Coal Tattoo

Friday roundup, Aug. 26, 2016

In this Aug. 10, 2016 photo, Vincent Montant, director of facilities for Allegany Public Schools, shows the long-handed shovel that is used to remove coal ash from the furnace at Braddock Middle School in Cumberland, Md. are exhibited for inspection as the academic year approaches. (Michael A. Sawyers/Cumberland Times-News via AP) WHAG-TV OUT; MANDATORY CREDIT


In this Aug. 10, 2016 photo, Vincent Montant, director of facilities for Allegany Public Schools, shows the long-handed shovel that is used to remove coal ash from the furnace at Braddock Middle School in Cumberland, Md. are exhibited for inspection as the academic year approaches. (Michael A. Sawyers/Cumberland Times-News via AP)

Another week, and another New York Times story that oversimplifies the current situation in the nation’s coalfields … This time, it was a story headlined “Alienated and Angry, Coal Miners See Donald Trump as Their Only Choice.” It started this way:

Deep in the belly of an Appalachian mountain, a powerful machine bored into the earth, its whirring teeth clawing out a stream of glistening coal. Men followed inside the Maple Eagle No. 1 mine, their torches cutting through the dank air. One guided the machine with a PlayStation-like controller; others bolted supports in the freshly cut roof.

They were angry. The coal industry that made West Virginia prosperous has been devastated. Every day, it seemed, another mine laid off workers or closed entirely. Friends were forfeiting their cars, homes and futures.

For these men, this season’s presidential campaign boils down to a single choice. “I’m for Trump,” said Dwayne Riston, 27, his face smeared in dust. “Way I see it, if he wins, we might at least stand a chance of surviving.”

Few places in America offer such a simple electoral calculus as the rolling, tree-studded hills of West Virginia.

Yeah, OK. Few places are as often pigeonholed and depicted as devoid of any nuance — through a simple journalistic calculus without any effort at all at context — than the coalfields of West Virginia when the big-time, out-of-state political correspondents parachute in to enlighten the world. I have to check again to make sure Times reporter

Sure, the miners are angry. Yes, many of them see voting for Donald Trump as their only hope. But does anyone really believe that most of this story wasn’t already written in the correspondent’s head before he got off the plane or hopped in a rental car?

These stories are hard for the national media to resist, and a look at any of the projections for Trump’s sure victory in West Virginia explains part of the reason for that (see here or here). My point isn’t that Trump is not going to win here. That seems obvious.

Last week, another hotshot Times correspondent focused on “Beyond Coal” issues in Appalachia (mostly Kentucky) without mentioning the fact that the Obama administration was trying to throw billions of dollars at the region’s economic problems. This time, the Times makes hardly a mention of any of the local efforts at finding a path forward, with this:

Yet the people of Mingo County have forged their own brand of resilience, one born of the tight-knit rural values that draw embattled citizens together. For some, that means planning for a better future: Dr. Dino Beckett, a local physician, has spearheaded initiatives to grow healthy food locally and reduce diabetes. For others, it means lifting a defiant finger to the outside world.

For anyone who knows Dr. Beckett, that line makes it clear that the Times reporter didn’t spend enough time in the area (or with Google, for that matter), to understand that people are far more complex than either on the one hand spearheading forward-looking initiatives or, on the other hand, “lifting a defiant finger to the outside world.” West Virginians can both be trying to improve local public health and be tangled up with characters like jailed former Massey CEO Donald Blankenship (some readers may recall that the Hillary Clinton was likewise confused by finding actual nuance in Mingo County).

Then there was this line:

With salaries starting at $70,000 a year, a job in the mines was long considered the local jackpot. Mingo County’s breathtaking valleys and hollers — narrow creeks bordered by high hills — are lined with spacious homes, swimming pools and gleaming vehicles. Now, there is a palpable fear that the good life is gone, perhaps for good.

The local jackpot? That makes it sound like working in a coal mine isn’t incredibly hard work, not to mention incredibly dangerous work. This would have been a nice place for the Times reporter to make some mention at all of the downsides of the coal industry — things like black lung disease, mine explosions, water pollution … I could go on. Why is it that the Times is unable to show its readers that when one travels West Virginia, one finds incredible beauty and then, just around the bend, a moonscape or an orange stream? Why must we be “the other” place, a one-dimensional hollow that these “journalists” can’t seem to understand and are certain their cosmopolitan readers won’t get either.

More importantly, this story — like last week’s Times piece — chooses to make no effort at all to explain the complex reasons behind the decline in our region’s coal market. All this latest story gave us was this:

Political fury in Mingo County focuses squarely on the Environmental Protection Agency and President Obama, who is seen as having started a “war on coal.”

Why is it considered good journalism to cite all this “political fury” without providing any context to explain what’s really going on? It’s not like the Times doesn’t know about the context — they’ve published stuff about this very recently (see here and here).  It’s as if the Times believes politics and facts really should be separate things — and that political journalism shouldn’t involve ever providing context, especially if that context undermines the narrative or what voters are saying. There’s nothing wrong with giving the angry miners a voice. But that’s only part of the story.

Reporting on the fury, without reporting on the context — the constant drumbeat of campaign and issue ads that have for eight years now promoted the one-dimensional view of what’s hurting coal — simply helps to ensure that this same fury continues, and that no one understands what’s really going on.

I’m not the only one who sees problems with the way Big Media covers these kinds of issues. Bill Bishop had a great piece on The Daily Yonder the other day headlined “Politics & Elections: Rural-Urban Voters’ False Dichotomy.” Bill explained:

A recent wave of political stories seeks to explain the “rural” appeal of presidential candidate Donald Trump. But the analysis is marred by a fuzzy and often flat-out wrong definition of rural. Rural voters trend Republican, but in 2014, so did all voters except those in the largest metro areas.

There has been a spate of articles recently that try to explain what’s behind the rural support for Republican Donald Trump. Consider a story by National Public Radio headlined “Is ‘Rural Resentment’ Driving Voters to Donald Trump?”

Reporter Danielle Kurtzleben finds that rural areas are more Republican than the cities. Well, actually she finds that only those people who live in metro areas of a million or more vote in large majorities for Democrats. Every place outside those major metros mostly votes Republican.

One key to understanding current political reporting is that many national reporters seem to think that any area that is not within a major U.S. city is rural. Which leads to an aside: Isn’t it interesting how this data is always pitched as rural versus urban. A better description is that the nation’s huge cities are voting very differently from everyone else.

The NPR reporter runs down the differences between major cities and the rest of the country – major cities are more mixed racially, for example, and people there on average have more education. But she makes the case that “living in a rural area by itself shapes a person’s politics, and can particularly drive a voter toward Trump.”

Moving from politics, I wanted to point out an important editorial published in the Raleigh News & Observer in North Carolina:

Duke Energy has acted with more urgency to get to the source of the latest unflattering story about coal ash ponds than it did to solve the problems with the ponds themselves.

There seems little point in Duke’s legal move to try to find out the Associated Press source for a deposition transcript quoted in a story that embarrassed the administration of Gov. Pat McCrory, a former Duke employee. In that transcript, state toxicologist Dr. Ken Rudo claimed that McCrory was involved in a meeting in which the governor’s aides wanted to change the wording of a “do not drink” letter sent to homeowners living near coal ash ponds around North Carolina. The ponds, disposal sites for Duke Energy coal ash, came to prominence in 2014 with a massive spill in the Dan River.

And what’s the purpose, other than intimidation and potentially legal revenge, for Duke’s attempting to dig out the source of a leaked transcript? Doesn’t the company realize this kind of action makes it look like a corporate bully and, by the way, focuses even more attention on its coal ash problem?

Readers might also want to check out this recent story by the Gazette-Mail’s Andrew Brown:

FirstEnergy is asking to place an additional $6.9 million surcharge on MonPower and Potomac Edison customers for emission control upgrades at two power plants, which would raise the average customer’s cost of electricity by $6.60 per year.

The Akron-based electric utility company announced the proposed upgrades for the Harrison and Fort Martin coal-fired power plants in West Virginia on Tuesday. As part of the surcharge, the company said it intended to undertake 18 separate projects at the two plants, including improved emissions monitoring, boiler tuning, mercury toxin controls and flue gas desulfurization.

In particular:

Officials with FirstEnergy and the West Virginia Coal Association both said the surcharge would help West Virginia mines, which have suffered due to dropping coal prices, competition with the low-priced natural gas and federal regulations meant to cut down on air pollution.

“The law is aimed at stabilizing the struggling West Virginia coal industry, and we believe our proposed boiler modernization plan will help with that. Harrison and Fort Martin rely heavily on West Virginia coal,” said Meyers, “and West Virginia coal producers rely heavily on Mon Power as a market for their product.”

“First Energy’s investment in upgrades to their power plants likely wouldn’t have happened and the facilities would simply have been closed had it not been for what the Legislature did earlier this year,” said Bill Raney, the president of the coal association. “We thank them for their efforts to protect West Virginia jobs.”

There is no evidence that the Harrison or Fort Martin plants would have closed down without the surcharge law. FirstEnergy is guaranteed a financial return for the power plants from West Virginia customers and the company could have had the upgrades paid for through a traditional rate increase in the future.

Finally, we mentioned previously how West Virginia Sens. Joe Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito couldn’t resist taking a shot at the Obama administration when they issued statements about the recent distribution of nearly $40 million in economic aid for coalfield communities. What we probably weren’t clear on is that neither Sen. Manchin nor Sen. Capito attended the Power Plus event in Huntington. We did learn from the Wheeling paper, though, that Sen. Capito was at a different sort of event that same day:

Sen. Rob Portman outlined his thoughts on coal, miners’ jobs, jobs in general and the plight of families in the local region during a stop at the Rosebud Bergholz Mine Wednesday morning.

Portman, R-Ohio, was joined by Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., who said she supports Portman in his bid against former governor and congressman, Democrat Ted Strickland.

Among the things discussed was the coal company’s concerns about having to spend some money on new coal dust monitors meant to protect miners from black lung disease …

Have a good weekend everybody.