I’ve been only half paying attention to the ongoing saga of the miners trapped in the Utah coal mine. Something about the “Little Boy” (or adult mine workers) “Trapped in a Well” (or a mine) storyline seems so clichéd, so tailor-made for shallow, breathless coverage by a growing crush of media, that I feel a personal duty to avoid the story, the same way I feel obligated to say “no” to any extended warranty while buying consumer electronics, just on general principle. Which is callous and insensitive, I realize; those miners and their families are going through a horrible ordeal, and any decent human, given half a chance, would (and should) feel powerful emotional sympathies. Which may just be another way of saying the same thing: in a context in which large corporations are mobilizing armies of bubbleheads and technicians and equipment to tap into my essential humanity for the purpose of selling soap (or whatever CNN is hawking during the commercial breaks from the mine coverage), cultivating my inner cynic becomes an act of justifiable (if regrettable) self defense.
I did have a moment when listening to NPR the other day when it occurred to me how the rescue effort has played out like a metaphorical version of the Iraq war: ill-equipped, ill-trained (if sincere) efforts in the early going (like the True Believer twenty-somethings who staffed the CPA in the early Iraq reconstruction effort); followed by people with some sense of what needed to be done, but without the required expertise to pull it off against a tight schedule (as when the initial rescue wells went astray and missed the miners’ presumed location); followed by repeated expensive-but-doomed efforts that amounted to too little, too late. And the whole time, we had the spectacle of those in power (generals and politicians in the case of Iraq, mine owner and Bush-appointed mining safety official in the case of the collapsed mine), posing for the cameras and apparently focused at least as much on maintaining a fiction that they bore no blame for the unfolding disaster as on actually living up to their obligations.
Sigh. And now the metaphor gets an extra layer, as we grapple with the sunk-cost fallacy: More are continuing to die as a result of the initial mistakes. Do we keep going as a tribute to the fallen? Or pull out and face the realization that they died in vain?
Anyway, I was interested by Arianna Huffington’s commentary on the media’s coverage of the affair: It Shouldn’t Have Taken the Deaths of Three Miners to Get the Media to Focus on Mine Safety.
So last night, suddenly, after the tragic second collapse at the Utah mine, there was a dramatic shift in the TV coverage of the story. All at once, faux folksy mining boss Bob Murray, who had been everywhere, was nowhere to be found (even sending in a junior executive to handle this morning’s press conference). In his place, at long last, were actual scientists, and experts on mine safety and the workings of the Mine Safety and Health Administration. Bush mine safety czar Richard “Recess Appointment” Stickler was also absent last night, and did not appear again until this morning’s press conference.
So many questions were finally being asked. Prompting one more: What took so long? Why did it take a tragic second collapse before the Murray and Strickler PR Show was finally replaced by actual journalism?
On the specific question she raises about the media, I think it’s just the latest in a long line of examples of how entertainment and business values are displacing journalistic ethics. Bloggers are gradually assuming the role of journalists. Which I realize is problematic in various ways, but it’s also just the reality of the situation.