The media coverage of the West Virginia mining disaster played out like archival news footage -- "Dewey Defeats Truman," only with heartbreaking consequences. And more importantly, it was just like a more recent story -- Hurricane Katrina.
Mistakes were made in West Virginia, that's apparent. The media were swept up in the story, wanting to believe what family members of an ultimately deadly explosion wanted to believe -- that the miracle of finding all the miners alive had happened. But that miracle wasn't to be, yet almost everyone reported that it did, in fact, happen.
Some press outlets went so far as to "report" that ambulances carrying the 12 rescued miners had arrived at "the local hospital" early Wednesday morning, Jan. 4. The accounts, as we would learn during the day, had been based on unconfirmed secondhand sources.
So, again, the media messed up in a direct and tragic way. But you may be thinking: "To err is human, to forgive is divine. Quit harping on the media." I would, perhaps, if it weren't for Katrina. And you can blame Brian Williams for pointing me toward that comparison.
The NBC anchor devoted a large portion of his broadcast that somber Wednesday night to the mining disaster and the media's coverage of it. In teasing his evening-news plans on an NBC Web site, Williams wrote: "In the light of day, media types and civilians alike were asking a question last asked during Katrina: Weren't they (officials) WATCHING the coverage on television?"
In the midst of tragedy, one reflex is often to want to blame someone. And in the mining disaster, mining officials obviously made serious errors. But, so did NBC and their fellow "media types." And it wouldn't be the first time the press simply got swept up in emotion and wound up reporting with their bleeding hearts instead of their news judgment.
When Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast last summer, reporting news was hard, dangerous, ugly work for newsmen who wanted to be involved. In the ugliness of debris and desperation, some newsmen made the tragedy worse.
By late September, the New Orleans-based "Times-Picayune" would report: "As the fog of warlike conditions in Hurricane Katrina's aftermath has cleared, the vast majority of reported atrocities committed by evacuees have turned out to be false, or at least unsupported by any evidence, according to key military, law enforcement, medical and civilian officials in positions to know."
Of course we didn't need to wait until autumn fell to know that some of what appeared in the press during, and immediately following, Katrina was false. A columnist for the London "Sun" told a tall tale of Marine helicopter gunships shooting starving black people in New Orleans. A writer at a "The Huffington Post" reported cannibalism. Both those stories were, of course, wholly fabricated. But you didn't have to look for batty writers to read such alarming fiction. It seemed everyone was reporting the worst. The worst, which mercifully didn't always pan out. Mercifully for humanity, but not for the media.
It is obvious a lesson was not learned if the mining-disaster coverage is any indication. And if Brian Williams' predecessor Tom Brokaw is representative of the official newsroom Katrina assessment, we have failed to learn anything. On a year-end edition of "Meet the Press," he claimed, "there were no gray areas in Katrina."
The irony in Brian Williams pointing blame right away at "officials" -- presumably the mining company -- is that the mentality of making a bad story worse seems to be a trend among news "officials."
But there's a back-to-basics solution: just report the facts. And if you don't know what's going on on the ground, go ahead and say you don't know until you do. There's no long-term prestige that comes with being wrong first. And it's hard to undo the damage done when your voice carries -- whether it be stoking racial flames or compounding families' grief.