3. The Role of Media in Covering Nuclear Weapons Accidents

    Given the possible catastrophic consequences of such early warning errors and potential catastrophic accidents, it is reasonable to assume that such mishaps would have attracted worldwide attention.  However, as with dozens of other historical nuclear weapons accidents and errors, they were not widely reported by the media, and went largely ignored by the general public.

          Ignoring these facts can be dangerous.  One personal example began in a restaurant in Iowa City, Iowa in 1975. I was having a conversation with a friend concerning issues of nuclear weapons and the possibility that they might be plagued with mechanical failures or computer glitches.  A young fellow sitting next to us leaned over and said, "Do you really want to know how those things work?" 

          I obviously asked him to join us.  He told us he had served four years as a launch technician on one of the Titan missiles deployed at an Air Force base near Tucson, Arizona. I made arrangements for him to come to my apartment the next morning to talk more. I asked him several questions about his work, including my concern about the possibility that Titan missiles were subject to malfunctions of various kinds. 

          The man told me that one of his biggest concerns was the strong possibility that Titans, even when not activated, would explode in their silos.  He said that a red gaseous substance that powered the missiles, which his fellow airmen referred to as “Big Mother Fucking Red” (BMFR), often leaked and spewed from pipes that were part of the missiles launch system.  He also said that the gas was of considerable concern to some of the officers and enlisted personnel who were in charge of the missiles.

          After talking with the man on another occasion, I asked if he would be willing to discuss the possibility that a Titan might explode to a newspaper reporter.  He said yes, so I placed a call to a well-known journalist named Marquis Childs, whom I thought might be interested in doing a story. When Mr. Childs and I talked, he expressed interest in doing an interview with the man.  The arrangements were made and the interview took place.  Following the interview, Childs and I had a conversation in which he told me he would likely do a story, but he needed to check with some of his military sources.  After doing so, he said later that he had decided to not do the story.

          It was truly unfortunate that Childs decided not to do the story.  On August 26, 1978, at a Titan II nuclear weapons base near Wichita, Kansas, one man was killed and six injured when deadly fumes leaked from an intercontinental ballistic missile while it was being filled with the BMFR propellant. When the accident was reported, the gas was still leaking, forcing the evacuation of residents of Rock, Kansas.[1]     

          A second Titan II accident occurred on September 19, 1980, at Titan II Launch Complex near Dasmascus, Arkansas. It was the site of "the most highly publicized disaster in the history of the Titan II missile program.”  An airman was killed, 21 more were injured, and the complex was destroyed at an estimated cost of nearly $250 million.

          The disaster started when a serviceman dropped a wrench 80 feet onto the rocket, causing a leak of the BMFR gas from the first-stage fuel tank.  Within hours, nearby civilians were evacuated.  About 12 hours after the leak began, the missile exploded, blowing the 740-ton launch duct closure door 200 feet into the air and some 600 feet from the launch complex.  The nuclear warhead landed about 100 feet from the launch complex's entry gate.  Fortunately, its safety features operated correctly and prevented any loss of radioactive material.[2]

          The Titan II explosions are examples in which journalists and others failed to fully take into account ideas and reports of individuals who do not hold a high status in an organization or society.  In the case of the Titan whistleblower’s story being scraped, it is likely that the word of a high-ranking officer (to whom the actual workings of a missile were probably abstractions) was believed, rather than that of a low-ranking enlisted man with first-hand knowledge of their danger. Marquis Childs may have sought the view of a Pentagon insider, who I can easily imagine assured him there was really nothing to worry about, or, he may have just flatly discounted the warning.  Either way, two tragedies occurred after the story could have run.  It is unclear, and unlikely, that the story would have prevented the tragedies, but it is likely that perceived "high official" opinion trumped that of an on-line technician who clearly knew what he was talking about.

            Unfortunately, this scenario plays out untold times, as one of the most consistently replicated findings of research in American journalism is the dependence of professional journalists on government sources. These sources dominate news coverage because their statements are assumed to be authoritative and newsworthy, thereby giving the same perception to the story itself.[3] This has particularly been the case with National Security and nuclear weapons issues starting with the Cold War.[4] Following the National Security Act of 1948, secrecy and closed, elite decision making developed along with the vast expansion of military and intelligence bureaucracies.  This system has largely shut out media, except through routine channels, such as press conferences, press officers and government spokespeople.  Often times, for fear of organizational reprisal, sources outside of these channels only speak on condition of anonymity.

          Some researchers argue that reliance on routine channels and contacts initiated by officials results in stories that are often echo-chambers of government, while nongovernmental sources, or low-status government sources, rarely have the power to initiate stories. These factors combine in the larger social structure to narrow social discourse, making media agents of social control.

          With the development and evolution of the Internet, some long held assumptions of accepted journalism practice are being challenged. Weblogs and blogging have developed entirely within the context of the Internet, rather than a lot of other on-line news, which is largely print-style adapted to the Internet platform.  Blogs pose a challenge to journalistic authority and force professional journalists to renegotiate their roles as providers of authoritative political news.[5]  On the Internet, most anyone with access can make a claim to knowledge.  This challenges professional journalists to distinguish their work from that of others.  Just how this distinction will emerge has yet to be fully explored.

          The topic is interesting grounds for observing the clash over who should have a right to speak in the political process and where those voices are currently given access.  One recent opportunity to study the question began on August 29, 2007, when six nuclear warheads were flown under the wing of a B-52 Stratofortress from Minot Air Base in North Dakota to Barksdale Air Base in Louisiana. This was the first known flight by a nuclear-armed bomber over U.S. airspace without authorization in 40 years.[6] Accidents involving nuclear weapons have occurred in the past, but never in history has a nuclear weapon been loaded onto a plane without authorization.  Effectively, for 36 hours, the location and condition of six of the world's most dangerous weapons were unknown.

          The incident triggered a “Bent Spear” nuclear incident report that went straight to Defense Secretary Robert Gates and President George W. Bush. Gates immediately ordered a service-wide stand down of all nuclear weapons until an inventory and investigation was conducted, The investigation eventually led to the discipline of 70 service people, including firing Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne and Minot Base Commander Bruce Emig.

          Talking during a press conference, Gates said the military was doing its best to reduce the chances of another such incident "to the lowest level humanly possible." But it "would be silly" to promise it won't happen again.”[7]  Clearly, Gates understands Murphy’s Law.

          The incident had to be either a potentially atomic explosion-level blunder or the service personnel responsible were operating under direct orders from outside the conventionally recognized chain of command.  It is not clear which option is less troubling, but either option presents a good argument for the abolition of nuclear weapons.

          News of the event did not surface until a week later, when the Military Times first reported the story.  The facts of the case were leaked by three unnamed airmen.[8] Adding to the strangeness of the incident, the initial story reported five warheads were involved, while a follow-up reported six. Shortly thereafter, Internet sites connected a number of 'accidental' deaths of Minot service people during the week of August 29 to the transfer incident.[9]

          A content analysis was conducted with 23 newspaper, 20 wire service, and 17 weblog stories on the incident to test how these media platforms covered the incident differently. Out of 353 citations from wires and newspapers on the topic, not one raised the possibility of the incident being a deliberate action.  This strengthens the notion that traditional media is dismissive of alternate accounts, as these reports wholly ignored alternate accounts.   Instead, 236 of these citations were related to the incident being an accident, reinforcing the official story from the Air Force.  Alternatively, blog stories only included 38 accident citations, but included 28 citations for a deliberate action.

           The traditional media platforms of newspapers and wire services were found to include statist sources, primarily from the military, more frequently than blogs. Meanwhile, non-government sourcing for the traditional platforms was miniscule.  Only 24 citations came from a non-government source, of these, 18 were from the same person, Hans Christensen, from the Federation of American Scientists.

          The results of this analysis shows that the traditional media dramatically limited the spectrum of acceptable discourse on the incident and squeezed out additional voices that could have contributed to a more complete view.  One specific example of a left out category of sourcing was service people whose job was to load nuclear weapons, either current or retired. The blogosphere was shown to include more voices and had a wider spectrum of discourse.   Some blogosphere stories did include this disregarded category, of which, the sources repudiated the plausibility of the official story. 

          The results also show that traditional media relied almost exclusively on the Air Force itself for the authoritative account of the event, and failed to provide probing questions to some rather troubling holes in the official story.  Follow-up reporting reinforced this account by focusing almost exclusively on the pentagon’s investigations, but did not make the effort of finding corroborating or contradicting evidence outside of high officials and spokespeople.

          Stories from bloggers had a more critical tone and included more non-statist voices.  They were willing to entertain the possibility, and ask questions about, alternative explanations of the event. 

          A free society depends on a free media to provide accurate contextualized information to help citizens make well-informed decisions.  This and other media studies demonstrate that traditional media is not properly serving this function.  While the blogosphere is growing rapidly in both size and influence, bloggers still do not have the economic or institutional resources to leverage answers from a closed governmental information system.  Therefore, bloggers and the community at large still remain dependent on professional media to gain this access.

    Journalists and "citizen" journalists alike must reverse this trend of dependence and naive acceptance of high officials who perpetuate illogical and unsafe nuclear weapons systems.  Journalists of all types must be more critical of these statements and balance their perspective with additional sources.


[1] Beitler, S. (2009, July 20). Rock, KS missile silo accident, Aug 1978. UPI. Retrieved from: http://www3.gendisasters.com/kansas/13357/rock-ks-missile-silo-accident-aug-1978

[2] Christ, M.K. (2007, February 7). Titan II missile explosion. The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. Retrieved from: http://www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net/encyclopedia/entry-detail.aspx?search=1&entryID=2543

[3] Gans, H. (1979). Deciding What’s News. NY: Pantheon.; Soley, L. (1989). The News Shapers: The Individuals Who Explain the News. Minneapolis, MN: School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

[4] Meyer, D. (1995, April). Framing National Security: Elite public discourse on nuclear weapons during the Cold War. Political Communication, 12(2), 173-192.

[5] Carlson, M. (2007). Blogs and journalistic authority. Journalism Studies 8(2): 264–279.

[6] Warrick, J., & Pincus, W. (2007, September 23) Missteps in the bunker. The Washington Post. p. A1.

[7] Nuclear safety: Air Force to dismiss officers responsible for armed missile flight. (2007, October 19). Greenwire, Security Vol. 10 No. 9.

[8] Hoffman, M. (2007, Sept. 5). B-52 mistakenly flies with nukes aboard. The Military Times. Retrieved from: http://www.armytimes.com/news/2007/09/marine_nuclear_B52_070904w/

[9] Nazemroaya, M.D. (2007, Oct. 29). Missing nukes: Treason of the highest order. Retrieved from: http://globalresearch.ca/PrintArticle.php?articleId=7158