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

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."

Labor Department spokesman David James says the call was put together on the fly and there was no attempt to exclude the Gazette. He says Ward made an unfounded complaint after the department worked hard to get him answers amid the chaos Tuesday night.

No reporter bothered to check that night as they reported the miners were alive, which he would have explained was unconfirmed, James says. "We were working all night," he says. "Our phones did not ring one time."

Man on a Mission

In his 15 years as editor of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Jim Amoss never shed his journalistic objectivity -- until now. He has become an unapologetic crusader, ordering up front-page editorials and writing columns demanding that the country rescue his devastated city.

"Have I become an advocate?" he asks. "If the editor of a newspaper can't advocate the very survival of his community . . . " He stops himself. "That's a role that should come naturally to us. I deeply believe this is an urban disaster of a magnitude that no one except those that are here can grasp. And that includes the Congress and to some extent the administration."

Even as he directs the paper's news coverage of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Amoss, 58, has aggressively pushed for more federal aid. In a Page 1 editorial in November -- Amoss also oversees the opinion pages -- the paper said America wanted the city's oil and gas and oysters and shrimp, but that some in Washington were saying, "We were foolish. . . . We settled in a place that is lower than the sea. We should have expected to drown. . . . They act as if we wore our skirts too short and invited trouble. We can't put up with that."

In a subsequent piece for The Washington Post, Amoss wrote: "Can America, having witnessed the loss of well over 1,000 lives to Katrina, not rouse itself?"

The paper has returned to its once-flooded headquarters and regained more than two-thirds of its 270,000 circulation. Still, the fact that many staffers lost their homes -- Amoss's house suffered wind damage and was looted -- has fueled their passionate reporting.

"You really need to see it to understand what has befallen a major American city," Amoss says, but this clashes with "our ever-shortening attention span as a nation. After most sensational aspects have worn off, I sense the nation saying, 'Surely they must have gotten over this by now. Please end the whining.' "

Whether the Newhouse paper can thrive in a shrunken city is very much an open question. So is whether Amoss and his staff have forfeited their neutrality in their zeal to help the region.

The paper's role "is to use extraordinary means to convey what has happened and keep a picture of what has happened before the rest of America," Amoss says. "That certainly does take me outside of my usual job. Does that blind me to the dangers of blanket advocacy? No."

Congress approved a $29 billion package of Gulf Coast hurricane relief just before Christmas. Says Amoss: "I still have, and the newspaper still has, a role in seeing that money was properly spent, and investigating any corruption in the way that money was spent."

Footnote : Friends of the Times-Picayune, which is helping staffers who lost their homes, just received a $50,000 grant from the Annenberg Foundation, bringing its total to $130,000.

Editors in Glass Houses

When the Atlanta Journal-Constitution criticized Georgia officials for offering tax incentives to induce a local insurance company to add 2,000 jobs, Gov. Sonny Perdue's office decided to push back.

Communications Director Dan McLagan wrote in an op-ed piece that when the paper's parent company, Cox Enterprises, "returns the $6.7 million in Fulton County property tax incentives it received to locate its headquarters in the county, then it will have the credibility to make such judgments." But Editorial Page Editor Cynthia Tucker cut that sentence from the piece, which she had solicited.

Tucker says she made the deletion because she had no time to check the facts when McLagan submitted the column, slated to respond to a Journal-Constitution editorial running the next day, at 7 p.m. Tucker also maintains that the sentence about the tax break -- which Cox, using different calculations, says is worth $3.4 million -- wasn't vital to McLagan's piece.

"His reference to Cox not only didn't strengthen his case, it didn't have anything to do with it," she says. "He just wanted to call Cox hypocritical."

But McLagan insists the Cox benefit was "pretty central" to his argument, saying: "Obviously she didn't want to publish anything denigrating to her parent company, so she struck it."


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