James McPherson's Media & Politics Blog

Observations of a patriotic progressive historian, media critic & former journalist


  • By the author of The Conservative Resurgence and the Press: The Media’s Role in the Rise of the Right and of Journalism at the End of the American Century, 1965-Present. A former journalist with a Ph.D. in journalism, history and political science, McPherson is a past president of the American Journalism Historians Association and a board member for the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media.

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Asteroid nearly wipes out Earth, international space station threatened, San Diego nearly destroyed in nuclear meltdown

Posted by James McPherson on March 12, 2009

In a “rare close call,” the crew of the international space station was forced to take cover today because space junk “about the size of a bullet” passed within three miles of the station.

Three miles? Excuse me, but if a tiny object three miles away forces astronauts to hide out in their spaceship, those folks better avoid driving in Los Angeles where real bullets might be flying within three miles at any time of day or night.

Assuming Los Angeles is still there when they get back, of course: Another story recently ominously warned about a helicopter that crashed near a California nuclear plant, leaving us to conclude that perhaps the state narrowly avoided being wiped out in a catastrophic crash-caused meltdown (not to mention the possible energy ramifications, since the plant apparently provides power for 1.5 million homes).

Both cases illustrate that “close” is a relative thing, but that the extra emotion inherent in a supposed “near miss” provides more drama and therefore makes something more “newsworthy.” Another example came just over a week ago, when an asteroid passed “close to Earth.” Close in that case meant 38,000 miles, “less than twice the height of the geostationary satellites we depend on for communications.”

With “communications” like these stories, perhaps it wouldn’t be entirely a bad thing if a meteor wiped out a satellite or two. In yet another example, a year ago, other space junk “narrowly missed–by five miles–an airliner flying over the Pacific. Maybe that’s how the people on “Lost” ended up on that island.

Note: I’ve updated my post of a couple of days ago, adding a video.

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12 Responses to “Asteroid nearly wipes out Earth, international space station threatened, San Diego nearly destroyed in nuclear meltdown”

  1. Bob said

    3 miles is VERY close in outer space. Maybe you should stick to politics.

  2. James McPherson said

    Very close compared to what? The vastness of space? The distance from Earth to the Moon, or even from New York to Los Angeles?

    I’ll grant you that three miles is not much in space (though if a spacewalking astronaut comes untethered and a rescue shuttle misses him by three miles, I suspect he’ll think it’s quite a long distance), and in truth I don’t blame the astronauts for being cautious. My bigger point is that the news media regularly inflate the relative danger (and I think you’ll agree that even in this case the danger was remote) for the sake of making stories more emotionally enticing. Thanks for the comment.

  3. Grady Locklear said

    Space debris is very, very serious. From what I understand, everything in orbit the size of a bottle cap and up is monitored. That’s because those things are traveling extraordinarily fast and will essentially destroy any man-made craft they hit. I have to agree with Bob here.

    I think the closeness sometimes corresponds with the magnitude of the calamity so narrowly avoided 🙂

  4. Gabrielle said

    I DISAGREE with Bob that Jim should stick to politics. I like the not necessarily politically oriented posts. Like the Barbie one. Or the octopus one. 😀

  5. James McPherson said

    Thanks, all. I did wonder a bit, if the the “space bullet” was so threatening because it was within three miles, why the “escape module” would be any safer than the station. But to reiterate: I don’t blame the astronauts for being careful; my critique was of the media.

    And don’t worry, I’ll keep writing about whatever happens to interest or amuse me on any given day–though I appreciate hearing that some of you are interested and amused by some of the same things.

  6. zelda said

    I know you specialize in the”media”………you teach it etc. etc. and look for pitfalls. But there is an overwhelming pessimism your character that comes through what you write like neon.Almost paranoia…..interesting.

    I know I know……….this will get zapped and you won’t like me anymore..hahahaha That’s ok.

  7. James McPherson said

    Having worked as a reporter for years and then a professor for even more years, I have a pretty thick skin. As I’ve said before, I never delete anything that’s not spam–so feel free to say about anything, anytime. I welcome your input/insights. Thanks for contributing.

    As for “overwhelming pessimism,” that’s something I don’t think I’ve ever been accused of, though I do admit that right now I’m pretty pessimistic about the future of meaningful news media. It does seem to me that the blogosphere–especially for someone like me who uses his own name and provides a link to his workplace–would be a bad place for a paranoid. 🙂

  8. zelda said

    hahaha………….I see your point.

    Keep up the good work..we need these blogs to sort out all the junk we are fed through the media.

    I keep remembering George Orwell.

    Thanks James

  9. James McPherson said

    Thanks, Zelda. And thanks for the mention of Orwell, one of my heroes (though I agree with Neil Postman that Brave New World by Aldous Huxley–with whom Mick Jagger and I happen to share a birthday–portrays an equally scary but somewhat more likely future than does 1984).

    Animal Farm and 1984 are the classics, of course, though I’m also partial to Orwell’s essays, including for obvious reasons one titled “Why I Write.” (http://www.orwell.ru/library/essays/wiw/english/e_wiw) Among my favorite lines:

    “Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centered than journalists, though less interested in money.”

    (About a historical impulse): “Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.”

    (About political purpose): “Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.”

  10. […] it apparently is still fairly easy to get a fake passport in this country. (By the way, news this week prompts the question of why is it that we can track thousands of pieces of  space junk, […]

  11. […] Asteroid nearly wipes out Earth, international space station threatened, San Diego nearly destroyed … […]

  12. cuddy said

    The ability of the popular press to manipulate the conditions surrounding events to generate maximum emotional impact is nothing new. As a commentary on that phenomenon the example of the light aircraft crashing near a power station works well. Rather than highlight the ability of the media to misconstrue events, the example of the space station highlights the vulnerability of the construction. Descriptions of anything in anything other than quantifiable terms will always be subjective. My only real objection is the spurious use of quotations.

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