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Wednesday, January 04, 2006

The Coal Miners Slaughter 

Click to Send PostcardThere’s no denying that the mining disaster in Sago, West Virginia was a tragedy. And there’s no denying the pain and anguish that relatives, friends and loved ones of the victims must have felt, particularly after rumors that all but one of the miners had been found alive circulated – only to be crushed three long hours later, turning jubilation into sorrow, anger and fury.

But from the beginning, the evocation of miracles by Governor Joe Manchin III, Bennett K. Hatfield, the chief executive of International Coal Group, the mine's owner, and many in the media set the stage for disappointment.

A miracle is essentially defined as a marvelous event manifesting a supernatural act of God. The rumors that first circulated suggested that all of the miners except for fire boss, Terry Helms, whose body was discovered first, had been found alive. It must have been awful for the family of Terry Helms to listen to the jubilation of the other families, officials and news media and wonder what their family member had done that would separate him from the list of those for whom God decided were worthy of a miracle.

As the news media gushed on about miracles, from a breathless CNN’s Anderson Cooper to a wheezing Rita Cosby on MSNBC, it seemed that God still had one or two nasty tricks up his sleeve. Their atrocious display of almost instant piety following the emergence of the truth completely ignored their own role in fueling the rumors, let alone failing to verify the truth from official channels before reporting it as fact or exercising a iota of caution.

Except for reporter Becky Wagoner with local The Inter-Mountain newspaper of Elkins, W.Va. who told Editor & Publisher:

"A lot of the media left to go to the church where family members were located, but I stayed put because this was where every official news conference was given--and we never got anything official here," she said. "Something was not right. Then we were hearing reports that 12 ambulances had gone in [to the mine area] but only one was coming out. There was so much hype that no one considered the fact that there was no [official] update."

Live broadcast coverage is not the only culprit. A failure to check the veracity of the reporting did not stop newspapers like USA Today either. As blogger Freedom Rider pointed out:

"Today the Times hedged, a little, but not enough. Their version of bad reporting was '12 Miners Found Alive, Family Members Say.' They were a tiny bit better than the New York Post and Daily News. Their headlines screamed, ALIVE!, MIRACLE! Perhaps tomorrow they will say OOPS! or IS OUR FACE RED!."

Even after the truth emerged, the use of the word miracle by officials continued to dominate their language. "Despite our grief and despair at the loss of our 12 co-workers, we want to celebrate the one miracle that was delivered," said Bennett Hatfield in reference to the one remaining survivor, miner Randal McCloy Jr.

In fact, Governor Manchin's incessant use of the word miracle is what contributed to the confusion and miscommunication. The New York Times reports that according to the Governor's aides, "on his way to the command center the governor was asked 'Is it a miracle?' and responded 'Yes, miracles can happen.' But while friends and family members who were at the scene last night said today that the governor had been part of the confusion, none of the abundant anger was directed at him."

From the Pentagon this morning, President Bush said:

“We send our prayers and heartfelt condolences to the loved ones whose hearts are broken. We ask that the good Lord comfort them in their time of need.”

If He was the one responsible for bestowing and then revoking the miracles to begin with, the question is, why would He offer comfort now? And if this is indeed the work of God, why bother investigating International Coal Group?

It’s time for public officials to comment on and for the media to report on facts, and facts alone, and leave evocations of miracles, God and the supernatural to the privacy of those who have faith in them. Apparently, miracles do happen.

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