Media Quick to Blame Industry for Mining Tragedy

     Despite the fact that mining fatalities in the United States have dropped while production has increased, the news media have indicted an entire industry and the Sago mine in particular for safety records. They found help from ready union sources, who cropped up frequently in coverage even though the mine wasnt unionized. ABC News heaped blame on Wilbur Ross, head of the International Coal Group (NYSE: ICO), which acquired the mine just two months before the accident. Instead of covering the investigation and giving the facts context, ABC reporter Brian Ross settled for calling the businessman a coal baron and declaring him cheap to his face.

Unforgivable Treatment
     ABC aired a merciless attack interview from reporter Brian Ross on the January 5 Primetime. The investigative report amounted to a series of rapid-fire questions that the businessman wasnt given time to answer. The reporter and the mine owner share the same last name.

     Brian Ross wouldnt let viewers forget that International Coal Group owner Wilbur Ross was a billionaire, repeating it three times during the report. He mentioned a skyscraper office twice, as well as the owners homes on Fifth Avenue, the Hamptons and Palm Beach and likened him to the coal barons of the 19th and early 20th century.

     Though mine owner Wilbur Ross tried to tell the ABC reporter that he needed to put the Sago mine and its violations in the context of the industry, the journalist wouldnt let him get a word in edgewise (see video at right). Instead, Brian Ross let members of the West Virginia community and a former union miner do all the talking, stacking the deck against the company.

     To top it off, reporter Brian Ross called Wilbur Ross cheap to his face. Asking the mine owner about the $2 million fund the company was setting up for the deceased miners families, the reporter said, Youre a billionaire by all accounts. How did you come up with a figure of $2 million? It seems, with all due respect, sir, sort of cheap.

     In keeping with media trends, Brian Ross painted a picture of a heartless corporate villain who has made too much money. He shifted the focus to Wilbur Ross recent lavish wedding, the talk of New York society, as the camera panned across pictures of the mine owner and his smiling blonde bride and then contrasted that with a West Virginia woman who said that in her state, people, you know, here care. Money isnt everything, you know.

Questions of Safety
     Brian Ross said the tiny Sago mine in West Virginia had been in bankruptcy for two years when Ross bought it and bought into a mine that, for its size, may have been the most dangerous coal mine in America. The reporter didnt mention that by keeping a bankrupt business going, the new owners were sustaining jobs for a community. And Luke Popovich of the National Mining Association said Brian Ross generalization about Sagos safety was a rash statement.

     Theres no objective measurement by which one could make that inflammatory assertion, Popovich said. Theres really no incompatibility between productivity and safety.

     According to the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), there had been no fatalities at the Sago mine in the last decade, from 1995 to 2005. As for the much-reported safety violations, journalists failed to put them in context but simply touted raw numbers. That can be misleading, Popovich said, because safety violations are subjective Its not as definitive as running a red light. He said you have to be careful making inferences based on sheer numbers of violations.

     ABCs Lisa Stark reported on the increase in Sagos violations from 2004 to 2005 on the January 3 World News Tonight. She included Davitt McAteer, a former assistant secretary for MSHA, who said the increase showed things are not improving, but in fact are getting worse from a safety standpoint. Stark piled on that A recent government report found half of all violations were not corrected by the required deadline. Then Stark turned to United Mine Workers Daniel Kane, who said to ignore them means that people will be hurt and people will be killed.

     Implying that management was ignoring safety warnings is baseless, said the National Mining Associations Luke Popovich. Although journalists and others insinuated that the company was cutting costs at the expense of safety, Popovich said: It certainly is not the case with Wilbur Ross and the way he has run steel mills.

     Popovich pointed out in an interview with the Business & Media Institute that managers cant hire people to work in unsafe places, so it doesnt even make sense to suggest that they would overlook safety. And although regulation imposes penalties, nothing outweighs the human tragedy of an explosion. What fine could ever approach the disaster that this mine is suffering? Popovich said.

     To add a bit of context, the MSHA said that of the 208 citations, orders and safeguards issued in 2005, none involved an immediate risk of injury. Less than half of the citations against Sago Mine in 2005 were for significant and substantial violations and all but three have been corrected by the operator. The three remaining issues, which relate to roof control, were being addressed by the operator.

     Nevertheless, on the NBC Nightly News January 4, Martin Savidge didnt give the company a chance to comment, even as he declared that Sago says safety is a priority, but family members disagree. A miners son accused the mine owners of knowing its unsafe but they just keep letting the men go in there. Savidge then put in a plug for more government intervention: The tragedy may bring tougher regulation. As one former miner put it, new safety laws are often written in blood.

     Likewise, on the January 5 Today on NBC, one of the children of fallen miner Terry Helms gave her opinion that the mine should have been shut down. Katie Couric asked, weve heard a lot about the violations that have been cited in terms of safety in this particular mine. Do you think that the families will take any kind of legal action or is that the last thing on their minds right now? Amber Helms took Courics bait and replied, It might be the last thing, but its the biggest thing thats going to happen after these miners are put to rest. Because, honestly, if if they had that many violations, I dont care how small, they shouldnt have had the mines open, in my opinion.

     West Virginians werent the only ones giving their non-expert opinions on mine safety. On the January 4 CBS Evening News Bob Schieffer asked reporter Bob Orr: Bob, the one question that occurs to me, did these miners know about all these safety violations that had been reported when they went down into that mine? In his reply, Orr merely reported varying opinions. Its unclear, Orr said. People here say there were reports of safety problems, but the safety problems were kind of written off as relatively minor at the same time, the experts have told us, thats a large number of violations. It should have been a red flag.

     Mine shutdowns, however, arent something that happens every day. The MSHA reported that in 2005 it had issued 18 separate withdrawal orders to Sago, which shut down mining activity in specific areas of the mine until health and safety problems were corrected by the operator. All of the safety issues that caused the withdrawal orders were corrected. It would be unusual for MSHA to shut down an entire mine unless there were mine-wide hazards that the mine operator did not remedy within the abatement requirements of the Mine Act.

     NBCs Tom Costello gave a rare explanation of safety measures the company had taken in his January 7 Nightly News report: The mine had been cited in 2005 for a buildup of methane and coal dust. Ironically, the new owners had sealed off the problem area to prevent an explosion.

Union Sources
     Although the Sago mine is not unionized, journalists repeatedly turned to union workers for their assessment of the mines safety and management. On the January 6 World News Tonight, ABCs Elizabeth Vargas said, Union officials have said the mine was not operating safely and included comment from a United Mine Workers spokesman without comment from the mine or mining company.

     The night before on World News Tonight, Lisa Stark went to Clinton-era officials and union leader Richard Trumka to build a case against the MSHA, charging that Democrats say the Bush administration has filled at least four key positions with industry insiders. Stark didnt include any current officials perspectives.

     On the NBC Nightly News January 5, Tom Costello inserted the union line. Although its not a union mine, the union is speaking out, Costello said. A United Mine Workers spokesman called Sagos reprimands imminent danger violations, despite the MSHAs report on its Web site that the of the 208 citations, orders and safeguards issued in 2005, none involved an immediate risk of injury. Costello also wondered aloud why the number of safety violations had increased between 2004 and 2005 which the MSHA said was due to increased monitoring, not necessarily increased problems.

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