MINING THE RATINGS
By Matt Taibbi
Our national media has many favorites among the various types of news stories: plane crashes, celebrity divorces, sex scandals involving masturbating congressmen. But if you had to pinpoint the one type of news story that is guaranteed in every case to make every news director in the country pitch an instant, wind-catching tent, you wouldn’t have to look far. The mother of all news aphrodisiacs is unquestionably this: innocent human beings trapped in an enclosed place in desperate circumstances, their lives hanging in the balance.
There are a few caveats to this rule. The would-be victims have to remain alive long enough for satellite trucks to reach the site. Actually, they don’t have to be wholly alive, per se; it’s enough if they’re not yet confirmed dead and still possibly alive. The essential factors are really the ability to plausibly stretch out the drama, a colorful location in front of which live stand-ups can be done, and a complex means of attempted rescue, necessitating
the use of extensive graphs and diagrams and the input of a parade of scientific/technical experts. An additional bonus comes when the story occurs in an unusual climate, allowing reporters to wear (pick one) a) a state-of-the-art Gore-tex coat with numerous straps and pockets b) a turban c) a wetsuit or d) a vest and crampons.
Last week’s story of the trapped Pennsylvania miners was a classic of the people-trapped-with-time-running-out genre. If the little girl trapped in the well was the first top-40 hit, and the Kursk Russian submarine disaster was the breakthrough triple-platinum album, the Pennsylvania miners were the latest solid gold single announcing the full maturation of a distinguished career. The TV ratings reflected the public’s final acceptance of the genre. According to the Associated Press, the ratings for both CNN and the Fox news channel were roughly six times greater than usual between 11 p.m. last Saturday and 3 a.m. Sunday, when the miners were being rescued.
CNN reported 2.3 million viewers during that time period, as compared to their average viewership for that slot of 319,000. At Fox, the numbers were 2.1 million against 306,000. Both networks ran live coverage of the rescue effort throughout most of the weekend. On the print side, the two major wire services, AP and Reuters, each filed over 100 stories apiece between Friday and Sunday, at times filing updates as often as every few minutes.
Asking why the media goes so bonkers over these stories is like asking why a dog licks its balls. The reason in both cases is: because it can. A life-or-death drama induced by accident is about the only kind of story that our media can cover these days without holding anything back at all; it’s the only thing that tests the design parameters of our media machine. Virtually any other kind of news story, even ones that involve other types of life-or-death dramas, require the American press to undertake at least some conscious deceptions and omissions.
Take 9/11, for instance. This was also a disaster story that involved a rescue effort, but it was also sharply politicized. Though the administration blamed Osama bin Laden for the attacks within hours, none of the major media outlets felt comfortable asking how the blame could be laid so fast, or describing in detail what the reasons for the attack might have been. Even Dan Rather admitted: “There are some things about this story that we just can’t cover.”
Same thing with Waco, and the Oklahoma City bombing. Both stories were natural suspense dramas whose scope as news stories were narrowed because of their politicized nature. In both cases an exhaustive treatment of the story would have resulted either in depressing excersises in national self-examination that would have reduced the stories’ entertainment value, or in too close a look at various dangerous and taboo themes (i.e. public disaffection with the government) that the news media stays away from as a matter of rule.
But accidents and natural disasters are ideologically neutral and therefore can be covered exhaustively. And they can be covered not only as breaking news stories, but as features, human interest “readers”, and as subjects for that full gamut of mawkish, sentimental, and hero-worshipping commentary pieces that pass for analysis on our opinion pages. That’s the irony of the whole thing; that the full attention of the analytical press corps is only focused completely when the subject is something that everyone, right from the start, is in obvious and complete agreement about.
That said, the orgy of saccharine self-congratulation in newspapers around the country in the wake of the miner rescue was startling even by the standards of the genre. Major news daily after major news daily served up the satisfying patriotic conclusion to the story in the primitive form of a TV sitcom’s 23rd minute: “You know, Billy, I learned something today…” Here are some of the highlights:
- St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times: “Miners Taught Us What’s Important.” (Jul. 30) Defying the idea that America in the age of corporate scandal is an immoral place, the heroic miners proved to us that faith, courage, community, and the wise stewardship of leaders like Pennsylvania governor Mark Schweiker is the true face of our country. Concludes with a first-class Tony Robbins-ism: the miner story allows us to “focus on what is truly important,” i.e. not all that other bad news.
- Seattle Post-Intelligencer: “We Cheer Together When Nine Miners Saved.” (Jul. 30) Again, defying the expectation that we might boo the news, we Americans cheered at the rescue of the Pennsylvania miners, who proved to us the worth of those particularly American qualities: “Skill, strong spirits, and faith.” Includes an homage to those other heroes of Pennsylvania’s Somerset country, the passengers of United flight 93, who overpowered terrorist hijackers on 9/11.
- Christian Science Monitor: “Setting Miners Free.” This one touched on all the necessities: a recollection of 9/11(“Like the heroism seen on 9/11…”), a tribute to the wise leadership of Governor Schweiker (here paid the ultimate compliment when he is called a “Giuliani-like presence”), a reminder of the power of “immeasuable prayer”, and a cheery corporate plug (“They shared Lifesavers…”). God, heroism, leadership, and candy: the ultimate feel-good American story.
The news features weren’t much different from the editorials. Every conceivable angle from which to address the “love/faith/heroism” angle was covered. There was the feel-good story about the miners’ hometown of Somerset (“Pa. Town Wakes Up to Wealth of Heroes From Miners’ Rescue,” AP, Jul. 28), the feel-good story about the miners’ families (“Families Rejoice At Miners’ Survival,” AP, Jul. 28), even the feel-good story of an emotionally drained President of the United States (“Bush ‘Thrilled’ That Miners are Safe,” Jul. 28, Reuters).
A quick side note: none of the many stories about Bush’s elated reaction to the miner rescue noted that the United Mine Workers of America vigorously opposed Bush in the 2000 election, among other things because he favored a repeal of ergonomic safety standards in workplaces.
Probably my favorite feature headline was this one: “Pa. Residents Hope Coal Miners Safe,” from Reuters, Jul. 27. When I read that one, I thought: “Residents Hope Miners Safe… as opposed to what?” What are the alternatives to such a headline? “Residents Hope Miners Experiencing At Least Mild Discomfort?” How about “Residents Hope Miners Remember to Floss?”
It sounds like a bitchy criticism, but after a long enough exposure to this hysterical treatment of the obvious, one can get pretty frustrated.
Almost none of this would be objectionable at all, were it not for one thing: NO ONE IN THE MEDIA GIVES A SHIT ABOUT MINERS. When was the last time you saw a miner who wasn’t trapped alive underground in the news? In the week-long period during which this Pennsylvania story was news, there were no fewer than three major fatal mine accidents around the world: one in Ukraine that killed 19, one in China that killed 8, and a third in Zimbabwe that killed 15.
None of these stories registered more than a three-inch brief in most major dailies, and not only because the victims weren’t American. The main reason they were ignored is because the victims didn’t stay alive long enough for the networks to get a live shot in. After all, the Kursk sailors were Russian, and they made the news because they had the good sense to flail around for a while underwater before they croaked.
Miners die all the time. They work in horrible conditions all the time. They get screwed by their employers all the time. In May of this year, mine workers finally got a break when the federal government indicted a single coal mining company called KenAmerican Resources, Inc., on charges of falsifying safety records and manipulating equipment used to monitor coal dust records. It’s a widespread practice in the coal mining industry: rather than shell out the extra money to make sure miners aren’t working in conditions that will leave them dead from black lung disease by the age of 35, companies rig their monitoring equipment to make it appear that the mines are safe. The Louisville Courier-Journal ran a lengthy series on the issue about four years ago, but that’s been about the only hint of that story in the national media since then.
That kind of thing isn’t newsworthy because people who die over a period of years, as opposed to days, are not news. If you want to get on TV in this country, die within the space of one news cycle, die by accident, and die draped in an American flag, with your grieving nuclear family and your local pastor at your side. Otherwise, find a dime and call someone who cares.