COMMENTS: The Missing Link at Upper Big Branch Mine

"I am not trying to exaggerate at all but what was going through my mind was like a hurricane. It was full of debris, dust. My eyes filled with dust. I could not see." Thus miner Stanley Stewart related to ABC anchor Diane Sawyer how he survived the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion in West Virginia. Stewart was one of 61 miners underground when the mixture of methane gas and coal dust ignited Monday. Of those 29 were killed. The network nightly newscasts made the disaster their Story of the Week last week. ABC's Sawyer and CBS substitute anchor Harry Smith jetted to the scene to cover the deadliest coal mine accident in the United States in decades. The story was attracted full coverage (79 min for the week: ABC 30, CBS 26, NBC 23) with all of the usual elements--and one glaring omission.

Ace in the Hole style, correspondents staked out the mine head in the desperate hope that survivors might be rescued. Human interest features retold the hardscrabble life of brave workers underground and the stoic families that support them. Investigative reporters scrutinized the safety record of Massey Energy, which operates the mine, and Don Blankenship, the firm's hard-charging boss.

The tick-tock of the rescue effort for four of the 29 dead was followed day-by-day by David Muir on ABC (Wednesday, Thursday, Friday), Jim Axelrod on CBS (Wednesday, Thursday, Friday) and Tom Costello on NBC (Thursday, Friday). If they were alive, the four would have escaped the explosion and hunkered down in a sealed, oxygen filled, safety chamber, five miles into the mountainside. Drill holes inserted cameras into the tunnels. Fans sucked out toxic methane and carbon monoxide. Nitrogen was pumped in to douse smoldering fires. Breathing equipment help teams approach the chambers, which turned out to be empty.

"It turned out rescue workers had walked right past three of the four missing miners' bodies in their very first trip into the mine right after the explosion a week ago," CBS' Axelrod related--but discovering the truth so quickly would have prevented the endless recycling of minute and futile rescue detail and stripped the disaster coverage of a suspenseful narrative thread.

What motivated these miners to toil in such dangerous, claustrophobic conditions? There explanation was unanimous--the trade-off of a local loyalty and the lack of other means of support. "Coal is West Virginia's paycheck but it comes with a cruel tax," intoned CBS' Smith, "mountains decapitated, rivers run toxic, and lives cut short by dangers that cannot be seen." Noted NBC's Ron Mott: "For years the mine gave them all a livelihood; in an instant it took their lives." ABC anchor Sawyer, a self-styled "Kentucky girl with West Virginia relatives way in the past" offered this: "When asked why they do it nearly all say the same thing. 'It is the only choice we have.'" NBC's Ron Allen saw a West Virginia filled with "very close-knit communities where generations of families have worked the mines, sometimes the only good, solid work available."

As heroically as the workforce was portrayed, Massey CEO Blankenship was the almost cartoonish Villain of the Piece. ABC's Brian Ross called him a "volatile and controversial figure…He has raised millions of dollars on behalf of local politicians and state supreme court justices," reminding us of an expose he filed in 2008. "Don Blankenship is probably the most politically powerful character in West Virginia right now. He is a throwback to the old coal barons of C19th," was how NBC's Lisa Myers quoted Jeff Goodell, author of Big Coal. ABC's David Kerley consulted another author, Michael Schnayerson, who wrote Coal River: "Don is a capitalist but a capitalist straight out of Dickens. He puts coal above all other priorities, including the safety of the people who work for him."

Blankenship himself granted interviews to the visiting anchors--ABC's Sawyer and CBS' Smith (at the end of the Orr videostream)--on the day after the explosion to boast of his firm's commitment to safety and the mine's low accident rate. He was fact-checked later in the week. "Upper Big Branch last year had the largest number of violations of any mine in the country," asserted ABC' Kerley. CBS' Bob Orr explained that the reason the mine had not been shut down because of those repeated violations was that Massey Energy filed appeals against 35% of them, "including the most serious ones." Upper Big Branch had a higher violation rate than the national average and when it was cited, it was five times more likely to be a serious violation than at other mines.

All that coverage--the tick-tock rescue, the stoic families, the Dickensian boss--was just as expected except for a single missing element. Not once, in all five days of coverage, did a single reporter mention the organization that has worked hardest over the decades to make sure that mining management does not cut safety corners and that miners can monitor their own working conditions with impunity. The union went unmentioned, as did the fact that the Upper Big Branch workforce went unorganized.

ABC's Kerley hinted at what was missing, describing how "many here were afraid to speak on camera, fearful they would jeopardize a loved one's job." NBC's Costello called the area "a company county…a lot of people here are reluctant to speak out against the employer." I assume that such intimidation derives from the fact that Massey Energy workers have no union to protect them. Yet that is something I am obliged to assume, since neither Kerley nor Costello offered it as an explanation.

I do not normally like to use the criterion of things that go unmentioned in analyzing network news coverage. The length of a video package is so short that, truth be told, most of the activity of a correspondent consists of deciding which information to leave out rather than of digging for what to put in.

So I mention the union-free coverage of the West Virginia disaster for only one reason. It is absolutely inconceivable that a news organization with a liberal ax to grind--a left-leaning bias--would have treated that fact that this mine was a non-union shop as unworthy of mention, if only in passing.

So the next time you hear conservative culture warriors dismissing the network nightly newscasts as just another tired example of the same old liberal media send them this link to disabuse them of that stereotype.



You must be logged in to this website to leave a comment. Please click here to log in so you can participate in the discussion.