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America Mourns With Anderson Cooper

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Twelve of the thirteen miners in Sago, West Virginia have now been found dead. The original mine explosion that led to their deaths was so loud that it was heard five miles away.

The grieving by the families will be much more muted and quiet. But not so the strangers: the cable newsmen and out-of-town "journalists" will now share their own grief not only with the family members, but also their demographically correct audiences:

America will mourn with Anderson Cooper.

Last night, after learning that he had been incorrectly reporting for three hours the "miracle" of the miners being alive, Cooper became pale, before declaring himself "at a complete loss for words."

That was last night. Cooper may have been at a loss for words last night, but if his past on-air behavior is a guide, he will not be at a loss for tears tonight.

America will once again mourn with Anderson Cooper.

And then America will mourn with Geraldo Rivera.

Earlier this morning, I watched Geraldo on Fox, already emoting; if he has no news to report, he does have his emotions to share with us all, until he is somewhere else soon emoting about something else. At the end of his brief segment, Fox's anchor-of-the-moment thanked Geraldo for his "truly heartbreaking words" before noting that Geraldo was the host of Fox's own "Geraldo At Large" program. No opportunity should ever be lost to promote the brand.

And it will not be long, of course, before Bill O'Reilly screams at someone. Accountability at last!

It has become fashionable of late for journalists to "emote" on television. The empathetic, caring Anderson Cooper has replaced the laconic and ironic and ratings-challenged Aaron Brown.
Geraldo Rivera is back, bigger than ever. And Bill O'Reilly is outraged as usual.

During Katrina, reporters didn't just report, they got mad! Reporters who once feared for their jobs if they asked a tough question at a presidential press conference were now publicly castigating public officials as they appeared on their programs.

The public had long ago come to view the media as another entrenched and privileged interest group protecting other elite and entrenched interest groups. What a better way to dispel such a belief than with a little emoting and yelling.

But there are a few problems with this new media paradigm. Being outraged after the fact, for instance, is not the same as journalists doing their jobs. As it turns out, the mine in which the twelve miners were killed had been cited for safety violations no fewer than 273 times over the course of the last two years.

According to this newspaper report:

In the pat two years, the mine was cited 273 times for safety violations, of which about a third were classified as "significant and substantial," according to documents compiled by the Labor Department's Mine Safety and Health Administration(MHSA), a designation reserved for serious safety infractions for which the operator had either already been warned, or which showed "indifference or extreme lack of care."

"That is a very high number, and it is usually indicative of a very poor safety record," Oppegard said... [Many] inspection reports over the past two years fault the mine for "combustibles," including a buildup of flammable coal dust and a failure to adequately insulate electric wires. Sparks from electrical equipment can ignite coal dust and methane gas, triggering fires and explosions...

Although no miners were reported killed at the mine since at least 1995, 42 workers and contractors were injured in accidents since 2000, records show...

Some serious accidents caused no injuries. For example, in the past year, large sections of the mine's rocky roof collapsed on at least 20 occasions but not when workers were in the affected tunnels. Some of the collapsed sections were rocky slabs as long as 100 feet. The most recent roof collapse occurred on Dec. 5, less than a month before Monday's explosion.

J. Davitt McAteer, who headed MSHA during the Clinton administration, said he was troubled by an apparent spike in accidents and violations that occurred beginning about two years ago. "The violations are not the worst I've ever seen -- and certainly not the best -- but I'm concerned about the trend and the direction they're going in. It's an indication to those running the operation that you've got a problem here."

All of the above information about the safety violations at the Sago mine have long been public record. Anyone could have called up MSHA and had a set of their records in the mail the next day. Or checked the internet. So many government regulatory documents are posted on the web that one does not even have to leave their house to do much of their work anymore.

Anderson and CNN could have done a story on mine safety, the lives of miners, and the federal regulations of the agencies involved, weeks ago... months ago... or years ago. But they didn't and won't. That takes enterprise and reporting and investigation. Emoting is so much easier, cost-effective, and profitable.

Anderson Cooper and Geraldo Rivera and Bill O'Reilly, of course, also have the opportunity in the future to investigate mine safety, the federal regulation of the mining industry, or even stories about everyday life in today's Appalachia. But don't count on it. They will move on to the next tsunami, or hurricane, school shooting, or whatever else---"on- the- scene" reporting---in the process making the next mining accident all the more possible. If one does happen, they will be on the scene once again, publicly emoting every last ten-cents-worth of bling-bling emotion.

An iconic moment in television coverage was when Walter Cronkite, tears welling up in his eyes, had to take off his glasses to inform the nation that John F. Kennedy had been pronounced dead. Another was decades later, when Peter Jennings, for one brief moment, on Sept. 11th lost his composure, and with tears welling up in his eyes suggested that those watching might want to call their children and see if they were alright. The reason we remember those moments is because it was rare for either anchorman to lose their composure. And we knew that they were for real.

Anderson Cooper and Geraldo Rivera and Bill O'Reilly we know not to trust, however. They, too, have emotions, but there is a promiscuity, and dare say, even a vulgarity, to theirs. Their tears and anger are displayed so frequently and shared with so many that in the end they become meaningless. Their television shows will move somewhere else, and the families of the Sago miners will be alone--or finally left alone--to grieve.

Background on Murray Waas:

Paul Krugman, "Demons and Demonization," the New York Times, March 17, 2010.

Ryan Chuttum, "Reuters is Excellent in Digging of A Health Insurer's Tactics," Columbia Journalism Review, March 17, 2010.

Eric Alterman and Dannile Ivory, "Blogosphere to Mainstream Media: Get Off the Bus," Center for Amercan Progress, Mary 4, 2009.

Jim Boyd, "Editorial Pages: Why Courage is Hard to Find," Nieman Reports, Summer 2006.

Liz Halloran, "A Muckraker's Day in the Sun," U.S. News & World Report, May 15, 2006.

Howard Kurtz, "Reporters in Glass Houses," Washington Post, April 17, 2006.

Jay Rosen, "Murray Waas is Our Woodward Now," PressThink, April 9, 2006.

Dan Froomkin, "A Compelling Question," Washington Post, March 31, 2006.

Related articles by Murray Waas:

Murray S. Waas, "Jack Anderson: An Appreciation," the Village Voice, Oct. 13, 2005.

Murray Waas, "A Reporter's Bias," Huffington Post, June 26, 2006.

Additional press criticism by Murray Waas can also be found on his personal blog.

Murray Waas can be reached through his Facebook page or at murraywaas@gmail.com.