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Soviet Secrecy Blamed for Exaggerated American Reports on Chernobyl Disaster

May 10, 1986|THOMAS B. ROSENSTIEL | Times Staff Writer

Soviet authorities have provided more information in recent days about the catastrophe at the Chernobyl nuclear plant, but they also have intensified their charges that the American media and government were creating a "propaganda cloud" of exaggeration around the accident. Are the accusations valid?

Although precise details of the Chernobyl disaster may never be made public, it does seem that some estimates by officials and others quoted in American news reports of death tolls, of a possible meltdown at a second reactor at Chernobyl, and of other details were exaggerated.

Most observers believe the Soviet Union bears the blame because it tried to restrict information about a disaster whose effects, in the end, it could not control.

This secrecy, past and present, led some journalists and officials to suspect Soviet accounts of the accident, even though new evidence suggests that parts of the Soviet accounts--though scanty and late--may have been more plausible than first thought.

Clash of Cultures

The fundamental problem of covering the news of Chernobyl is the clash of a closed Soviet society and an open Western culture during an incident of paramount concern to both.

"If the Soviets have any complaints, they have only themselves to blame," said Arnold Horelick, director of the Rand-UCLA Center for the Study of Soviet International Behavior.

On the other hand, said David Rubin, director of the New York University Center for War, Peace and the News Media: "We don't have much doubt that some of the press in our country reported the accident with a certain amount of glee . . . and antagonism toward the Soviet Union."

Probably the worst example of exaggeration was a May 2 headline in the New York Post, which said: "Late Word From Inside Russia: Mass Grave for 15,000 N-Victims." Most of the press was more restrained.

UPI Criticized

The two most significant cases that critics considers excesses involved a report of 2,000 deaths carried by United Press International, and a report from a Pentagon official about a meltdown at a second nuclear reactor at Chernobyl.

On April 29, the day after disclosure of the disaster, UPI quoted an unidentified resident of Kiev as saying 2,000 had died. That same day, Soviet authorities in Moscow reported two dead.

David Cohen, press secretary for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which set up an American task force to monitor the disaster, said that UPI's 2,000 figure was "clearly erroneous. . . .

"We were briefed in an internal task force meeting by U.S. intelligence officials that there was absolutely no reason to dismiss the Russian claim that only two were dead," Cohen said.

AP Avoided Figure

Most news agencies handled the 2,000 report as uncorroborated and speculative, giving the Soviet official estimates more prominence. The Associated Press did not use the 2,000 figure at all.

But some American officials were quick to dismiss the Soviet numbers as dishonest, lending credibility to the 2,000 number. Kenneth L. Adelman, director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency told a Senate committee in Washington that the Soviet casualty claim was "preposterous," and his remarks were heavily quoted.

Secretary of State George P. Shultz also said he would bet money that more than two died in the first few days of the Soviet accident.

Privately, one U.S. official said that Adelman had no special information on which to base his statement. "He was just Red-bashing," said the official, requesting anonymity.

No Adelman Comment

Adelman and his staff did not return phone calls made to ask for their comments for this story.

UPI Foreign Editor Sylvana Foa said that, based on subsequent information from the Soviets, it was quite plausible that 2,000 people died within four days after the accident.

More confusion developed on Wednesday, April 30, when a Pentagon official told news agency reporters that satellite photographs suggested a meltdown had occurred in a second reactor at Chernobyl.

Cohen of the EPA said that U.S. officials knew "very quickly" that the report was erroneous and that Pentagon officials later in the day began to tone down the account.

But on Thursday, May 1, newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, reported the account of problems at a second reactor on their front pages, including the later softening of the report. The story quickly vanished the next day when it appeared to be incorrect.

'Anti-Soviet Bias' Seen

Rubin of the NYU Center for War, Peace and the News Media said he believes American officials and media were quick to disbelieve anything the Soviets said, in part because of "anti-Soviet bias," a stereotype of the Soviet authorities as devious and dishonest.

But many journalists say they have good reason to doubt Soviet veracity, despite assurances by the EPA task force that the Soviet account, however scant, could be accurate.

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