Mike Elk is a labor reporter and staff writer for In These Times Magazine.
On Friday, as cable news networks sought desperately to fill airtime while waiting for the latest news in the aftermath of the Boston bombings, a friend asked me, “How come there’s no manhunt for the owner of the Texas factory, which did far more damage than the Boston bombers?” He was right to wonder.
The explosion of the West Fertilizer Co. plant on April 17 in West, Tex., killed 14 people, injured more than 160 and destroyed dozens of buildings. Yet unlike the tragedy in Boston, the Texas plant explosion began to vanish from cable TV less than 36 hours after it occurred. Marquee correspondents like Anderson Cooper were pulled out of West and sent back to Boston, and little airtime was spared for updates from Texas, even as many town residents remained missing. The networks seemed to decide covering two big stories was covering one too many, as if we journalists can’t chew gum and walk at the same time. The media’s neglect has greatly increased the danger that the explosion will quickly be forgotten, to the detriment of U.S. workers.
The coverage so far of the Texas disaster is a far cry from the gold bar of workplace safety reporting, set by Walter Cronkite in 1968 following the Farmington, W.Va., mine explosion, in which 78 miners were killed. Then, Cronkite camped out for four days in a field in the middle of winter and provided in-depth stories on the mine explosion and its aftermath. Cronkite’s impassioned journalism is widely credited by workplace safety advocates as inspiring the passage of the first federal mine safety legislation: the 1969 Coal Mine Health and Safety Act. Since the legislation was enacted, the number of coal mining accidents have plummeted from 311 in 1968 to just 19 in 2012.
Over the years, though, the media have not kept up Cronkite’s dogged reporting on workplace safety — or on workers at all. This decline in coverage has created an environment in which companies may feel as if they can get away with massive safety violations because they will face little scrutiny from the media and the public. For instance, in 2010, an explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia killed 29 miners. In the year leading up to the explosion, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the mine was cited 458 times for safety violations, with 50 of those violations being “for willful or gross negligence”— a rate nearly five times the national average for a single mine. But after the disaster, this information and the story of the mine disaster vanished from the national discourse, and new mine safety legislation failed to pass even a Democratic-controlled House of Representatives.
For those of us who covered the Upper Big Branch explosion and have continued to report its investigation three years later, many of us fear that once again knowledge of why a massive workplace disaster occurred — knowledge that could save lives in the future — will be kept out of the public discourse because the media simply won’t cover it. Has a single worker employed at the fertilizer plant been interviewed on cable TV? Where are the crowds of reporters trying to find the owner of the plant? And what about experts being rolled out to discuss what caused the explosion and how those responsible for this disaster will face justice?