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?
Why did it take until this morning for CNN to finally run a chyron saying "Safety of Rescue Operation Debated"? For 12 days, there was precious little debate about why the mine had collapsed in the first place, or about the safety of the rescue operation -- which was, by law, in the hands of Stickler, another "heck of a job" Bush special, a coal industry insider who couldn't even win the approval of a GOP-controlled Senate.
Coal miners, we are told, operate under a code similar to the Marines: no one gets left behind. So there is little doubt that the rescuers would have done everything in their power to try to save their fellow miners. But might last night's tragic outcome have been avoided if the media watchdogs had been asking tougher questions from the start?
What if, instead of giving endless airtime to Bob Murray, they had brought on some of the experts we saw last night and asked them questions about the chances of another collapse occurring? What if they had given us Professor Larry Grayson, who was interviewed last night by Dan Abrams on MSNBC, and other experts who could have contradicted once and for all Murray's assertion that the company had not been doing retreat mining where the original collapse had occurred? What if they had gotten Stickler on the record on this, and had him definitely say whether or not Murray was lying when he repeatedly denied the dangerous technique was being used in the Crandall Canyon Mine?
What if they gave as much airtime to the seismologists denying that the collapse was the result of an earthquake as they gave to Murray who kept repeating the bogus (and responsibility-avoiding) claim that it was an earthquake, a natural disaster, an act of god?
Might things have turned out differently? We'll never know. But we do know that a number of miners -- perhaps as many as a dozen -- had asked to be moved to a different part of the rescue operation out of fear for their safety. And that Murray had abruptly pulled Bodee Allred, the Crandall mine's safety director (and the cousin of one of the missing miners), away from the microphones when the questions Allred was being asked veered too close to the bone for Murray's comfort.
Here's a question for the media: Since when do the owners of mines -- especially owners who have been fined millions of dollars for numerous safety violations -- set the news agenda?
So here we are, 12 days after the first collapse, with three heroic rescuers dead, six others injured, and the original six trapped miners almost certainly lost forever. And, finally, we have Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman suggesting we "focus like never before on workplace safety" (the Governor had better be prepared for the wrath of Murray: when Hillary Clinton made a similar statement months ago about the importance of workplace safety, Murray attacked her as "anti-American.")
So why wasn't the focus on workplace safety the focus of the media from Day One?
It shouldn't have taken the deaths of three rescuers for those covering the story to have gotten that message.