“I can handle big
news and little news. And if there’s no news, I’ll go out and bite a
-- Charles Tatum, Reporter in Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (The
Big Carnival, 1951).
the same day that some university media organization moved to ban the word
“surreal” from our lexicon, I witnessed one of the most surreal events I
It was the second
day of the Sago coalmine disaster and I was trying to remember an old
movie about an out-of-control reporter spinning a very human tragedy about
a man trapped in a mine into a marketable yarn.
The story began on Monday with the “breaking news” that an explosion in a
West Virginia coalmine left thirteen miners trapped below the surface.
CNN immediately went into full-court press with 24-7 coverage, featuring
interviews with mining officials, former miners, government
representatives, corporate spokespersons and distraught relatives
assembled in the local church.
Anderson Cooper, CNN’s man of the moment, rushed to the scene to take the
lead with periodic updates, rumors and expressions of anguish. Cooper was
the man who pushed the stoic Aaron Brown off the air, replacing whatever
was left of objective journalism on “The Most Trusted Name in News” with a
new, action oriented, in your face brand of news reporting. He had made
his reputation playing hardball with freshman US Senator Mary Landrieu,
Governor Kathleen Blanco and Mayor Ray Nagin in the aftermath of Hurricane
Katrina. At the time, it seemed a refreshing resurgence of backbone in a
media that was losing credibility with the viewing public. Later, we
learned he was only serving the White House strategy of blame shifting. He
never took on FEMA or Michael Brown until the White House made it clear
that Brownie was the designated fall guy.
reporter, Charles Tatum, said to his client: “I’m a thousand-dollar-a-day
newspaperman. You can have me for nothing.”
As the second day of the Sago mining disaster dragged on, it became clear
that realistic hope was getting thin. Reports of toxic air quality
filtered in and experts delivered cautionary reports. Still, friends and
relatives hung on, clinging to faith and praying for the improbable. As
the night drew to an end, 41 hours after the initial explosion, the
improbable was delivered with the news that twelve of the miners were
America went to
sleep on the surrealistic pillow of a miracle. Our luck had not run out.
Our prayers would still be answered and our dreams would come true.
It no longer
mattered that the Sago mine had been issued 270 safety code citations over
the last two years, including a shut down for dangerous buildup of
flammable coal dust and inadequate ventilation to dissipate dangerous
gases. It no longer mattered that “clean coal” technology is an oxymoron
or that enforcement of safety regulations under the Bush administration is
a joke. It no longer mattered that men were compelled to take dangerous
jobs in unsafe environments because so few options were available to the
workforce. It only mattered that twelve of thirteen survived.
The dawn of a new
day brought the heartbreaking news that the media got it wrong, that
twelve of the thirteen miners were dead and the lone survivor was in
critical condition. Media scrambled to explain an incredible lapse in news
reporting as a problem of communication.
It was a hard pill to swallow. What began as the new standard of
an ambulance-chasing, pounce and run, news event ended with a betrayal of
the public trust. The mass reporting of a false miracle at the end of a
daily news cycle was plastered in headlines across the nation.
Reporter to Charles
Tatum: “We’re all in the same boat.”
Tatum: “I’m in the boat. You’re in the water. Now let’s see how you can
coverage of the West Virginia mining disaster continued on the third day.
The nature of the story had changed but the drama lived on.
There is something
very disturbing in the devolution of our media to the sensation-oriented
atmosphere of a 1951 movie starring Kirk Douglas. While CNN was fixated on
the mining disaster, the west coast was recovering from disastrous floods
and fires were still raging across Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico. A new
wave of violence in Iraq was answered by a targeted US air strike, killing
a family of women and children. Iran announced intentions to resume
nuclear research, Russia threatened Europe’s supply of natural gas by
cutting off Ukraine, and Jack Abramoff, the biggest fat cat in Washington,
copped a plea in a deal that will shake the capitol to its core.
It was not exactly a
slow news cycle.
Democracy requires a
vibrant, independent, engaged press if it is to survive. In modern times,
the only press that matters is the media. If this is an example of the
best they can do, our democracy is in trouble.
The Sago coalmine
disaster was a riveting drama. It drew us in. It is important. It is not,
however, worthy of three days of full-time coverage. To deliver the news
in this manner is a disservice to all Americans, including the exploited
families of the event itself. The greater tragedy is that it has become
the standard of modern journalism. It is a media of constant distraction.
It is a media that shocks and engages the senses but does not inform. It
is a media that moves seamlessly from one drama to another with little
regard for those stories and events that will shape our nation’s future.
It is the solemn duty of the media to provide our citizens with the
information we need to make intelligent decisions in choosing
our representatives and guiding the affairs of state. To the extent that
media is obsessed with the sensational, while the most important
developments and issues of our times go underreported, the media have
I cannot but think that it would be different if the media were not owned
by the same corporate interests that our government represents.
My heart goes out to the friends and families of the coal miners in West
Virginia. They were not well served in this tragedy. They will not be
well served by the continued exploitation of their grief.
is the author of Ghost Dance Insurrection (Dry Bones Press) the
Jazzman Chronicles, Volumes I and II (City
Lights Books). The Chronicles have been published by
CounterPunch, the Albion Monitor, Buzzle, Dissident
Voice and others. Visit his website:
Other Articles by Jack
* Pataki &
Bloomberg: How to Bust a Union
Imperial President and the NSA Spying Scandal
* France and
the Burning Embers of Repression
Activist Court & the Neoconservative Agenda
* The Agnew
Factor: Clearing the Impeachment Path
* Iraq and
New Orleans: The ABCs of Police Lawlessness
* The Age of
Catastrophe: Preparing for Disaster
* No Tears
for Rehnquist: The Legacy of a Chief Justice
Tolerance: Bush Gets Tough as New Orleans Suffers
* Hugo Chavez
and the American Slug: Pat Robertson’s Call for Assassination
* The Lie of
a Strong Economy (Beneath the Towers of Avarice)
Again: Major Party Turnabout
* The New War
Candidate: Major Paul Hackett for Congress
* Free Judy!
The Fine Art of Calling a Bluff
Blackmail: The Betrayal of Democracy in Haiti
* Blame the
Democrats & Move On: The Federalist Court
the Wind: The Inevitable End of the Iraqi Occupation
* London and
Madrid: Reflections on the War on Terror
Miller: The Anti-Hero
Scherzo: The Last Waltz
* The Last
Throes: The Light at the End of the Tunnel
Bush -- US Out Now!
* Recall the
* The Gates
of Hell: Occupied Iraq
* May Day:
The Rise & Fall of the Middle Class
* The Papal
Aristocracy: Confessions of a Nonbeliever
* No Citizen
* A Marine
Comes Home: The Untold Story of War
Compassionate Leader -- In a Time of Crisis
Defense of Barry Bonds
Dan? Rather Not
Went to Canada...& Johnny Got His Gun