Wednesday, January 04, 2006


... but sadly, it's a tragedy, and a cruel one. There are villains in the piece, and it will take some time to know exactly who they are. If it proves that the mining company was careless with its workers' lives, they will top the list-- but mining remains a tremendously dangerous job in an environment which will never be entirely under human control. People whose lives depend upon the mining enterprise are therefore always braced, to some degree, for the freak accident that brings disaster.

As a result, one is almost tempted to place greater blame on whoever it was who communicated to the families what he was clearly in no position to assure-- that the trapped men had been found alive-- ALL of them-- there never seemed to be any doubt in that aspect of the bogus report. Yes, it was probably the product of emotion and wishful thinking, and there was probably a certain logic to believing that a call for medical assistance, oxygen, etc. (which undoubtedly took place) was evidence of life, enough to spark the telephone chain among on-the-spot rescuers acting on their hopes and emotions. It was, nevertheless, irresponsible, and, in the end, profoundly cruel.

Those who actually possessed the authority to provide official communications are equally high on the villain list, even if they were unaware that false news had been carried to the families, and that unwarranted celebration had broken out. It was their duty to get the truth, for good or ill, to those who had been keeping vigil. It could not possibly have taken more than three hours to produce at least a preliminary indication that all was not well, and that optimism was not a good idea. It should have taken no longer than half an hour after the men were found to give official word that they were, at best, unconscious and unresponsive, and perhaps that efforts to resuscitate were underway but no final word on success was yet available. Anything less than this was, again, irresponsible and cruel, regardless of whether they had any idea that down the road at the Baptist church there was premature jubiliation in progress.

There will, of course, be an impulse to blame the media for their wildly enthusiastic dissemination of unsubstantiated good news, and the swiftness with which they all seem to have switched the story to the safety violations at the mine indicates that their has been pants-wetting panic in the executive suites of the major networks, both MSM and cable. However, I don't place them so much on the villain list, since the vast majority of those whom they have misled are not people with a personal stake in the fates of the miners. The media are less villains than totally unprofessional dupes in this messy business. They were roused from their midnight naps by the rumble of new developments, were met by cheering, weeping, ecstatic family and friends of the victims, and took the mob jubiliation at face value.

Not a single news organization appears to have found it necessary to confirm with persons in authority the accuracy of happy reports, or even to suggest that response should be tempered until they were able to do so. They did not suggest that there was anything to be read in the fact that a news conference, apparently scheduled for a particular time, did not take place and was postponed indefinitely. They simply launched into that notorious exercise in journalistic laziness, the "How did you feel?" interview, as well as creeping ahead to the, at that point, rather tasteless next news cycle story about the safety violations.

Now that they have humiliated themselves and had their full-tilt-boogie screw-up exposed, they are charging into the corporate malfeasance story, and have pushed past it into the "What kind of legislation should be proposed?" phase of the not-yet-commenced inquiry.

It's a sad day in so many ways, but certainly another black mark on the media that run on emotion instead of information. Comparisons will be made with the most hysterical over-reaches of the Hurricane Katrina coverage, although that doesn't seem quite fair. Katrina was an opportunity to embarrass federal authorities, an agenda which was carried out best by those who deliberately ignored matters of both fact and law which were entirely accessible to anyone who wanted the truth. (That they have issued almost no correctives in the face of a mass of information contradicting the most outrageous and sanctimonious media-perpetuated lies tells us all we need to know about their agenda.)

All who covered the mining disaster were at the mercy of the people running the rescue effort, and wishful thinking and empathy stampeded into the needless information gap between those on the inside and those waiting in agony on the top. The newshounds have been caught once again behaving like teen-agers let loose with the school's A/V equipment, this time with the best of intentions, but nevertheless having done no small amount of harm, to their own business if nothing else. They were unlikely to admit having learned anything from Katrina, where the violations of journalistic ethics were legion and the lessons much more important, but perhaps they will be chastened in their genuine grief for this terrible turn of events, and remember the value of concepts like objectivity, sourcing, and W5H (who-what-when-where-why-and-how) truth.

There will be lots of moving photographs associated with this story in the days to come. To my mind, it already has an icon, Mr. John Casto, a friend of three of the dead, who was permitted to speak at length to Miles O'Brien of CNN. He was a wonderful, unpretentious image of working America: grammar a little faulty, accent unmistakeably rural, perspective on life decidedly foreign to the guys with the suits and mics and cameras, but utterly mainstream to those of us in the real mainstream. He told of the joy and pain of the community, with the eloquence of radical (in the literal sense) faith and virtue. I think the newshounds were momentarily mesmerized, and were jerked back into urban consciousness only when Casto nodded directly at each of them (O'Brien and the unseen camera operator) and called them "brothers" because "I believe in Christ." Whoa Nelly-- camera backs out, thanks for your time, now back to you, Anderson...

I guess Jon Stewart can now be taken off "miracle watch" (see below) -- but it could have happened, and it would have been a real one. In fact, should 27-year-old Randal McCloy Jr., the lone survivor, recover, the case for at least one miracle will be strong indeed.
Miracle status unconfirmed

Twelve of the thirteen miners trapped deep within a West Virginia coal mine have been found alive and are at this moment being taken to area hospitals for examination and treatment.

In a country where ordinary citizens are increasingly forbidden pray with friends at school, to sing Christmas carols or give non-denominational invocations at public gatherings, or to place religious objects on their own desks in the workplace, politicians and electronic media mouthpieces continue to have total freedom to invoke God, prayer, and miracles in times of community crisis. Spokescritters have unleashed a torrent of this kind of rhetoric, flowing at full speed over more than 40 hours of agonized waiting as the miners were rescued. West Virginia public officials and mining company executives did not hesitate to do the same.

While one member of the mining crew was lost near the explosion site, it has been roundly and repeatedly pronounced a "miracle" that the other twelve took refuge even deeper in the mine and survived.

The final verdict on whether or not this consistutes a miracle will be left, as it no doubt should be, to that font of wit and wisdom, John Stewart of the The Daily Show-- that pundit without peer who, you may remember, upon hearing of the Air France disaster of August 3, 2005, where a fully loaded airliner skidded off the runway at Toronto's Pearson Airport and plowed into a ravine, instantly bursting into flames, made a clear and dispassionate case for there having been nothing miraculous whatsoever about the fact that all 309 passengers and crew on board escaped alive. No doubt bucking for a spot at the Vatican as one of the Supremely Serious and Important People Who Decide These Things, Stewart's prounouncement on the air crash was thorough, uncompromising, and definitive (not to mention cynical and contemptuous), and we expect that by Wednesday midnight he will have deftly executed the deconstruction of all preposterous claims of "miracle" now littering the public discourse about these miners and their rescuers, whose actions, like those of the Air France crew, consisted pretty much in remembering their notes from first aid class and following the standard directions found on their survival gear. What's the big deal anyhow?