Mining for information

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 13, 2010; 10:36 AM

It's depressingly clear, based on a recent spate of stories, that mine safety efforts in this country have become utterly dysfunctional.

In a nutshell, as last week's tragedy in West Virginia made all too obvious, fundamentally unsafe mines are allowed to remain in operation, endangering the lives of those who work within their dark confines.

The New York Times says that the Mine Safety and Health Administration "remains fundamentally weak in several areas, and it does not always use the powers it has. The agency can seek to close mines that it deems unsafe and to close repeat offenders, but it rarely does so.

"The fines it levies are relatively small, and many go uncollected for years. It lacks subpoena power, a basic investigatory tool. Its investigators are not technically law enforcement officers, like those at other agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency. And its criminal sanctions are weak."

The Washington Post, citing government safety officials, says: "A surge in the number of challenges to mine safety citations has clogged a federal appeals process, allowing 32 coal mines to avoid tougher enforcement measures last year. . . .

"Five of those mines are owned by Massey Energy, which is contesting more federal safety fines than any other coal mining company in the nation, according to data and federal officials. By contesting the citations, the 32 mines were able to avoid falling into a 'potential pattern of violation' category, which would have brought closer scrutiny and moved regulators a step closer to the ability to restrict or shut down operations."

And: "Coal mine operators have paid just 7% of the fines they have received for major health and safety violations in the past three years, a USA TODAY analysis of federal records shows.

"The low payment rate is eroding the government's ability to pressure mining companies to improve safety, particularly at coal mines with repeated serious violations, officials and advocates say."

Each of these stories is based on good reporting. And each one could have been written before the Massey mine explosion that killed 29 people.

This is ambulance-chasing journalism, arriving late at the scene of the accident. It reminds me of how reporters began digging into the records of the National Highway and Transportation Safety Agency after Toyota drivers started dying because their accelerator pedals were stuck.

The public records are available. You don't need to be meeting sources in parking garages. It is not that difficult to document the extent to which federal agencies are or are not doing their jobs.

The problem, and it's not a new one, is that covering regulatory agencies isn't considered sexy. There are exceptions, of course, but these agencies are generally deemed a backwater by the MSM -- notwithstanding the fact that they have a huge impact on such matters as food, drugs, air travel, workplace safety, the environment. That changes, of course, the minute there's a calamity. Then journalists start examining MSHA or NHTSA or OSHA and the public learns about how slow or sloppy or undermanned these agencies are. That stays in the news for a week or two, then fades until the next debacle.

Footnote: This was nevertheless a good story, based on a leaked e-mail:

" 'I hate to break this to you,' a Toyota executive wrote, 'but we have a tendency for mechanical failure in accelerator pedals of a certain manufacturer on certain models.' The message continued: 'The time to hide on this one is over. We need to come clean.' "

Prize time

My report on The Washington Post winning four Pulitzers, the New York Times three -- one shared with a nonprofit outfit for the first time -- and the small paper in Virginia that captured the public service medal.

I wouldn't have thought it possible, but the Washington Times manages to publish a staff-written story that doesn't mention the newspaper that won the most Pulitzers:

"The 2009 Pulitzer Prizes were awarded Monday, and among the journalistic winners was the Bristol Herald Courier newspaper in Southwest Virginia, while the runners-up included former Washington Times photographer Mary F. Calvert, honored for her pictures depicting the systematic, brutal attacks on women in the Congo." Also mentioned: the New York Times, Seattle Times, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Pro Publica.

But apparently there's a blackout for that other Washington newspaper. Stay classy, guys.

Justice Clinton?

The rumor lasted about 10 minutes, long enough for Ed Morrissey to hold forth at Hot Air:

"A Hillary nomination actually solves a few problems for Obama. The Senate usually likes to confirm current and former members of the club, which would take a lot of the sting out of the confirmation process. While Republicans in the upper chamber probably won't vote for Hillary, they also would be very unlikely to filibuster her nomination. Her relative lack of a top-line legal career will get trumped by her political career, so even the 'legal acumen' argument can be bypassed.

"Politically, Obama gets a win by puting another woman on the court. Unlike with at least one of the apparent short-listers (Elana Kagan), no one will doubt Hillary's liberal bona fides. But best of all, Obama would be dispatching the one Democrat who could conceivably win a primary race against him in 2012 if his numbers continue to fall. Once on the Supreme Court, Hillary would not step down to run for president, and Bill Clinton would be effectively neutralized as well.

"There are only two flies in the ointment. First, Hillary is a little old for SCOTUS picks. At 63, she might only get 20 years tops on the court, where a younger pick could have twice that amount, extending the Obama legacy further. The bigger problem would be nominating a new Secretary of State."

Hillary's not running in 2012 no matter what. And the White House spoiled the fun by saying she's staying at Foggy Bottom.

Meanwhile, "on Monday, other names began to surface. A White House official confirmed that Judge Sidney Thomas of the federal appeals court of Montana is on Mr. Obama's list, as are Janet Napolitano, the homeland security secretary, Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, and Leah Ward Sears, a former chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court who made history as the first black woman to serve as a chief justice in a United States court."

I would wager some of those names are being floated to just please certain constituencies, or the people themselves.

Checking the facts

My item yesterday quoting David Gregory as saying that "Meet the Press" would not follow Jake Tapper's lead at "This Week" by fact-checking the guests' appearances has generated some buzz. Washington Monthly's Steve Benen says Gregory's response "suggests a certain misunderstanding of the point of the exercise.

"One of the Sunday shows invites a high-profile guest to discuss current events. The guest responds to pointed questions, and makes a variety of claims and arguments. Some of those claims and arguments will be accurate, and some won't. For the news consumer watching at home, the information gleaned from the interview is only useful if he/she knows whether the guest's comments are factual.

"With that in mind, the Sunday shows have a couple of choices. First, hosts can become knowledgeable about the subject matter and fact-check the guests' claims during the program. Second, the shows can partner with independent fact-checkers like 'This Week' has done with PolitiFact. Or third, some combination of the two.

"Gregory's comments suggest a more traditional approach: let viewers figure things out 'on their own terms.' Why separate fact from fiction for news consumers when they can do that on their own?"

The PolitiFact site started its "This Week" truth-squadding on Sunday.

Confederate legacy

Bob McDonnell's apology, after the Virginia governor failed to mention slavery in his proclamation to study the state's confederate past, has kicked off a genuine debate about what happened 150 years ago. Newsweek Editor Jon Meacham draws a parallel to modern-day politics:

"Whitewashing the war is one way for the right -- alienated, anxious and angry about the president, health care reform and all manner of threats, mostly imaginary -- to express its unease with the Age of Obama, disguising hate as heritage. . . .

"The enduring problem for neo-Confederates endures: anyone who seeks an Edenic Southern past in which the war was principally about states' rights and not slavery is searching in vain, for the Confederacy and slavery are inextricably and forever linked."

At Politics Daily, Carl Cannon reminds us what some leading southerners were saying a century and a half ago:

"It was not a coincidence that the Civil War broke out. . . . in South Carolina. That state had always been . . . home to a special breed of Southern politician, men like Rep. James Henry Hammond, who said this on the House floor in an 1836 speech sarcastically castigating those who would confer freedom, or even common humanity, on blacks:

" 'Are we prepared to see them mingling in our Legislatures? Is any portion of this country prepared to see them enter these halls and take their seats by our sides, in perfect equality with the white representatives of an Anglo Saxon race. . . . to see them placed at the heads of your Departments; or to see, perhaps, some 'Othello' or 'Toussaint' or 'Boyer' gifted with genius and inspired by ambition grasp the presidential wreath, and wield the destinies of this great Republic? From such a picture I turn with irrepressible disgust.'

"Well, it took 172 years, but an African-American with a name a lot more exotic than Othello or Toussaint did indeed become president of these United States. . . .

"Jefferson Davis, in a speech to the Confederate Congress in April 1861, extolled slavery as a benevolent invention that allowed a 'superior race' to transform 'brutal savages into docile, intelligent, and civilized agricultural laborers.' "

That's pretty unambiguous, wouldn't you say?

Tea trouble

This is pretty raw stuff:

"An online news outlet in New York state has obtained dozens of emails, many of them racist and sexually graphic, which it reports were sent by Carl Paladino, the Tea-Party-backed Republican candidate for governor of New York, to a long list of political and business associates. One email shows a video of an African tribal dance, entitled 'Obama Inauguration Rehearsal,' while another depicts hardcore bestiality.

"Paladino's campaign manager, Michael Caputo, would not comment on specific emails, but acknowledged to TPMmuckraker that Paladino had sent emails that were 'off-color' and 'politically incorrect,' saying that few such emails represented the candidate's own opinion. Caputo accused Democrats of wanting to change the subject from substantive issues to 'having sex with horses.' "

Paladino sent them out, but few represent his opinion? Huh? Whose opinion do they represent?

Slamming Spitzer

Eliot Spitzer's media comeback -- he's now a fill-in cable host -- has brought this blast from his past, the Daily Caller reports:

"Kristin Davis, the New York madame who supplied call girls to former Governor Eliot Spitzer, blasted MSNBC for using Spitzer as a guest host last week to fill in for liberal MSNBC commentator Dylan Ratigan. Davis, who went to prison for promoting prostitution in the scandal that forced Spitzer to resign, is now running as the libertarian candidate for governor of the Empire State."

I guess you could say she's an expert.

Et tu, Twitter?

The announcement is coming today: "The advertising program, which Twitter calls Promoted Tweets, will show up when Twitter users search for keywords that the advertisers have bought to link to their ads."

The power of Oprah

Kitty Kelley's just-released book "Oprah" contains a number of interesting media tidbits, including the tale of how a potential story about her got spiked.

Journalist Diane Dimond, who worked for the syndicated show "Hard Copy," conducted several interviews with Oprah Winfrey's ex-boyfriend, Randy Cook, in the 1980s. On the show, owned by Paramount Pictures, "there wasn't anyone we couldn't cover," Dimond tells Kelley. "But I found out fast that Oprah Winfrey was definitely the one untouchable when Linda Bell Blue, my producer. . . . got a call from none other than Jonathan Dolgen, head of Paramount, who screamed and yelled until Linda promised to call me off . . . She told me that we could not be seen as attacking one of the most successful black women in America. . . . At that point I had to drop the story."

Oprah was sensitive to press coverage, according to the book, which cites Barbara Grizzuti Harrison's critical 1989 piece, "The Importance of Being Oprah," in the New York Times Magazine.

"Oprah was furious about that article," author Erica Jong told Kelley, "and she told me she did not want anyone writing about her, especially a white woman for a white publication. 'I don't need a honky magazine to canonize me,' she said." Jong was attempting to get Oprah's cooperation for a piece in the New Yorker.

The book describes Bill O'Reilly as "nearly apoplectic" in 2006 when he couldn't get on Winfrey's show to promote his book "Culture Warrior" -- especially after Oprah interviewed Times columnist Frank Rich about his anti-Bush administration book. An unnamed Doubleday publicist is quoted as saying that the Fox News host called Oprah, told her she was being one-sided and "absolutely browbeat her and Oprah was so cowed that she agreed to have him on."

Perhaps the subject will come up when Kelley appears on the "O'Reilly Factor" Tuesday night.

Team Coco picks cable

"One of the perceived snags of Conan O'Brien going to cable was that he wouldn't get the same kind of big paycheck that he'd gotten at NBC and would probably command from Fox," the L.A. Times reports.

"But as part of his deal with Time Warner's Turner Broadcasting to host a late-night show on TBS, O'Brien will have ownership of the show. That will give him the potential to make a lot more money than if he were just a hired hand hosting a show owned by a network. O'Brien's deal is for five years.

"A deal between O'Brien's camp and TBS was struck in about 72 hours, according to people involved in the talks. TBS had previously indicated it was not interested in O'Brien, but Turner Entertainment chief Steve Koonin said in an interview that was in part because 'we assumed he had a deal with Fox.' "

It seems like a step down for the former host of the "Tonight Show." But with the freedom of cable, Conan could forget about a Leno-like mass audience and become more of a Jon Stewart figure.

Howard Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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