Thoughts on CNN’s “Battle for Blair Mountain”

First and foremost I walked away from this special disappointed. In the end it became yet another human-interest oriented special on Appalachia. To be fair, I think it’s one of the best human-interest specials I’ve seen on the area. Soledad O’brien deserves credit for refusing to patronize the people that she interviewed and more importantly for the way that the special portrayed those people. It also did an intriguing job choosing most of its subjects. Specifically (apologies if I get names wrong, I have no way of rewatching the show to double check my notes at the moment) I thought Linda and James were good subjects to highlight. I found them both intriguing: Linda for her adamant belief that she’s in the right (I’ll say I agree with significant caveats but more on that in a moment) and James for his work in reclamation on Mountain Top Removal (mtr from hereon). What disappointed me was the lack of significant focus on James’ work. Reclemation practices appeared to me to be woefully inadequate (something James inadvertently admitted to when he said it was put back the best men could), but I realize that’s a subjective reaction. Afterall, someone (I missed the name) claimed God wanted mtr. I’m certainly not going to argue that this person sees the same thing I see when I look at mtr reclamation.

I doubt anyone who knows me will be surprised, but I found the focus on the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921 was woefully inadequate. It failed entirely to capture the importance of that event, the driving forces behind it and the reason why people are marching to save Blair. In fact the portrayal of the marchers was, frankly, poorly done. There were stronger and perhaps more pertinent voices to interview in that march in the video I posted here earlier this today (admittedly it’s a biased source, but that doesn’t mean those people weren’t participants in the march). The people on the march that were interviewed (specifically the younger people/students?) simply did not provide the breadth of support for that march. Ultimately the lack of this breadth and the lack of significant focus on the battle in 1921 completely failed to convey the importance of this particular mountain. The closest the special got to this was Keeney’s comparison to Gettysburg (which was excellent). Yes, mtr and the struggle against it goes much further than Blair, but the title of the show was “Battle for Blair Mountain.” It calls for a bit more specificity.

I also saw a lot of rumblings on Twitter about the lack of “sick” individuals from the community arguing against mtr. People suffering from poor water quality and illness related to mtr are a major feature of this movement and shouldn’t be ignored. I’m willing to give CNN the benefit of doubt here though. Blair hasn’t been subject to mtr and therefore no one in that particular community have had to face that issue. There is a strong focus on the scientific findings on mtr were pretty prominent. This is to the special’s credit. Yet I think the focus on correlation and causality later in the episode is dangerous. Maybe we don’t have causality, but that correlation between mtr and health issues is horrifying and once you destroy a watershed there is simply no going back. The science is pointing us towards very disturbing findings and we ignore them at our own peril.

That said, I still think Linda is right, but for the wrong reasons. She and James deserve job security. I don’t want there to be any misconception about the need for wide ranging economic reform in the area. This is why I approach mtr through an environmental justice approach. The economic windfall from the stopping of mtr absolutely has to be addressed. My stance remains that coal produced electricity (much like oil) are environmentally destructive. If we’re going to have a fix it has to be environmentally and economically sound.

Further, there were significant (though normal) oversights by mtr supporters. James for instance decries his need to drive an hour for a job at the end of the episode. This is all well and good, but how far would he have to drive for a job after the mountain is gone and reclamation work is over? If anything mtr at Blair is a momentary fix. Mining is inherently a boom and bust economic model depending on the seam, the market, and regulation. The EPA’s decision about Spruce 1 creates problems for people today, but in a lot of cases these problems would simply show up in the years to come if mtr went forward. These communities are not secure or they are only secure momentarily if the coal companies have free reign in mtr.

And here we come to my biggest issue with “Battle for Blair Mountain”: The human interest nature of the show means that it practically ignores the incredibly powerful third party in this struggle: the coal company. (Note: I did not get an accurate spelling/did not hear the name accurately while watching for the company involved in the Blair Mtn mtr license. I haven’t found that information right away since sitting down to write this. In the interest of getting my thoughts down quickly I’ll track that information down in the near future.) The special presents a false dichotomy. We have “coal miners” on one side and “environmentalists” on the other. I use scare quotes specifically here because of the lack of accurate in that characterization. Coal miners don’t all support mtr. This is one of the reasons the focus on James is so intriguing. He (ostensibly) wouldn’t have a job in an underground mine. The show does a good job pointing out that mtr employs less people than underground mining. But that doesn’t get at the heart of the issue. The entity determining the jobs is the coal company (or overall the industry). The history of the coal industry in the community is long and complicated at best. To say that they have the community’s interests at heart though is ridiculous. They want mtr because it’s cheap and that cheapness is in part because they don’t have to employ as many people. The people who run these companies do not live near these mountains. The special fails to really look into these “community members” (if I can go so far as to use the claim that corporations are people). They are not benevolent dictators and they can and will move their money elsewhere. They play a huge role in lobbying the state and national government as well. Their power, motives, and the role they play in the governing of these issues demand more attention. Yes, they refused to comment to CNN. That’s well and good. Their omission does not mean that CNN does not have a journalistic responsibility to look into this aspect of the story.

To its credit “Battle for Blair Mountain” does not present simple good guys and bad guys. It does not presume to talk down or remove agency from the individuals who live in this community. For all of these (crucial) strengths, it fails to examine the elephant in the room. While I don’t expect CNN to provide the answer for this issue, I suspect they could go a long way to enlightening the issue if they had turned their focus towards the coal companies.

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