Coal Tattoo

Coal context: Playing along with election by gaffe


It’s hard to believe that it took Hoppy Kercheval at MetroNews until today to try to twist into some sort of politically motivated effort to destroy our way of life what was really little more than a bungled effort by Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s at explaining her coalfield economic aid package.

But never fear, because Hoppy’s commentary doesn’t disappoint. He paints the real point of Secretary Clinton’s comments — that she wants to help coal communities that are suffering because of complex changes in our nation’s energy economy — as some sort of afterthought that she cooked up after Sen. Joe Manchin complained about the one sentence that industry has jumped on:

By Tuesday, Clinton was walking back her comment in a letter to Manchin.  “Simply put, I was mistaken in my remarks,” she wrote.  “I wanted to make the point that, as you know too well, while coal will be part of the energy mix for years to come, both in the U.S. and around the world, we have already seen a long-term decline in American coal jobs and a recent wave of bankruptcies as a result of a changing energy market—and we need to do more to support the workers and families facing these challenges.”

But Hoppy is hardly the worst among our state’s media when it comes to misinforming the public on this particular story. Here’s the Wheeling paper’s editorial:

Clinton, comfortably in the lead for the Democrat Party nomination for president, now seems positively boastful about her plans for the coal industry and for the coal-fired power plants on which tens of millions of Americans rely for reasonably priced electricity.

She wants to shut down as many mines as she can. She plans to use draconian taxes to make it impractical for utilities to use coal for power generation.

And then, remarkably:

During the same campaign stop, Clinton insisted that as president, she would help miners who lose their jobs because of her policies. She has not been specific about that, no doubt because if she has a plan, it is much like the socialist government strategies of the past: Offer laid-off workers a few years of unemployment benefits, then forget about them.

The Wheeling paper is just wrong. Like her plan or not, Secretary Clinton does have a plan and it’s actually reasonably specific (though the Gazette-Mail’s David Gutman did note in this story that how the total figure was reached was not entirely clear).  Those folks at the Wheeling paper can read about the plan here.

Hoppy and the Wheeling paper are hardly alone. You can see how much attention this one sentence is getting with a quick Google News search.  Within the space of two days, The Associated Press had put out two separate stories that described the comments from Secretary Clinton as her having “declared” that she was going to put coal miners and coal companies out of business.

Declared? Well, you can watch the video yourself and decide if you think that’s an accurate characterization. Someone at AP must not have — because after they put that out on the wire a second time, the write-thru of the story changed the wording and actually put the comments in a little bit more of the proper context.

But the damage was done. And I’m not talking here about damage to Secretary Clinton’s campaign. That’s her problem. The damage we should all be concerned about is the damage to our already severely weakened ability to actually discuss what’s happening in our coalfield communities, understand what’s driving changes in our energy economy, and try to find ways to come out the other side as a stronger, better state.

FILE - In this Thursday, Aug. 6, 2015, file photo, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton listens to a home care worker during a roundtable discussion in Los Angeles. Calling for a “new college compact,” Hillary Rodham Clinton on Monday, Aug. 10, will unveil a $350 billion plan aimed at making college more affordable and reducing the crushing burden of student debt. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

It’s actually pretty interesting to look back through the transcript of the event where Secretary Clinton made her remarks. The video that’s typically been shared, tweeted and posted doesn’t provide the whole context of where these comments came from. You can read that transcript here or here.

The whole exchange started with a question to Secretary Clinton about gun violence, about how much of it happens in poverty-stricken communities, and about what she would do about this horrible problem. Her answer, in part, was this:

I want everybody to know what you know, which is that on average 90 people a day are killed by guns in our country, that is 33,000 people a year.  And a shocking number of those killed and injured are children, some of them intentionally, and some of them accidentally. 

So here’s what I believe with all of my heart, because I think that we are in a crisis when it comes to gun violence.  It is truly an epidemic.  And there is no doubt in my mind that we’ve got to do more to get more common sense gun safety reforms enacted in America. 

So I’m not saying that what I propose will solve everything, but I believe, and there is evidence for this, that failing to do anything, which is what we are doing right now, will only lead to more terrible loss of life. 

The next question came from CNN’s Roland Martin:

Secretary Clinton, I have a voting  question, but I need to pick up on what she said.  She mentioned poverty.  We think about poverty in this country based upon what the media does, people think the face of poverty is African-American. There are a lot of broke white folks in America … Make the case to poor whites who live in Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, who vote Republican, why they should vote for you based upon economic policies versus voting for a Republican?

Secretary Clinton responded:

Look, we have serious economic problems in many parts of our country.  And Roland is absolutely right.  Instead of dividing people the way Donald Trump does, let’s reunite around policies that will bring jobs and opportunities to all these underserved poor communities. 

And then she provided an example:

So for example, I’m the only candidate which has a policy about how to bring economic opportunity using clean renewable energy as the key into coal country.

Then came the part where Secretary Clinton blew her answer:

Because we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business, right, Tim?

[Apparently, the “Tim” mentioned there was Congressman Tim Ryan, D-Ohio,]

But all of us should pay a little more attention to the rest of what Secretary Clinton had to say:

And we’re going to make it clear that we don’t want to forget those people.  Those people labored in those mines for generations, losing their health, often losing their lives to turn on our lights and power our factories. 

Now we’ve got to move away from coal and all the other fossil fuels, but I don’t want to move away from the people who did the best they could to produce the energy that we relied on. 

So whether it’s coal country or Indian country or poor urban areas, there is a lot of poverty in America.  We have gone backwards.  We were moving in the right direction.  In the ’90s more people were lifted out of poverty than any time in recent history.

Because of the terrible economic policies of the Bush administration, President Obama was left with the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, and people fell back into poverty because they lost jobs, they lost homes, they lost opportunities, and hope.  

So I am passionate about this, which is why I have put forward specific plans about how we incentivize more jobs, more investment in poor communities, and put people to work. 

I suppose you could read that as Secretary Clinton “declaring” that she’s going to destroy an entire American industry, that she is “positively boasting” about her plan to shut down every coal mine she possibly can. But come on, that’s an incredible stretch. It’s an unreasonable interpretation of the remarks, given their context.

What really happened here is that Secretary Clinton (lacking the same political campaigning skills of her husband or the current occupant of the Oval Office) messed up. She misspoke. And not in the “Kinsley gaffe” way that Hoppy would have everyone believe.  This wasn’t a sentence that accidentally revealed some secret plan. Nonsense.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks at a campaign rally at the Phoenix Convention Center in Phoenix, Tuesday, March 15, 2016. (AP Photo/Ricardo Arduengo)

Politically speaking, Secretary Clinton would have been a lot better off had she said something like what her Democratic rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont (who has his own plan to help the coalfields, by the way), said in this Washington Post story:

Asked what he would say to a coal miner who blames Environmental Protection Agency regulations for the loss of his job, Sanders said he could only be straight with him.

“What we have to say is, ‘Look, through no fault of your own, you’re working in an industry which is helping to cause climate change and in fact having a negative impact on the country and world,’ ” Sanders said. “What the government does have is an obligation to say: ‘We’ll protect you financially as we transition away from fossil fuel. We are going to create jobs in your community, extended unemployment benefits. If you lose your job to a trade deal, you get benefits for two years. You get job training.’ I would take that same approach to energy jobs that are lost because of the threat of climate change.”

My point, though, is less about what Secretary Clinton said and more about what has happened since. Do we really think that an entire policy issue — a pretty complicated one at that — can be summed up in one sentence? How is it that story after story focuses first on the gaffe, then the reaction, then the apology, and then, of course, the refusal of those who can use it for political gain to accept that apology?

As I wrote other day, it’s hard to blame the coal industry and its political allies from taking this one sentence and playing it over and over and over and over. The career campaign consultants hardly have to break a sweat. Their opponent did their work for them.

But for those of us whose job it is to inform the public — the voters, our readers, viewers and listeners — so they can make reasonable choices this May and November … well, what’s our excuse?

Some might say it’s our duty to report it when the Senate Majority Leader takes to the floor to attack a presidential candidate. If that’s true, then why don’t we report on the Minority Leader’s equally newsworthy response to that attack?

Or maybe we think that part of our job is to report on the campaigning itself — not just horse races and polls, but campaign strategy and tactics and all of that. Maybe so, and I’m interested in some of that too. But every minute we spend promoting how a dispute over one sentence is the story of the day is time we don’t spend doing stories like this one by the Gazette-Mail’s Andy Brown, which talks about how some folks are actually working to address these challenging times in the coalfields, or this one by David Gutman, which traces the history of our state’s drug abuse problem (and even points out the coal industry’s important role in that problem).

I’m sure I frequently fall into the trap of focusing on some twisted, accidental phrase by a public official. It’s easy to do. I should work harder to avoid doing it. We all should.

Coalfield readers, listeners and viewers need more journalism that digs into the heart of the challenges we face and educates us about which candidates do and don’t have good ideas for solving them, more journalism that explains what experts say are the best options for moving forward, more stories that tell stories about how real people are facing and conquering those challenges. We don’t need more stories about one foolish mistake of a comment by one presidential candidate.

What’s probably the most interesting thing about that letter that Secretary Clinton sent to Sen. Manchin is not that he extracted an apology — “Simply put, I was mistaken in my remarks”. It’s the rest of what she had to say:

I wanted to make the point that, as you know too well, while coal will be part of the energy mix for years to come, both in the U.S. and around the world, we have already seen a long-term decline in American coal jobs and a recent wave of bankruptcies as a result of a changing energy market — and we need to do more to support the workers and families facing these challenges.

You know my history and the depth of my commitment to our coalfield workers, families and communities. I feel so strongly that we need to stand with those who have kept America’s lights on and factories humming for generations … it’s why I prioritized releasing a comprehensive plan for revitalizing coal communities, including investments in infrastructure, education, locally driven economic development, and carbon capture and sequestration along with hydropower, wind, and solar … I look forward to consulting with you on how we can help coal communities in West Virginia and across the country build the future they deserve.