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Readers deserve facts in ‘coal war’ election coverage



Over the last few months, I’ve actually enjoyed avoiding the parachute journalism that’s always done this time of year by people with titles like “national correspondent” or “political editor”. The television ads are bad enough, and now we’ve got to endure career campaign consultants insulting each other via social media. So it would be nice if we had more actual journalism — the kind that gives voters the sort of information that helps make good choices.

But last evening, I couldn’t help but point my browser over to The New York Times when I saw that they were promoting their latest take on West Virginia’s 3rd Congressional District race between longtime Democratic Rep. Nick J. Rahall and sometimes-Republican challenger Evan Jenkins. The story was headlined, “Race Tests Democrats’ Viability in West Virginia,” and written by Trip Gabriel, whose Twitter profile identifies him as “New York Times national correspondent covering politics and all things mid-Atlantic.”

The piece starts out this way:

“Pro-jobs. Pro-coal. Pro-life. Vote Republican!!!” reads a prominent sign coming into town.

And that ought to be the end of the story here in southern West Virginia, with its beleaguered mining industry and largely white population that fills the pews of evangelical churches on a Wednesday night as readily as on Sunday morning.

The region voted overwhelmingly Republican in the presidential contest two years ago, part of the historic defection of West Virginia Democrats, who hold a 2-to-1 registration advantage, from the national party over social issues like abortion and, more recently, opposition to environmental regulation.

And yet a Democratic congressman, Nick J. Rahall II, has defi- antly held onto his seat here in the sparsely populated Third District, which runs from the rugged Appalachian coal fields in the west to the famed white-water rafting of the New River Gorge.

OK … let’s look at that last bit again:

… The sparsely populated Third District, which runs from the rugged Appalachian coalfields in the west to the famed white-water rafting of the New River Gorge.

Let’s let Trip Gabriel have the “sparsely populated” part. The 3rd District’s roughly 610,000-person population is less than the average of about 711,000, though certainly congressional districts out west are far more “sparse” than in Southern West Virginia. but “runs from the rugged Appalachian coal fields in the west to the famed white-water rafting of the New River Gorge”?

Our 3rd District starts along the Ohio River and stretches across the coalfields to the Virginia border. It’s great that Trip got to go to Bridge Day, but he’s putting pretty prose before geographic accuracy here. The line he was looking for was something like, “which runs from the Ohio River town of Huntington — made famous in the movie “We Are Marshall” — through the rugged coalfields and west to the Virginia border, where Greenbrier County is home to the famed Greenbrier Resort.

This is a little thing probably. And perhaps we should be glad the Times left out the word “hardscrabble” when it published this particular parachute story.

And really, as these things go, this wasn’t such a bad story. For example, it generally did a decent job of providing some perspective on how there’s more to the decline of the Southern West Virginia coal industry than President Obama and the U.S. EPA:

The coal industry’s long decline is economically complex. When Alpha Natural Resources, one of West Virginia’s largest coal operators, warned 1,100 employees of potential layoffs in July, it blamed a worldwide glut of coal, competition from cheaper natural gas and lower-cost coal from western basins — as well as Environmental Protection Agency regulations.

But this is as far as it goes. The story falls apart when it excuses the incredible distortions of reality that went on during the 2012 presidential campaign and continue today with this line:

But in the charged political arena, complexities fade and both sides identify a sole culprit for the industry’s struggles: the administration’s anti-coal regulations.

The story chips around the edges of what’s really going on, with stuff like this:

“Everyone knows Obama declared a war on coal. Nick Rahall stands with him,” says a television ad running this month by Freedom Partners Action Fund, a group supported by Charles G. and David H. Koch.

And this:

The air blitz against Mr. Rahall, 65, began nearly a year ago, almost unheard-of so early, when Republican leaning national groups like the Chamber of Commerce and Americans for Prosperity — also supported by the Kochs — began attacking his vote for the Affordable Care Act.

Trip even comes up with a pretty decent ending:

Bernard Meadows, who worked in a coal mine in Mercer County for two decades “until they shut it down” in the 1980s, said he knew Mr. Rahall but was leaning in a different direction. “I just think it’s time for a change,” he said.

But when Mr. Jenkins approached Charles Treadway, he heard a different opinion. “I’ve been with Rahall for years, and I’ve got to stick with Nick,” said Mr. Treadway, a laid-off miner.

He said Mr. Rahall was being blamed unfairly for the troubles of the coal industry. “I put it simply: All you’ve got to do is follow the money,” he said, adding that cheap natural gas prices were the reason many miners were out of work.

But the story never really tells reader what’s really going on: Huge advertising campaigns, first by the coal industry and then by coal- backed candidates, have created such widespread fear — based on false descriptions of what’s really killing the mining industry — that coalfield residents will back any measure, action or candidate that they think might save jobs that simply aren’t going to be saved.

Retiring Sen. Jay Rockefeller did a pretty decent job of saying at least significant parts of this right in his major coal speech two years ago:

Carefully orchestrated messages that strike fear in the hearts of West Virginians and feed uncertainty about coal’s future are the subject of paid television ads, billboards, break room bulletin boards, public meetings, letters and lobbying campaigns.

A daily onslaught declares that coal is under siege from harmful outside forces, and that the future of the state is bleak unless we somehow turn back the clock, ignore the present and block the future.

West Virginians understandably worry that a way of life and the dignity of a job is at stake. Change and uncertainty in the coal industry is unsettling. But my fear is that concerns are also being fueled by the narrow view of others with divergent motivations – one that denies the inevitability of change in the energy industry, and unfairly leaves coal miners in the dust.

The reality is that many who run the coal industry today would rather attack false enemies and deny real problems than find solutions.

Journalism should do more to help readers connect these dots. It should tell the truth. And this particular New York Times story not only puts capturing some imagined “feel” of being “on the bus” with candidates or out in the country with voters ahead of doing the more important job of giving readers (voters) information vital to them doing their job in our democracy.

We need more stories like this one, by my very talented colleague David Gutman, explaining Rep. Shelley Moore Capito’s position on consumer protections in the banking industry. And like this one, in which I tried to recount for readers Rep. Capito’s voting record on coal-mine safety legislation. We need less journalism that simply bookends the truth, or throws its hands in the air, saying it’s just too hard to sort something complicated out.

Obviously, the Times does a ton of really remarkable work. And this story certainly isn’t alone in doing readers a disservice this election season. But it’s hard to escape the feeling that Trip Gabriel was just dancing around the edges here, and not really holding candidates and campaigns accountable. To read the story, it’s all just a horserace, and campaign consultants and their ads deserve as much ink as experts and data.

A Times blog post headlined, Coal Country Candidates Agree: The E.P.A. Is the Enemy, does a little better job with this. It starts out:

In Appalachia, the first casualty of the “war on coal” is the truth about what is causing the steep decline in mining jobs … In two fierce races in Kentucky and West Virginia, Democrats and Republicans agree: The culprits are the Obama administration and its environmental regulations. But mining jobs have been disappearing there for decades. John F. Kennedy blamed “mechanization” for job losses while campaigning in West Virginia in 1960.

The reasons are complex and numerous. Coal from large surface mines in the West is cheaper to extract than Appalachian coal, and as power plants have installed antipollution “scrubbers,” the high-sulfur Western coal has became even more attractive.

The biggest driver of all is the fracking boom and its cheap natural gas, which has led power plants to covert from coal.

We recently asked the two West Virginia candidates if officials owe voters a more honest conversation. Their replies were similar:

Mr. Rahall: “People don’t want to sit down and talk about it when they’re trying to figure out how to put food on the table.”

Mr. Jenkins: “You can’t campaign and visit with coal miners and not come away with just a level of outrage over the war on coal.’’

These kinds of concrete, no-nonsense facts — In Appalachia, the first casualty of the “war on coal” is the truth about what is causing the steep decline in mining jobs — need to find their way into campaign stories, most clearly and more prominently. Because elections matter.

A reporter specializing in the coal industry for West Virginia’s Charleston Gazette, Ken Ward Jr. is considered one of the nation’s top experts in the field. This writing appeared October 24 as part of Ward’s “Coal Tattoo” blog. To view more of Ward’s outstanding work, visit the web at blogs.wvgazette.com/coaltattoo.



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