a great service, but they ought not to stir up unwarranted and exaggerated fears.
The late Curtis MacDougall, whom I often quote as an expert on hoaxes and popular delusions, wrote that "rather than decreasing the tendency toward gullibility, the scientific advancement of the past century has had exactly the opposite effect upon many. The `impossible' has happened so many times . . . that who would doubt it could happen again.
"Today reputable editors and their readers must be vigilant to avoid being taken in by . . . premonitions and all sorts of tall tales and rumors."
More sensitivity, please
On "Morning Edition" last Wednesday, Cokie Roberts, National Public Radio's legislative correspondent, remarked that some Republican congressmen who had gone home to campaign rather than stay in Washington for the critical budget deliberations went "off the reservation."
A listener telephoned, objecting to the phrase as racist, that is, as an affront that suggested Native Americans should be cooped up on the reservation.
NPR swiftly apologized on the same program.
I'll bet that Roberts meant no slur, but simply reached into her hip-pocket for a bright metaphor that once had been widely accepted and considered innocent. Nowadays, however, media people need special sensitivity to the concerns of the many groups that are struggling upward from slavery or degradation and toward social parity. Those groups are quick to object to perceived put-downs. Most media, fortunately, make amends.
Minorities can be forgiving when offenders apologize.
After Veterans Affairs Secretary Edward Derwinski said last month that he had been "very dumb" in making racist statements about Hispanics (he used the term "wetbacks"), the response was charitable. A spokesman for LaRaza, a Hispanic coalition, said Derwinski "just made an unfortunate remark . . . indicative of the kind of insensitivity that is all too prevalent."
A politician in Derwinski's hometown of Chicago said:
"We're all going through a process of becoming a lot more sensitive of what other minorities consider their stereotypes. The process of slipping and apologizing is very healthy. It's the stretch mark of this new age we're birthing."