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.