Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Ecstasy to Agony in W. Virginia

The news erupted from the joyous cries of family members huddled in Sago Baptist Church. The Media caught their enthusiasm and passed along the miraculous news.

Then the heartbreaking truth came out:
Great joy turned to deep sorrow and rage Wednesday morning when mining families here were told inaccurately that 12 of the 13 miners trapped in a coal mine were alive, only to be informed, hours later, that they were dead.

A top mining company official expressed deep regret late Wednesday afternoon for the error, attributing it to a "miscommunication" somewhere between rescue teams working deep inside the Sago Mine and the mine office directing their efforts.

An emotional Ben Hatfield, chief executive of the International Coal Group, the company that owns the mine, was also contrite about a nearly three-hour delay in informing relatives of the miners that the initial information of a miraculous rescue had been wrong.

"In the process of being cautious, we allowed the jubilation to go on longer than it should have," Hatfield said. Attempting to reconstruct the sequence of events at a news conference, he said mine officials received a report from somewhere in the mine at 11:45 p.m. Tuesday that 12 miners had been found alive. He said they got their first indications that this was not the case when one of the rescue teams emerged at about 12:30 a.m. Wednesday. But Hatfield said officials did not find out for sure until between 2:15 and 2:30 a.m. that the 12 miners were, in fact, dead. At that point, he said, the officials went to inform the families.

So far, Hatfield said, the company has not been able to determine precisely where or how the miscommunication occurred.

He said officials involved in the rescue effort were under orders not to give out unconfirmed information, but that communications from the mine rescue teams came across "an audible speaker than can be easily heard throughout the mine office."

People "were looking desperately for good information," Hatfield said. "They wanted to share it. I don't think anyone had a clue how much damage was about to be created."

When the families finally received the bad news, they were celebrating the "miracle" rescue of their loved ones, dancing and singing Amazing Grace in front of the Sago Baptist Church, which was ringing its bells.

They reacted with fury when told that the 12 had died 13,000 feet into the mine, and Hatfield needed a police escort to get out of the church.

"We were thankful the police were there," said the pastor, the Rev. Wease Day.

The families became more enraged when they learned that officials waited hours to tell them those they believed were alive were dead.

None of the officials who spent the rest of the day explaining was able to say who, if anyone, formally confirmed to the families that the miners were alive.
The new year is only four days old. Already, tragedy has made new headlines. Already, the MSM has galloped in pursuit of the ka-ching! factor and allowed euphoria to replace solid sourcing. Already, the nation grieves with the families of the dead.

Please keep them all in your prayers.

Hat tip to Captain Ed. Michelle Malkin has a round-up of bloggers and media observers' analyses of the tragedy--and the media's rush to judgement. The Anchoress offers another one, and makes some keen observations:
One could almost excuse the press for making this awful mistake, for emotionally going on the air with a weepy Geraldo and an exalted Rita Crosby, to announce the miracle: 12 men alive under dubious circumstances! After all, we ALL wanted the men to be alive, we all WISHED it to be so. Journalists, we are often told, are as “human as anyone else,” and they want to report such an uplifting and even triumphant story. I linked to what we all wanted to believe was “good news” last night, and said prayers of thanksgiving as I went to bed.

So, yes, one could could excuse the press their mistake, and forgive the torturous turnabout which came after, if only they had not - just a few months ago - done precisely the same thing while covering Hurricane Katrina. Recall that back in New Orleans - just as last night - unknown people ran about, shouting unverifiable “news” and the journalists, particularly the always-voracious cable news outlets, latched on to the “news” and emotionally redelivered it, without checking it out, without doing the basic job of journalism which is: if your parents say you’re not adopted, and you look just like your brother, confirm, confirm, confirm.

Journalism used to run on facts. It wasn’t enough to have a rumor, you had to nail it down; it wasn’t enough to suspect something - if you suspected it, you expended the shoe leather to prove it. Now, unfortunately, beginning at least with Mary Mapes’ odd idea that the the standard of journalism precludes proving one’s charge (it is now enough that the charge is made, and the accused must prove a negative), but particularly since Hurricane Katrina, mainstream journalism has decided it doesn’t need to run on facts; emotionalism is the new fuel on which the press is running, and it is a bad, bad gas - it sputters and sprays and belches out errors all over the airways, all through the ink barrels, and once the errors are out there, they become either (in a best-case scenario) tough narratives to reclaim or (in the cruelest case) weapons of devastation and destruction.

In the aftermath of the New Orleans levee breaks, we heard about horrific scenes of murder and rape - unspeakable brutality - and charges of racist disregard. This was a terrible and harmful narrative, the stuff that shakes a nation’s sense of its own strength and goodness, and we got that narrative not from bloggers or talk radio, but from the mainstream, “respectable” deliverers of news. We heard it from news anchors shrieking and bawling on the air. They had not actually checked their facts; but who has time to check facts when such charges are being made? When the water is rising? It was enough that “someone said” something, and the pictures were so dramatic - don’t you see how upset and unshaved I am? Isn’t our moral outrage compelling?

“Dynamic journalism,” it was called. “News with heart. Responsive.” As the press patted themselves on the back for their “great work,” we read that Anderson Cooper’s undetached hyperventilation and advocacy journalism was to be the new model for television journalism.

Except that with all the histrionics, the plain facts were, there were not “numerous rapes and murders”, no babies being subjected to sinful exploitation. When the body counts were done, there was no racist disregard for other-than-whites. In fact, in terms of sheer ratios, the largest percentage of dead were caucasian. More importantly, why should it ever have mattered how many of the dead were black, white, Asian, Hispanic, except to mindsets bent on delivering not “facts,” but explosive scud missiles of raw emotionalism, particularly if all that emotionalism is politically expedient?

“Oops,” said the press, very, very softly. So very softly.