Why Are the New York Times and So Much of the Traditional* Media Neglecting a Vital Part of the Utah Mine Collapse Story?
Yesterday, while speaking at the Aspen Institute's Forum on Communications and Society, I commented on how the mainstream media have, with a few exceptions, been focusing on only one aspect of the Crandall Canyon Mine tragedy -- the desperate attempt to rescue the trapped miners -- while paying scant attention to investigating the reasons why these miners were trapped in the first place.
I specifically mentioned Sunday's New York Times piece by Martin Stolz, who had been dispatched to Huntington to cover the story. Stolz's report was filled with details about the progress rescuers had made through the collapsed mine (650 ft), and the capabilities of the hi-res camera being lowered into the mine (can pick up images from 100 ft away) -- but not one word about what led to the collapse, including the role retreat mining might have played in it, or the 324 safety violations federal inspectors have issued for the mine since 2004.
The story, like most of the TV coverage, featured Bob Murray, the colorful co-owner of the mine. Stolz painted a picture of Murray emerging from the mine "with a coal-blackened face and in miner's coveralls to discuss the latest finding with the families of the missing miners."
Cue the swelling music and start the casting session. Your mind reflexively begins to wonder who would play Murray in the Crandall Canyon TV movie. Wilfred Brimley? Robert Duvall? Paul Newman?
Of course, Murray's role in all this is much darker than that of the compassionate boss given to delivering script-ready lines like, "Conditions are the most difficult I have seen in my 50 years of mining" and "There are many reasons to have hope still" (as he has been quoted saying in two other Times stories).
He is a politically-connected Big Energy player whose company, Murray Energy Corp., has 19 mines in five states, which have incurred millions of dollars in fines for safety violations over the last 18 months.
Probably won't see that in the TV movie.
So why has so much of the coverage focused on folksy Bob Murray, the stalwart and kindly mine owner, instead of mining mogul Robert Murray, who may have been at least partly responsible for decisions that led to the disaster?
It's because, as Jon Stewart has put it, one of the best ways to deal with members of the media is show them a shiny object over here, which distracts them from investigating the real story over there. And the hopeful, coal-covered, and always camera-ready Murray has been very shiny indeed. Especially when his face is blackened from a recent PR stint down the mine.
Back in Aspen, at a party for conference participants last night, Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., who had been in the room during my panel, came up to me and told me -- more than a little defensively -- that the Times had in fact reported on the safety violations last Wednesday.
Yes, I replied, but that was a few paragraphs in a single story five days ago. But while the Times has continued to cover the rescue, there was no follow up on the possible causes on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, or Monday.
During that time, the Times has been thoroughly scooped by the Salt Lake Tribune, which uncovered a memo revealing that there had been serious structural problems at the Crandall Canyon Mine in March -- in an area just 900 feet from the section of the mine that collapsed last week. And even AP did much better than the paper of record. AP reporter Chris Kahn wrote about the role retreat mining -- "a sometimes dangerous mining technique that involves pulling out leftover sections and pillars of coal that hold up the roof of a mine" -- might have played in the collapse.
Despite so many questions left unanswered about the mine's safety and the decisions the mine's owners made, the Times did no follow up. Indeed, New York Times readers -- and shareholders -- would have been better (much better) served if Times editors had spared the expense of sending reporters to Huntington and had just republished the reports from the Salt Lake Tribune and AP.
Instead, last night, Sulzberbger preferred to rationalize away his paper's choices. "I'm told that 324 violations are not a lot," he said to me.
Maybe not if you work in an office on West 43rd Street; but if you make a living by going underground to excavate coal, even one serious safety violation is one too many. And of the 324 violations, 107 were considered, in the words of a federal mine safety agency spokesman, "significant and substantial."
And if, as Sulzberger claimed, 324 violations are not a lot, why not do a story on that -- questioning whether we should be wasting taxpayer money looking for insignificant and insubstantial transgressions?
Let me stress that I am only focusing on the Times because of my exchange with Sulzberger; in fact, most of the MSM's coverage of the tragedy has tilted towards the shiny objects causing them to neglect the issues that might help prevent yet another story about the desperate attempt to rescue yet another group of trapped miners.
So we continue to get cloying coverage like the segment on AC360 last night. This is how Anderson Cooper introduced Murray: "He's really been the public face of this ordeal, keeping the families up to date -- he meets with them once or twice a day -- trying to explain the latest rescue efforts." So Murray got to go all aw shucks: "Mr. Cooper, I appreciate you having me on your program. And I appreciate the interest of all Americans in our tragedy."
But we get precious little on the Murray who had enough political muscle to get a Mine Safety and Health Administration district manager who had cracked down on safety issues at one of Murray's mines reassigned (clearly, contributing $213,000 to Republican candidates over the last ten years, as well as another $724,500 to Republican candidates and causes through political action committees connected to Murray's businesses, has its benefits). The Murray who rails against the United Mine Workers Association, claiming it wants "to damage Murray Energy, Utah American and the United States coal industry for their own motives." The Murray who called Hillary Clinton "anti-American" for saying America needs a president who will fight for workers' rights, and telling a Senate committee this summer that Al Gore and Congressional Democrats are bent on "the destruction of American lives and more death as a result of his hysterical global goofiness with no environmental benefit."
So many angles for the media to pursue -- and that's before we even get to the miners' families. A couple of family members have already spoken out about the fears for the mine's safety circulating in the community prior to the collapse.
If these stories and preliminary reports are right and it is proved that the tragic collapse at Crandall Canyon was caused by the owners' decision to proceed with retreat mining despite concerns about structural safety at the mine, then Mr. Murray should be spending less time talking to reporters, and a lot more time talking to his lawyers.
HuffPost's Max Follmer has more on Bob Murray here. * I got an email last night from Markos making the case that adopting the term "mainstream media" (MSM) by definition marginalizes those of us working in the blogosphere. It's a point he expands on here. I found his argument very convincing, which is why I changed the title of this post, replacing "MSM" with "Traditional Media." Markos' argument is in line with my reasoning for not accepting the tired right vs. left framing the mainstream -- uh, traditional -- media so often use, and which automatically marginalizes progressive positions and leaves the impression that wisdom resides in the middle of the road (home to the DLC, triangulation, and splitting the difference). Thanks, Markos.
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