Coal Tattoo

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I’m generally a fan of NPR and also an admirer of the work of their longtime journalist Noah Adams, especially his book Far Appalachia. So maybe I was expecting too much when I heard he was working on a piece about the results of West Virginia’s Democratic presidential primary, in which imprisoned felon Keith Judd got 40 percent of the vote and beat President Obama in a number of our state’s counties.

After first reading the web version, Obama’s ‘Clean Coal’ Fighting Words To W.Va. Dems, I had hoped perhaps there was more to the radio version. But listening to it, there really wasn’t. Here are the basics as Noah reported them:

The overwhelming issue in Mingo County is the future of coal mining. You will hear, see and read talk about “Obama’s War On Coal,” people blaming the White House for mines shut down, coal-burning power plants shut down and jobs gone.

Leigh Ann Wells, who works for the Mingo County Commission, says she voted for Judd over Obama in the Democratic primary without knowing anything about Judd. When she arrived at home that night, the election results were on television.

“My husband was sitting on the couch and he said, ‘You know that Judd guy who was on the ticket against Obama?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘He’s a felon in Texas. He’s in jail,’ ” says Wells, laughing.

I talked with lots of people like Wells who would have tapped the voting screen for Judd even if they did know he was in prison — even if it meant the TV talk shows would make fun of West Virginia.

“It was a little bit embarrassing, and I don’t care,” says Wells. “It was more so a stance against … Obama and his coal policies and just the fact that here in West Virginia people feel like he doesn’t even know we exist.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m sure that is exactly what Noah Adams found. But absent from his reporting — as it’s absent in so much of the political discussion in the local media — is any question about whether the allegations about the Obama administration’s policies on coal are true. Noah didn’t tell his listeners that coal jobs in West Virginia actually increased during the first three years of the Obama presidency, for example. The story made no mention of the mining out of quality coal reserves in Central Appalachia or the stiff competition from other coal basins, both major factors in the region’s coal market.  And it made only passing reference to the major role natural gas is playing in the recent layoffs and market decline:

But this is a coal economy, sliding further away from any prosperity, losing out to natural gas and threatened by tough regulations that make coal more expensive to mine and burn.

Noah appears to have made no effort to address whether or not the huge public relations campaign from the coal industry and Republicans just might have something to do with what he heard from residents of Mingo County. As Sen. Rockefeller recently said:

Carefully orchestrated messages that strike fear in the hearts of West Virginians and feed uncertainty about coal’s future are the subject of millions of dollars of television ads, billboards, break room bulletin boards, public meetings, letters and lobbying campaigns.

A daily onslaught declares that coal is under siege from harmful outside sources forces, and that the future of the state is bleak unless we somehow turn back the clock, ignore the present and block the future.

Instead, the story gave listeners a stereotype of West Virginians who don’t even know who they’re voting for — and gave voice to the only somewhat veiled bigotry directed at President Obama:

Bobby May, chairman of the Republican Party of Buchanan County, across the border in Virginia, got applause when he stood and said: “I’m gonna say something to all these miners assembled here tonight that you’re not going to hear from Barack Hussein [Obama] and that’s, ‘God bless a coal miner.’ … ‘Hussein’ in Arabic means, ‘I hate coal miners.’ And folks, I want to say this to you tonight, that anybody that thinks that coal mining is ugly, just wait until you see poverty.”

Perhaps for some balance, Noah could have pointed out that President Obama did indeed pray for coal  miners, when he visited West Virginia to speak at the memorial service for the 29 hard-working mines who died in the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster. But no, just as this story wasn’t about whether there are in fact reasons for coal’s decline besides government regulations, it wasn’t about whether there are legitimate reasons for those regulations. If it had been, Noah might have talked to some of the folks from another part of Mingo County, where coal slurry pollution tainted drinking water supplies. Or, when one pro-coal person interviewed tried to downplay regulatory initiatives as being all about protecting lizards, Noah might have quoted from some of the West Virginia University studies that are finding links between living near coal and facing increased risks of cancer and birth defects.

But the thing that’s really puzzling is the whole way that the NPR piece was framed. Look at the headline: Obama’s ‘Clean Coal’ Fighting Words To W.Va. Dems, and read this nut graph explanation of that headline:

The White House would say there’s a push for coal, not a war against it.

In his State of the Union address last year, Obama talked about energy sources, including natural gas and clean coal. “We will need them all,” the president said, promising more investment in coal technology.

So maybe not a war — but there is a battle coming. And it’s over the word “clean” in front of the word “coal.”

What does that even mean:  So maybe not a war — but there is a battle coming. And it’s over the word “clean” in front of the word “coal”?

I’m not sure. But I do know that the best publicly available polling data I’ve seen shows that most West Virginians have favorable opinions of coal companies and of coal miners. But they don’t much like mountaintop removal, and they believe environmental protections that apply to coal mining should be strengthened, not weakened.

The questions the media should be asking aren’t about whether there’s a war on coal. They’re about whether coal needs to be more strictly regulated to protect workers, the environment, and the global climate. They’re about whether results like those in the primary have less to do with how West Virginians feel about what President Obama is actually doing and more to do with what the industry’s PR machine keeps insisting the administration is doing. And they certainly have to do with what the future could and should be like in the coalfields as market forces bring an inevitable decline of this important industry.

Like I said to start out, I really am a big fan of NPR and of Noah Adams. I just wish he had dug a little deeper on this one, and helped everyone understand the real issues at play.