NPR misses mark with Mingo ‘war on coal’ profile

July 3, 2012 by Ken Ward Jr.

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.

9 Responses to “NPR misses mark with Mingo ‘war on coal’ profile”

  1. Observer says:

    Are you really saying that the current decline in coal has nothing to do with the regulations that have came about since Obama became president?

    What is the count on new layoffs in just the last two weeks?

  2. Rob says:

    Observer,

    It is incredibly frustrating when these types of cause and effect economic comparisons are made and automatically attributed to the current administration in power. If there is one thing people on both sides of the political spectrum can agree upon, it is that the federal government is slow.

    Regulations take time to be written, agencies take time to respond to court orders to enforce laws in specific ways, and timelines are put in place that delay the implementation of such laws.

    The only regulations under this administration finalized that I feel one can attribute a portion of decline in demand for coal during recent years is those pertaining to power plants. Some of these regulations were set to effect the aging coal fired power plant fleet and notice to companies was given after the clean air act changes of 1990. Over 20 years later these are implemented. The market had time to adapt, so not seeing much of burden caused by Obama there.

    The GHG emissions standards for power plants were the result of a supreme court ruling several years ago that the Bush administration failed to respond to. Don’t see anyone holding the Bush EPA in contempt of court.

    Anything related to mine permitting has only effected what companies would like to mine several years from now. Under the Bush Administration, there was so much permitted that it is fair to say companies are still riding the wave on permitted mineable acreage.

    If you read the press statements from companies and the info in their SEC filings surrounding all recent layoffs. There is nearly 100 percent agreement that the cause of the coal market downturn is the fact that the global economy is depressed and natural gas is very very cheap creating stiff competition for coal.

    The Jobs issue is one that needs to be addressed in WV, but it will get no where until politicians and the people are ready to be honest about what is really causing the problems, and what real solutions look like.

  3. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Observer,

    I don’t believe that’s what I wrote in this piece, no.

    Ken.

  4. Ken,

    I agree with you wholeheartedly that it is disappointing that the piece didn’t dig deeper. It seems these days that coal industry execs are the only ones willing to say that the transition away from Central Appalachia is market-driven and has been coming for a long time. It would also have been nice to hear something about why Mingo County is so distressed and has such a coal-dependent economy. It is especially disappointing to me that in describing a battle around “clean” coal, there was essential nothing about the negative impacts of mining in West Virginia, such as the folks in Rawl have experienced.

    However, I think you missed something in your listening. While it was given short shrift, Noah Adams did ask a local about mining jobs going up in WV under Obama and cited the specific numbers.

    I was glad that at least there was one interview with a West Virginian supporting environmental regulation. The most common attitude I run into in the coalfields is that people support coal, but they believe coal companies need to be held to a high standard and prevented from damaging communities and the environment.

  5. Randy Workman says:

    I think that the Charelson Gazette should pack up and move to another state .

  6. edd442 says:

    Ken, I’m very glad you picked up on this. When I heard the line:

    “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.”

    I gasped. First off, this is a completely presumptuous statement that is not supported by any facts in the actual story. And as you point out so well, it seems to have more to do with the persistent public relations campaign from industry supporters. Noah Adams seems to have bought into this campaign, regardless of how untrue it is, and I was outraged by the story.

  7. yunzer says:

    Ken,

    I long ago gave up on NPR. The days when one could hear penetrating criticlal reporting, and even regular commentaries by Michael Harrington are long gone. Virtually all their reporting has an unquestioning “pro-business” slant. When is the last time you’ve heard the least mention of global warming on NPR? And at risk of digressing, when it comes to foreign policy, their jingoistic cheerleading that they call “news reporting” would make Hearst’s yellow journalism late 19th early 20th century look objective.

  8. Barbara Rasmussen says:

    It’s sad that Adams simplified the issue so much but it’s even sadder that the rest of the national media doesn’tdo anything at all. I’m still appalled at the CNN piece last year about Blair Mountain. I think the press and the public believe in cheap energy no matter who has to die or sicken to get it.

  9. Vernon says:

    The press, politicians, and fossil fuel/nuclear lobbyists continue to propagate the myth that the public wants cheap energy no matter what. The public, however, wants clean renewable energy, and it’s good to know that your neighbor, whether republican, democrat, mountain, or other, most likely agrees with you. Summary and link to full survey here: http://www.civilsocietyinstitute.org/media/042512release.cfm

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