Kentucky: Punting a region’s longtime political football—coal

October 8, 2018

Ahead of the November 6 elections, CJR invited writers to spotlight stories that deserve closer scrutiny, in their states and beyond, before voters cast their ballots. Read other dispatches from “States of the Union” here.

Amy McGrath, a former Marine fighter pilot and a Democrat running for Congress in Kentucky, told the Lexington Herald-Leader earlier this year that coal “has been played as a political football” for too long. “These are real lives, real people,” she said, calling the habit a “failure of leadership on both sides of the aisle.”

McGrath opposes Republican incumbent Andy Barr in Kentucky’s 6th Congressional District, an area on the edge of Appalachia that is home to rolling hills of bourbon distilleries and horse farms. The race, which The New York Times dubbed “one of the most competitive” in the country, echoes partisan and ideological divides in nearly every state: the progressive, experienced female candidate versus the incumbent, Trump-supporting, fossil fuel–funded white male.

Barr, like most Republican and Democratic candidates in Kentucky’s recent history, has tried to use coal as a bludgeon. But the “war on coal” trope is fading as people in Appalachia and the South rewrite the region’s narratives. Politicians are being forced to address other critical issues instead, like women’s equality, healthcare, and alternative economic opportunities. People of all political leanings here see through the claims that fossil fuels are all this region has, all it’s worth—and they demand more.

For too long, politicians and the media outlets covering them have devoted more attention to the politics of coal than to those people whose lives depend on it. In 2014, Alison Lundergan Grimes ran an expensive and competitive campaign against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, but was nearly as vocal as McConnell in decrying coal-fired power plant regulations and pleading she was a friend of the industry. Outlets such as The Guardian and Reuters covered the race in-depth, but hardly mentioned reasons for the industry’s decline, why people were so frustrated, or the types of jobs that could replace the fossil-fuel economy.

A year later, Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway, who ran for Kentucky governor against Republican Matt Bevin and lost, sued the Obama administration over the Clean Power Plan and touted the lawsuit during his run. NBC called the election in 2015 a “slow-moving train wreck,” and, like many other outlets, focused on the “Obama war” rather than how the outcome would impact Kentuckians’ jobs, health, and livelihoods.

Covering how people are working for a just transition from a coal economy or investigating public health in former coal communities is more informative and effective than simply covering politics.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

President Trump won Kentucky’s 6th district by a margin of more than 15 points. (In the state, he won by nearly 30.) But the Barr-McGrath race will likely be a much tighter one. That’s important, because in conservative states like Kentucky, we expect people to remain the same; to vote, think, and act like they always have. Local, state, and federal politicians and industry lobbyists already tell people coal is all that matters, that it’s all this state has to survive. News coverage too often propels that destructive feedback loop. When reporters describe people who live here as “desperate,” “suckers,” or full of “ironies” for believing the information they’re constantly bombarded with, those people continue to believe it.

Reporting on energy, the economy, health care, and climate change in a less antagonistic way goes far in places like Kentucky. Covering how people are working for a just transition from a coal economy or investigating public health in former coal communities is more informative and effective than simply covering politics. For instance, there’s a resurgence in black lung disease, a fatal and incurable illness caused by coal dust, and the fund coal companies pay into for miners’ medical benefits is set to be slashed in half by the end of the year if Congress doesn’t act. People of all political ideologies, from southwest Virginia to eastern Kentucky, are urging lawmakers to do something. When reporters ask politicians about their views on the Trump administration’s plan to prop up coal-fired power plants, they should ask the same officials what they plan to do to stop this preventable disease.

Renewable energy is becoming increasingly popular in conservative states as market forces shutter coal plants. If candidates support clean energy, we can ask them how they plan to bring solar or wind farms; if they are critical of distributed energy, we can ask why they aren’t addressing the extremely high electricity prices utilities are charging customers.

Climate change is also an increasingly important topic. Barr has said coal “contributes” to climate change, but doesn’t address climate change on his website and has opposed federal climate policy. McGrath frames climate change as necessary for national security and repeatedly says that the military recognizes the threats it poses. Instead of asking Kentuckians whether or not they believe in climate change, reporters can ask how increased flooding impacts their lives, what concerns they have about the pipeline boom, or what infrastructure they need to live properly. In my own reporting, I’ve found that talking about the tangible effects of erratic weather and showing people how it affects the things they care most about spurs more productive conversations.

Many people in this region are realistic about the rapid decline of the coal industry, and they’re pushing for paths forward. As journalists, our job is to help them better understand those paths. When we provide context while reporting on policies, treat sources as intelligent humans, and listen to them and offer more than a sound bite, it shows what Kentuckians know is true: There is more to this state than the black rock beneath it.

ICYMI: Aftershocks from the epicenter of voter suppression

Lyndsey Gilpin is the founder and editor of Southerly, an independent media organization about ecology, justice, and culture in the American South. She is a freelance journalist based in her hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, InsideClimate News, High Country News, Outside, The Daily Beast, HuffPost, and more.