Big, Dumb Projects

One of the first stories that I took on was this out-of-state garbage story. There’d been a number of proposals, framed as economic development, for these big garbage dumps, and most of them had been beaten down. But when I came to the Gazette there was one that was being proposed for McDowell County, the poorest of the poor in West Virginia, and the whole view in Charleston was, “Well, the people in McDowell County want it.” I knew some people from McDowell County, and they told me that wasn’t true. There was an environmental reporter at the Gazette at the time who was convinced that the people there wanted it, so he wasn’t writing about it. I remember going in to [editor] Don Marsh—and this wasn’t my beat—and I said, “We need to write about this.” I’d been there like three months, and I’m challenging these people who had been there a long time. I was one of Marsh’s boys, you know; he hired me, and he always kind of had my back, and he said, “Okay, go down there, see what you find out.” I ended up writing probably two dozen stories about it over the course of the next six, eight months, and they ended up building a landfill but it was a much smaller one than what was originally planned; it wasn’t this giant, out-of-state thing. And then we took on this thing about a big pulp mill that was proposed in Mason County, and I wrote hundreds and hundreds of stories about that. Well, it never got built. That was the beginning of a series of stories about big, dumb projects. And there was something satisfying about that. But at the same time, there was a guy who worked for the PR agency that was promoting that McDowell County landfill. I remember him giving me this lecture about how if I was going to be a successful investigative journalist I needed to find something that I was in favor of, instead of just writing about things that are wrong. And that still sticks with me; he was twisting what was really going on. Because you’re against something doesn’t mean you’re not for other things. Saying that economic development for southern West Virginia need not mean taking everybody else’s trash—inherent in that is the idea that there are other kinds of economic development that might be better.

I think that most journalists, certainly in America today, are dishonest with the public by telling them that they’re objective. I used to go give talks at some of the trade groups in West Virginia, and I’d use this Hunter S. Thompson quote—that objective journalism is a pompous contradiction in terms—and people would always say, “A-ha! That proves it! Ken Ward’s biased, we knew it all along.” And then I would say, “Well, let’s talk about my biases.” And I would say things like, “You know, I think everybody should be able to earn a living so they can take care of their families. I think everybody should have clean water to drink. I think everybody should have clean air to breathe. I think every kid deserves to have a chance at a good education. I think that everybody ought to share in the wealth of our nation.” Nobody ever really wanted to disagree with any of that. But they didn’t really like how it manifested itself in stories.

I guess somebody could say I’m being pompous, that if everyone would just see it my way… And maybe there’s some truth to that. But there’s a difference between an inherent, emotional bias against something and really looking at it in a scientific sort of manner. I guess that’s one way my own thinking about some of this has evolved—and it goes back to my dad. He was a high school chemistry and biology teacher, and he used to preach scientific method sort of stuff. If you’re going to go at journalism the way I do, that there are injustices that need to be exposed, then you also need to do what scientists do and rigorously examine whether there’s evidence that shows that your hypothesis is wrong. These days I probably spend more time trying to read what the coal industry says about mine safety or air pollution or whatever than I do reading what environmental groups say about it. Because I want to understand what they’re saying.

True Facts, False Facts

Brent Cunningham is CJR’s managing editor.