Down the Rabbit Hole

For the most part the story of the West Virginia mining tragedy is not a political one, so comments about press performance are, for once, not filtered through a political prism. What results is a revelation.

The continuing fuss over press failures in reporting the West Virginia mining tragedy has produced some unlikely conclusions from some unlikely quarters.

CJR Daily has weighed in twice itself and our conclusions haven’t changed much, if any, since last week. But, hey, you already know what we think. What’s more fascinating is what others think — especially when their thoughts on the matter don’t even remotely correspond to their previous track records.

The beauty of this, as one correspondent has alerted us, is that for the most part the West Virginia story is a non-political one, so suggestions as to what the press did wrong and what it did right are, for once, not filtered through a political prism. What results is a revelation: We learn what people really feel about the media — and we say “feel” rather than “think” because emotions come first, then thoughts.


Three of the favorite complaints about the press on the part of the right-wing attack machine are:

• “Why do you never report the GOOD news coming out of (fill in the blank)?”

• “Why don’t you just tell me what the president/senator/cabinet official (choose one) said, please, and then shut the hell up? I don’t need to hear your twist on the matter.”

• “Why do you East Coast elitists treat us like unwashed yokels? Have a little respect.”

Then came the mining case, and, if our email is any indication, lo and behold, the complaints about press performance from those self-same people became the mirror opposite of what they once were. Suddenly, the litany from the right — and this may be a first — transformed into something pretty much in accord with CJR Daily’s own conclusions:

• “Why were reporters on the scene so anxious to report GOOD news — even when it was wrong?

• “The mainstream media failed us by relying on fragmentary reports by confused local officials for their ‘news’ bulletins, instead of doing a little digging and subjecting those statements to independent verification.”

• “Why were reporters for national news outlets so easily taken in that they went for three long hours with what agitated and ill-informed locals told them?”

Our first reaction to this reversal of form was, “Hang on, Alice — we’ve just slipped down the rabbit hole.”

But on further consideration, we think that if there is a lesson here, it is this:

Once politics is (for the most part) stripped from the equation, the way that people think and feel about the performance of the press in any given situation changes radically.

Would that it happened more often.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Steve Lovelady was editor of CJR Daily.