Coal Tattoo

Mixed narrative: More on CNN and Blair Mountain


It’s been more interesting to watch the reactions to CNN’s highly-promoted piece on Blair Mountain and mountaintop removal than it was to watch the show itself.

Initially, some environmental groups — especially Appalachian Voices — were promoting the heck out of this show. Many folks I heard from, including the Gazette’s Dr. Paul Nyden, had kind words for the piece. In the comments section of Coal Tattoo last week, photojournalist Antrim Caskey, who has been documenting the movement against mountaintop removal, had this to say about Soledad O’Brien’s work on the Battle for Blair Mountain:

She is fresh, very different from say, Diane Sawyer; O’Brien is friendly when she calls people out on some of the outrageous lines they say, in an effort to get to the real facts.

Just like Bill Haney’s film, The Last Mountain, with RFK Jr, the CNN piece goes to great lengths to suss out each “side” and as a result is very fair. Very fair, giving both “sides” their say.

But even before the piece aired last night, some in the environmental community were criticizing it. Melissa Waage of the Natural Resources Defense Council wrote on an NRDC blog:

… Crucial voices are missing from this piece, and it relies far too heavily on a clunky, over-simplified “us vs. them” theme. Somehow the show manages to acknowledge the facts about mountaintop removal actually killing jobs, yet still shoehorn the story into a factually unsupported “jobs. vs. the environment” frame.

Virtually unheard in The Battle for Blair Mountain are the many people who have been most deeply, personally harmed by mountaintop removal mining, through physical illness, life-threatening flooding, and livelihood-destroying damage to their homeplaces.

And now, Matt Wasson at Appalachian Voices is criticizing the piece in a “Fact Check” item on his group’s blog:

While O’Brien and her crew were able to tell both sides of the debate in compelling and emotionally powerful ways, the documentary suffered from the same flaw that just about every environmental story CNN has ever done suffers from: it is presented in a “jobs vs environment” frame that is devoid of any actual analysis of whether that frame is appropriate.

And my good friend Bob Kincaid from Coal River Mountain Watch tweeted last night:

@CNN swings and misses w/ #MTR special. It’s not “jobs vs. environmentalists.” It’s OUR LIFE vs. death from coal profiteers.

Never one to be subtle, Bob also tweeted:

Up Next on CNN!: Drug dealers vs. Schoolchildren. Who’s right?

Was it really that bad? Not really. In truth, the CNN piece provided, as I mentioned on Friday, a pretty balanced overview of the different sides of this story. As I also mentioned, Joe Atkins at Facing South made some good points in an essay called Where’s the passion and the justice in CNN’s Blair Mountain documentary?

And actually, CNN gave a fair amount of time to a detailed discussion of the findings of West Virginia University’s Michael Hendryx, whose work has detailed the growing science about mountaintop removal’s damaging impacts on public health in the region. And through University of Maryland biologist Margaret Palmer and Marshall University’s Scott Simonton, the CNN piece did a pretty good job on the science of how mountaintop removal harms the environment.

So what’s the problem with the program?

Well, start with the fact that CNN decided to build its piece around following the lives of coal miner James Dial and his wife, Linda, as they face the prospect of losing James’ job if a new mountaintop removal permit is blocked by federal regulators.

As soon as I saw that, I wondered why environmental groups were so strongly promoting the piece. Our public discourse being what it is in this country — especially on issues like this one — one side simply can’t stand the notion that a media story will focus on the other wise. The idea that we might learn something from someone we disagree with is one we can’t accept anymore, I suppose.

James Atkins described the Dials’ role in the CNN piece, and their position on the overall issue, this way:

James Dial earns $65,000 a year (nearly twice what local school teachers earn) doing “reclamations” on destroyed mountains — that is, taking his bulldozer and crew and trying to rebuild a mountain with the refuse of rock and sand mountaintop removal leaves. He’s a trained carpenter, but that line of work doesn’t pay $65,000 a year in rural West Virginia. He and his wife lead the effort to let the companies have their way.

Atkins continued:

… James Dial wants to keep his $65,000-a-year job. Nothing wrong with that, until a journalist puts that perspective on an equal level with a mountain of evidence and the perspective of nearly everyone else who has any real insight into what mountaintop removal ultimately means.

As is often the case with so-called “objective” stories, the real issue lies beyond the two sides presented. Where is there real scrutiny of the coal companies and their practices? Their involvement in the communities? Their past records? They hand O’Brien a press release and take a powder. Where is there a real look into the history of this area, the epic, century-old struggle of miners for social justice?

Phew. That’s a lot to fit into one TV program — and certainly more than anyone who pays much attention to national television network news should have thought they would get from a CNN piece about the coalfields.

But I appreciated how Atkins describes the real truth as perhaps being somewhere “beyond” the two sides presented — as opposed to the common notion that the truth is somewhere between the two sides presented. We in the media have done the nation no favors with our continued insistence that there are two sides — just two sides — to any story, and if we present he two most extreme spokespeople for those two sides we’ve done our job.

Melissa Waage at NRDC is right when she observes:

Somehow the show manages to acknowledge the facts about mountaintop removal actually killing jobs, yet still shoehorn the story into a factually unsupported “jobs. vs. the environment” frame.

I’m not sure how many times CNN showed Chuck Keeney, organizer of the Blair Mountain March, talking about how mountaintop removal actually reducing the number of mining jobs, but surely no one watched the program without getting that point.

Melissa at NRDC, though,  seems to mostly be looking for the show to present more people who would make viewers sympathetic to her group’s position that mountaintop removal should be banned:

… As good a job as the program does at conveying the sorrow and anger of people whose history and culture is about to be erased by MTR, it misses the many stories of people whose lives have been even more profoundly disrupted by the practice. While the program acknowledges science pointing to serious health impacts, it does not interview people whose health has been seriously harmed.

Similarly, the program acknowledges the potential damage to nearby properities from blasting, water contamination, and coal dust, but does not interview any of the many people who have had their homes significantly damaged or destroyed by mountaintop removal.

Why not spend a few minutes with people like Maria Gunnoe and other victims of life-threatening flooding in Bob White, WV?

Why not get some advice from Bo Webb of the Coal River Valley about local residents sickened by mine impacts or those who’ve lost loved ones to the chronic illnesses increasingly associated with MTR?

From where I sit, the CNN piece did as well as any other national media at explaining this point of view, and a better job than most at articulating the science that supports this point of view.

But the critics are right that it then fell into the media’s comfortable narrative, through which any environmental controversy is simply a “battle” of “jobs versus the environment.” It’s like I used to joke in the newsroom about what happens when national media descend on anywhere in the country with such a controversy — the inevitable headline is, “Town divided over [fill in the blank].”

Where the CNN piece fell down is where all of us in the media have failed, as far as covering these issues in the Appalachian coalfields: It accepted as unavoidable the notion that, without a new mountaintop removal permit — and another and another and another after that — there will be no jobs and no future, not just for James Dials, but for the generation after him and the generation after that …

Coalfield politicians make out like all we need here to improve things is for those nasty folks from the Obama administration to get out of the way, and let the next coal boom bring on the good times.

But the truth is, experts don’t think that boom is coming, regardless of what EPA or the Obama administration do.  An in their zeal to kill off any regulations on greenhouse gas emissions, coalfield political leaders have at the same time halted a key test project aimed at technology that is absolutely necessary if coal is to survive very far into our future.

Meanwhile, as kids in the coalfields prepare to head back for another year of school, our society continues to foster attitudes that have many of them thinking that the only possible future for them is coal. If a kid wants to work as a coal miner, that’s one thing … but do we really want our kids to think they have only one option in life, no matter what that option is?

So nothing against Bo Webb or Maria Gunnoe. The problem with the CNN story wasn’t that they didn’t talk to enough mountaintop removal opponents.

The problem was most simple. CNN interviewed Art Kirkendoll, who has been a county commissioner in Logan County for 30 years. They let him go on about what God does or doesn’t want done with West Virginia’s mountains.

But they didn’t bother to ask him about the fact that Logan County’s poverty rate is twice the national average, or why the college graduation rate there is one-third of the national average … They didn’t bother to ask him why kids in Logan County don’t deserve more than one option in life.