Over the last week, the “retired” Massey Energy CEO, Don Blankenship, has once again become a bit of a national media darling. He’s done appearances on ABC News and MSNBC, among others. Perhaps the most ridiculous was the interview he did with something called HuffPost Live, which started out with this exchange:
Interviewer: I’m always interested when I talk to people who have reached the very top of their fields what they wanted to do when they were young. You were growing up in a not rich family with a single mother in a West Virginia town. Did you ever dream of being a titan of industry? What did you want to do?
Blankenship: I think I wanted to be a professional baseball player at the time.
Incredibly, later in that particular show, the host, Josh Zepps, asks Blankenship this question:
It can only imagine the kind of pressure a CEO and the chairman of a huge company is under. And if I try to put myself in your shoes or in the shoes of a CEO, I can sort of imagine that if i have a fiduciary responsibility to a board and shareholders to make sure the profits are as good as they can be, then I’m sort of sympathetic to the idea that, look I’m not forcing my workers to work here, I’m not forcing anyone to do anything. We all use energy, we all use coal. Providing America with cheap and affordable coal is my job. That’s my responsibility. Maybe there are corners that have to be cut. Is that a trade off that happens?
Eventually, Zepps is gushing at Blankenship, when he asks him about a variety of issues beyond coal mining:
You’re an interesting guy, so it’s interesting to get your thoughts on these political things.
What I couldn’t help thinking all week, though, after watching all 51 minutes of “Upper Big Branch: Never Again” was why the media was going along with Blankenship and calling this a documentary. Lots of people probably have lots of definitions of “documentary,” but here’s one that I found:
A documentary film is a nonfictional motion picture intended to document some aspect of reality, primarily for the purposes of instruction or maintaining a historical record.
It seems pretty obvious to me that so much of this YouTube video is fiction that the definition just doesn’t apply. Then there’s the notion of what part of reality it is trying to depict, not to mention whether it provides much to accurately maintain a historical record. But beyond that, it seems a little insulting to the good people who work hard to make real documentaries to lump this in with their films. Do we really think that this recycling of Blankenship’s discredited arguments about the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster belongs in the same category as something like Hollow, the Appalachian interactive documentary that just won a Peabody Award?
Seriously now. You’re going to give us a former Massey board member pontificating about the disaster, and identify him as if he were just any old mining engineer?
By now, if you’re following this issue at all, we know that some of the individuals interviewed for the video have said they either didn’t understand Blankenship’s involvement in funding the project or allege they were specifically misled about his role.
And of course, we’ve seen the somewhat bizarre situation in which Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., is complaining he didn’t know about Blankenship’s role and demanding that the video be removed from the Internet and not distributed. You have to wonder how this possibly could have happened. And most importantly, some of Sen. Manchin’s comments included in the video were a bit odd.
For example, when the interviewer in the video is pitching Blankenship’s view that a massive inundation of natural gas was what caused the explosion, Sen. Manchin responds, “I never heard that. I always assumed that it was methane.” What? To be sure, the Blankenship-Massey “Act of God” theory about a natural gas inundation got plenty of attention from the media (see here and here, for example). It’s hard to believe Sen. Manchin had never heard of it or wasn’t briefed on that controversy. Surely Sen. Manchin read MSHA’s report on the disaster, and it discusses this issue extensively.