Mine Disaster's Terrible Irony: A Failure to Look Deeper

A makeshift memorial in Phillippi, W.Va.
A makeshift memorial in Phillippi, W.Va. (By Mark Wilson -- Getty Images)
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 9, 2006

It was the most heart-rending and humiliating botch of a life-and-death story in modern memory, yet most journalists, naturally, aren't blaming themselves.

It was everyone else's fault, they say. We just published and broadcast what we were told, and it turned out to be wrong.

Tragically wrong, as in the Washington Post headline in Wednesday's late editions: "12 Found Alive in W.Va. Coal Mine." Or USA Today's banner: " 'Alive!' Miners Beat the Odds." Or the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: "12 Miners Alive." Or Newsday: "Miracle in the Mine."

All the cable news networks got it wrong as well, such as MSNBC's Rita Cosby: "We have some stunning news. NBC News and the Associated Press have just confirmed information that the 12 miners, remember 12 were missing, that they are alive. This is incredible news."

Hours later came the chilling confirmation that all but one were dead.

AP Managing Editor Mike Silverman offered a typical response: "AP was reporting accurately the information that we were provided by credible sources -- family members and the governor."

But the "credible sources" were simply misinformed, just as the New Orleans police chief erroneously declared after Hurricane Katrina that people had been raped and murdered in the Superdome. In this case, a misunderstood or misspoken message from rescuers in the mine was relayed to a command center and then to anxious family members, who told reporters. While the mining company's refusal to correct the misinformation for hours is inexplicable, the situation was exacerbated by the journalistic reluctance to say the facts are unconfirmed and we just don't know. Experienced journalists should have understood that early, fragmentary information in times of crisis is often wrong.

Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie says the only thing he would change "would be to attribute the lead, as opposed to The Washington Post saying it flatly. That would have been an accurate story, that people were saying [the miners] were alive and jumping around joyously. Obviously, everybody believed they were alive. . . . I think the media's performance here was fine under the circumstances."

The larger issue is that much of the press has abandoned reporting on health and safety regulation until disaster strikes. How many reporters have dug into the Labor Department's Mine Safety and Health Administration, which under the Bush administration was run by a former Utah mine manager until last year? About as many as did pieces, before Hurricane Katrina, on why a former Arabian horse official was running the dysfunctional bureaucracy of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Heck of a job.

"I have tried to get the general press interested," says Ellen Smith, owner of the trade publication Mine Safety and Health News. "I just kind of gave up."

The mine agency has received scant coverage, even as it has changed -- critics say softened -- the Clinton administration's enforcement approach. Since 2001, according to a database search, The Post has published three staff-written stories on mine safety not related to a specific accident; the New York Times, two; Wall Street Journal, one; Chicago Tribune, one; and Los Angeles Times and USA Today, none. "60 Minutes" did one segment on a mine safety whistle-blower.

Perhaps the most persistent reporter has been Ken Ward of West Virginia's Charleston Gazette, who says that under the Bush administration, the mine safety agency "started clamping down on folks like me" and "people we dealt with all the time were all of a sudden instructed not to talk." Ward says the agency didn't tell the Gazette of a media conference call last week: "It's pretty amazing that a federal agency would hold a briefing on the biggest mining disaster in West Virginia in 40 years and exclude the biggest paper in the state."

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