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January 06, 2006

Greg, you're full of crap

"In one of the most disturbing media performances of its kind in recent years, TV news and many newspapers carried the tragically wrong news late Tuesday and early Wednesday that 12 of 13 trapped coal miners in West Virginia had been found alive and safe. Hours later they had to reverse course." -- Greg Mitchell, columinist for the trade publication "Editor and Publisher"

Greg, you're full of crap. If your eyes weren't brown when you started this piece, they were by the time you put the last period in place. Same goes for all the other flagellants in the media, and all the gumbeaters out there who have jumped on your band wagon.

The reporters at the scene in West Virginia didn't invent that bell-ringing celebration at the church. The reporters didn't make up the quote from W. V. Gov. Joe Manchin: "They told us they have 12 alive. We have some people that are going to need medical attention." The AP, on which most papers around the country depend, attributed its story, first to family members and later added the governor's quote.

What the reporters, TV and print alike, did do was report what they were seeing and being told, on the record. There's nothing "disturbing" about that. (Or "disgraceful" either, Greg, as you must agree now since you altered your column to remove "and disgraceful" from the original version you posted.)

What the reporters also did was unhesitatingly reverse themselves as developments indicated that was necessary. And in countless newsrooms around the country, damn good newspeople went to extraordinary lengths to stop the presses to correct headlines and stories. And, as you may or may not know, stopping the presses and remaking pages is a lot more difficult than blipping out a word in an online posting.

I've been in the news biz for 41 years now; been to a lot disaster scenes (first big one was as a 19-year-old cub reporter, when the Joplin Globe sent me to Picher, Okla., where about three square blocks had collapsed into one of the abandoned lead mines that underlay the town).

As any reporter with even 5 per cent of my experience knows, there ain't nothing easier to come by than bad information at a disaster scene. But if I'd been in West Virginia, watching that celebration, listening to relatives and friends of the miners say they were alive and hearing the governor say what he said, I wouldn't have thought a second about filing a story, just as AP did, reporting what family members and the governor were saying.

Been an editor for a good many of those years, too. If I'd been on the copy desk, reading that AP copy and watching the celebration unfold on CNN on the newsroom TV, I wouldn't thought a second about using the story. Neither would have any other newsman worth the powder to blow him to hell.

Greg, there certainly have been a lot of disturbing and disgraceful performances by the media in recent years, but this one isn't even in the top 25. (Topping my personal list of "disturbing and disgraceful" would be the sheep-like way the media bought the case for war in Iraq.)

Anyway, Greg, in case you didn't get it the first time around, here it is again: You're full of crap.

Posted by jcb at January 6, 2006 05:03 PM


Of all the things a person could complain about as far as the performance of "the media," the error about the mine disaster would not be one. As John says, it's obvious how it happened and it's obvious that the reporters on the scene thought they were getting good information.

What kind of story do people think the newspapers should have printed, based on what information they had at presstime, for heaven's sake.

Posted by: Anonymous at January 6, 2006 05:16 PM

I agree fully, this is a non-story. What is surprising is that no one found a way to blame the misinformation on President Bush.


Posted by: Anonymous at January 7, 2006 11:03 AM

Nice grammar.

Posted by: Pancake Lady at January 7, 2006 12:05 PM

Journalists must be among the most thin-skinned people on the planet. jcb indicates he has been around the block a few times in the nooz biz, so I'm thinking he has heard the ol' bromide of "if your mother says she loves you, check it out." The press did a lousy job of "checking it out", and I have read a ton of pixels (hmmmm---how much does a pixel weigh?) about this.

But it's not just the reporting that is drawing fire---it's the aftermath. One of my favorite press criticism blogs is PressThink. The latest discussion is what bloghost and NYU J-school prof, Jay Rosen frames as "Today we fell short vs. I'm not seeing any obvious missteps"----two different forms of what Rosen calls pressthink, the first being the Wichita Eagle, the second being the Philly Inquirer. Check it out---the comments are among some of the best since they include a large number of past, present and future journalists, plus assorted yahoos like myself.http://journalism.nyu.edu/pubzone/weblogs/pressthink/

Posted by: paladin at January 7, 2006 12:34 PM

Anonymous @ 11:03 AM wonders why no one has found a way to blame the misinformation at Sago on Bush. Well, never fear. The NYTimes doesn't blame Bush for disinformation----they blame him for the deaths! Honest to god----you can't make this stuff up!

Check it out---it's a howler! While NYTimes denounces Bush for more mining violations under his watch, they fail to note that mining deaths have gone DOWN since he became president. Yessir---the Times is "fair and balanced". NOT!

Take a look and try not to die laughing. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/05/opinion/05thu1.html?pagewanted=print

Posted by: paladin at January 7, 2006 02:25 PM

The jubilation of the families was a valid story, however tragic the circumstances. I would expect any paper or editor to report on what was happening in W. Virginia, and I don't think Mitchell is criticizing anyone for reporting on the family's reactions. Mitchell is critical of the reporting that failed to acknowledge that the condition of the 12 miner's was not confirmed in the AP report, nor by officials on the scene.

The headlines should not have been "THEY'RE ALIVE" but "FAMILIES ARE JUBILANT BELIEVING MINERS ARE ALIVE." It's easy to blame the AP for the confusion, but the responsibility falls squarely on the shoulders of the local editors who printed the stories. Mitchell points to at least one editor big enough to publicly acknowledge that responsibility. Sherry Chisenhall, editor of the Wichita (Kan.) Eagle, accepted blame for her paper's story:

"If you saw today"s printed edition of The Eagle, you saw a front page headline and story that are flat wrong," she wrote. "I'll explain why we (and newspapers across the country) went to press last night with the information we had at the time. But it won't excuse the blunt truth that we violated a basic tenet of journalism today in our printed edition: Report what you know and how you know it."

Posted by: SE at January 7, 2006 03:18 PM

Haven't seen the Wichita Eagle, but unless it stripped the Associated Press (or other wire service) credit off the story and edited out the sources cited (family members, the governor), it did exactly what its editor said it should have done: Reported what it knew and how it knew it. Methinks the Eagle editor is too eager to put on the hair shirt.

Locally, the AP story that appeared in both The Dispatch and The Quad City Times included this line: "The mine's owner, International Coal Group Inc., did not immediately confirm that the 12 other men were alive." That sounds to me like an acknowledgement that sources beyond the families and the state's governor had yet to speak. What more would you and Mr. Mitchell ask from reporters at the scene of a breaking story?

The QCT unfortunately let the "alive" story stay in place through its entire press run.

The Dispatch topped the bad story with this bulletin, which appeared in about 90 percent of its press run: "Family members report that 11 of the 12 coal miners who were initially thought to have survived an explosion in a coal mine have died." This would be another instance of a newspaper telling its readers what it knew and how it knew it, just as the editor of the Wichita Eagle says accurately is what a newspaper should do. The bulletin was accurately credited to the AP, which clearly stated it's sources: family members.

Posted by: jcb at January 7, 2006 09:32 PM

JCB asked:

"The mine's owner, International Coal Group Inc., did not immediately confirm that the 12 other men were alive." That sounds to me like an acknowledgement that sources beyond the families and the state's governor had yet to speak. What more would you and Mr. Mitchell ask from reporters at the scene of a breaking story?

The reporters on the scene at the church where the families were celebrating are not the issue. They didn't write the unequivocal headlines saying the miners were alive. (Mr. Mitchell notes that the Boston Globe did qualify its headline, saying "12 Miners Reportedly Found Alive.")

And you're right, The Dispatch deserves credit for stopping the presses and adding the clarifying bulletin. But as you admit, it was a "bad story" without the clarification. I can't speak for Mr. Mitchell, but I'm asking more of the editors who ran the bad story and bad headlines.

Posted by: SE at January 8, 2006 01:30 AM


You condemn local editors for using a story that had multiple sources: Family members, several of them named; and the state's governor -- and which included the disclaimer that the mining company had not confirmed the information.

But you're willing to give credit to those local editors who used the bulletin, which was much more poorly sourced -- it quoted only unnamed "family members" and did not include a disclaimer that the mining company had or had not confirmed the information.

At this point I have to ask: Do you have all the lint out of your belly button yet?

Posted by: jcb at January 8, 2006 10:29 AM

Paladin, you're confused. It's not the NYT that claims to be "fair and balanced" -- that would be Fox News.

Beyond that, one has to wonder how much "rolling back" of safety regulations has occurred if the Sago mine has been, as the NYT said, cited for 270 violations in the last two years.

Better info is available. Start with this story from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. It includes a link to the federal Mining Safety and Health Administration's Sago Mine Information Page.

Haven't had a chance to go exploring there yet, but it purports to have the information you'd need in order to form your own opinion about mining regulations and their enforcement (or non-enforcement, if that's the case).

The industry has an extremely long and well-documented history of callous exploitation of its workforce. The coming investigations should pinpoint where blame for the Sago disaster should be placed. (Clue: It's not the news media.)

Posted by: jcb at January 8, 2006 11:29 AM

Silly jcb! Of course I know the Fox News motto is "fair and balanced". Equally hilarious is the NYTimes motto of "all the news that's fit to print". Which would at least be true if they would amend it to "all the news that fits the agenda." But nevermind.

What's more interesting to me than the banal "the press has a liberal bias", is what I call the rhetoric of the press. In other words, I believe the press tries to persuade us to think a certain way and believe certain things. In other words, where there's choice, there's rhetoric. And the press is all about choice.

James Joyner did an excellent dissection of a very long KR story about the "Bush Killed the Sago Miners" meme. If you read the whole KR story, it is almost two complete different stories. But the headline plus the information that makes Bush look bad is front loaded (I think you guys call it the "lede"), while the information that makes Bush look good (miner deaths halved during Bush Adm.) is buried at the end, where there is a very good chance the information will be cut due to space constraints.

Any press story that only mentions the "fewer fines" bit and excludes the "miner deaths halved on Bush's watch" is a false story.

For anyone interested in Joyner's critique, here it is: http://www.outsidethebeltway.com/archives/13214

Posted by: paladin at January 8, 2006 01:10 PM

JCB wrongly asserts:

"You condemn local editors for using a story that had multiple sources..."

I'm condemning papers for running headlines that said unequivocally the miners were alive. And I'm responding to your terse, and somewhat unfounded criticism of Greg Mitchell. How could anyone criticize a paper for running a story with multiple sources? That would be idiotic.

Posted by: SE at January 8, 2006 03:47 PM

Paladin -- Don't forget "The World's Greatest Newspaper."

Anyway ... "Any press story that only mentions the `fewer fines' bit and excludes the `miner deaths halved on Bush's watch' is a false story." ...

What about the inverse? Would a story about fewer deaths be false if it failed to mention fewer, smaller and uncollected fines?

What about this? Would a story about, say, an official embezzling funds be false if it didn't recount how the official had once instituted purchasing-procedure changes that saved money?

Not particularly disagreeing with your point, understand. Just asking...

Posted by: jcb at January 8, 2006 04:27 PM

SE, you said -- "JCB wrongly asserts: 'You condemn local editors for using a story that had multiple sources...' "

From your blog: (emphasis added) "... failure still falls on the shoulders of the editor and publisher of every paper or station that reports the story incorrectly."

From your comments above: (emphasis added)

"... the responsibility falls squarely on the shoulders of the local editors who printed the stories."

"...I'm asking more of the editors who ran the bad story"

These stories you referred to multiple times had, at least in the Q-C versions, multiple sources. Thank you for characterizing what criticizing them is.

Posted by: jcb at January 8, 2006 04:45 PM

Absolutely, jcb. A story just about fewer deaths, while ignoring or marginalizing the fewer fines would be just as bad. That's my point. Press (and I mean national press here) reporting is too narrow on ALL subjects.

As to your "what if" hypothetical: What a story that would be! Official fights to get procedures in place to save the government money, only to embezzle said saved government money. I think I smell a Pulitzer!

Posted by: paladin at January 8, 2006 04:53 PM

I am not making farce out of or ignoring the tragedy in West Virginia. Was it someone in the news media trying to "scoop" it first or someone not in the news media telling what they thought they heard, and doing so erroneously. It doesn't matter so much now since the tragedy has been played out.
Paladin, jcb and SE: If mental masturbation was worth anything you guys would be rich.

Posted by: Dennis at January 9, 2006 03:59 PM

Dennis, you do have a way with words. This string is of little interest to real people, as opposed to journalists and media critics.

Haven't heard or read anything from real people decrying the way events shook out -- they understand that the best info available was passed along as it became available, and that a lot of newspapers went to press at precisely the wrong time.

So, since this mental exercise, by whatever name, doesn't pay anything and isn't making me rich, I'll declare myself done with it.

Posted by: jcb at January 9, 2006 08:19 PM

My view on this is that any paper should have prominently featured a qualification, perhaps in the sub-headline or perhaps in the heading of the column below indicating that this information was being "reported" by family members or whomever they were informed was the source.

Short of some sort of iron clad verification, I feel it would be a mistake to simply trumpet "12 miners found alive" in huge type, or simply "ALIVE!" as a couple papers put it in about 4" tall type.

The only saving grace which I've heard in all of this is that apparently the AP was running with the report before deadline. Editors can't be faulted for assuming the AP had it right.

But again,short of any official confirmation, I think appropriate qualifications should have been prominently featured in any reporting on this.

Posted by: TID at January 11, 2006 11:36 AM