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(DV) Random: The West Virginia Mining Disaster







Surrealistic Pillow
The West Virginia Mining Disaster
by Jack Random
January 7, 2006

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“I can handle big news and little news.  And if there’s no news, I’ll go out and bite a dog.”

-- Charles Tatum, Reporter in Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (The Big Carnival, 1951). 


On the same day that some university media organization moved to ban the word “surreal” from our lexicon, I witnessed one of the most surreal events I can recall. 


It was the second day of the Sago coalmine disaster and I was trying to remember an old movie about an out-of-control reporter spinning a very human tragedy about a man trapped in a mine into a marketable yarn. 

The story began on Monday with the “breaking news” that an explosion in a West Virginia coalmine left thirteen miners trapped below the surface.  CNN immediately went into full-court press with 24-7 coverage, featuring interviews with mining officials, former miners, government representatives, corporate spokespersons and distraught relatives assembled in the local church. 

Anderson Cooper, CNN’s man of the moment, rushed to the scene to take the lead with periodic updates, rumors and expressions of anguish. Cooper was the man who pushed the stoic Aaron Brown off the air, replacing whatever was left of objective journalism on “The Most Trusted Name in News” with a new, action oriented, in your face brand of news reporting. He had made his reputation playing hardball with freshman US Senator Mary Landrieu, Governor Kathleen Blanco and Mayor Ray Nagin in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. At the time, it seemed a refreshing resurgence of backbone in a media that was losing credibility with the viewing public. Later, we learned he was only serving the White House strategy of blame shifting. He never took on FEMA or Michael Brown until the White House made it clear that Brownie was the designated fall guy. 


As fictional reporter, Charles Tatum, said to his client: “I’m a thousand-dollar-a-day newspaperman. You can have me for nothing.” 

As the second day of the Sago mining disaster dragged on, it became clear that realistic hope was getting thin.  Reports of toxic air quality filtered in and experts delivered cautionary reports.  Still, friends and relatives hung on, clinging to faith and praying for the improbable.  As the night drew to an end, 41 hours after the initial explosion, the improbable was delivered with the news that twelve of the miners were alive. 


America went to sleep on the surrealistic pillow of a miracle. Our luck had not run out. Our prayers would still be answered and our dreams would come true. 


It no longer mattered that the Sago mine had been issued 270 safety code citations over the last two years, including a shut down for dangerous buildup of flammable coal dust and inadequate ventilation to dissipate dangerous gases.  It no longer mattered that “clean coal” technology is an oxymoron or that enforcement of safety regulations under the Bush administration is a joke. It no longer mattered that men were compelled to take dangerous jobs in unsafe environments because so few options were available to the workforce. It only mattered that twelve of thirteen survived. 


The dawn of a new day brought the heartbreaking news that the media got it wrong, that twelve of the thirteen miners were dead and the lone survivor was in critical condition. Media scrambled to explain an incredible lapse in news reporting as a problem of communication. 

It was a hard pill to swallow. What began as the new standard of an ambulance-chasing, pounce and run, news event ended with a betrayal of the public trust. The mass reporting of a false miracle at the end of a daily news cycle was plastered in headlines across the nation.  


Reporter to Charles Tatum: “We’re all in the same boat.” 

Tatum: “I’m in the boat. You’re in the water. Now let’s see how you can swim.” 


CNN’s wall-to-wall coverage of the West Virginia mining disaster continued on the third day. The nature of the story had changed but the drama lived on. 


There is something very disturbing in the devolution of our media to the sensation-oriented atmosphere of a 1951 movie starring Kirk Douglas. While CNN was fixated on the mining disaster, the west coast was recovering from disastrous floods and fires were still raging across Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico.  A new wave of violence in Iraq was answered by a targeted US air strike, killing a family of women and children.  Iran announced intentions to resume nuclear research, Russia threatened Europe’s supply of natural gas by cutting off Ukraine, and Jack Abramoff, the biggest fat cat in Washington, copped a plea in a deal that will shake the capitol to its core. 


It was not exactly a slow news cycle. 


Democracy requires a vibrant, independent, engaged press if it is to survive. In modern times, the only press that matters is the media. If this is an example of the best they can do, our democracy is in trouble. 


The Sago coalmine disaster was a riveting drama. It drew us in. It is important. It is not, however, worthy of three days of full-time coverage. To deliver the news in this manner is a disservice to all Americans, including the exploited families of the event itself. The greater tragedy is that it has become the standard of modern journalism. It is a media of constant distraction. It is a media that shocks and engages the senses but does not inform. It is a media that moves seamlessly from one drama to another with little regard for those stories and events that will shape our nation’s future. 

It is the solemn duty of the media to provide our citizens with the information we need to make intelligent decisions in choosing our representatives and guiding the affairs of state.  To the extent that media is obsessed with the sensational, while the most important developments and issues of our times go underreported, the media have failed. 

I cannot but think that it would be different if the media were not owned by the same corporate interests that our government represents.

My heart goes out to the friends and families of the coal miners in West Virginia.  They were not well served in this tragedy. They will not be well served by the continued exploitation of their grief.

Jack Random is the author of Ghost Dance Insurrection (Dry Bones Press) the Jazzman Chronicles, Volumes I and II (City Lights Books). The Chronicles have been published by CounterPunch, the Albion Monitor, Buzzle, Dissident Voice and others. Visit his website: Random Jack.

Other Articles by Jack Random

* Pataki & Bloomberg: How to Bust a Union
* The Imperial President and the NSA Spying Scandal
* France and the Burning Embers of Repression
* The Activist Court & the Neoconservative Agenda
* The Agnew Factor: Clearing the Impeachment Path
* Iraq and New Orleans: The ABCs of Police Lawlessness
* The Age of Catastrophe: Preparing for Disaster
* No Tears for Rehnquist: The Legacy of a Chief Justice
* Zero Tolerance: Bush Gets Tough as New Orleans Suffers
* Hugo Chavez and the American Slug: Pat Robertson’s Call for Assassination
* The Lie of a Strong Economy (Beneath the Towers of Avarice)
* Fooled Again: Major Party Turnabout
* The New War Candidate: Major Paul Hackett for Congress
* Free Judy! The Fine Art of Calling a Bluff
* Executive Blackmail: The Betrayal of Democracy in Haiti
* Blame the Democrats & Move On: The Federalist Court
* Against the Wind: The Inevitable End of the Iraqi Occupation
* London and Madrid: Reflections on the War on Terror
* Judith Miller: The Anti-Hero
* Schizo Scherzo: The Last Waltz
* The Last Throes: The Light at the End of the Tunnel
* Impeach Bush -- US Out Now!
* Recall the Governator
* The Gates of Hell: Occupied Iraq
* May Day: The Rise & Fall of the Middle Class
* The Papal Aristocracy: Confessions of a Nonbeliever
* No Citizen Left Behind
* A Marine Comes Home: The Untold Story of War
* The Compassionate Leader -- In a Time of Crisis
* In Defense of Barry Bonds
* Defending Dan? Rather Not
* David Went to Canada...& Johnny Got His Gun