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Voyeurism in West Virginia

The media mea culpas are already rolling in after the tragic set of circumstances that led news organizations to trumpet -- however briefly -- the bogus news that there had been a miraculously happy ending to the coal mining accident in West Virginia.

Here's a typical and reasonable response from a newspaper editor picked up in today's post-mortem in USA Today.

"This is not a good day for news organizations," said George de Lama, deputy managing editor for news at the Chicago Tribune, where 373,000 of Wednesday's 656,000 copies went to readers with a front-page story stating the miners had survived. At his newspaper, "we're all sick about this...conversations are underway across the newsroom on how to prevent it from happening again."

Sure let's talk about how to avoid such a scenario again. But honestly, how often will there likely be such an incredible confluence of events?

I'm not inclined to bash news outlets -- many of which went to extraordinary efforts to ultimately get the right story out -- on this count. My brief is with another matter related to the coverage of the mine disaster -- and that is the sheer voyeurism that is part and parcel of the coverage of such made-for-media -- in particular TV -- events.

Yes, a mine disaster in which a dozen men lose their lives is a significant news event. But is it the biggest ongoing story in the entire world? Sure, if you go by the cable news coverage and the sheer volume of TV trucks that descended on the scene.

What the story undeniably has is all the ingredients of irrresistable ratings-driven drama -- men suffering a potentially horrible fate buried in the earth; a dramatic race to rescue them from the surface; terriifed loved ones and a huddling, emotional community waiting under unimaginable pressure for some word. (And as is the case in many coal mining venues, this was not a community of upscale white-wine suburbanites, but a place where rough-edged, plain-talkin' folks on the other side of the economic divide live. Such a venue gives the TV news industry something it can't resist, a chance to show it knows how to connect and share the pain with the "real Americans" who don't live on either coast.)

The horrific reality that these folks were put on an emotional roller coaster that went from tears of joy and ringing churchbells to tears of sadness and ringing condemnations of those who "lied" to them makes the TV drama all that more compelling. And the cameras and microphones were quick to seize on the rage and sense of betrayal.

 I heard and saw dramatic video of one woman questioning the existence of God after the story turned tragic. Is that kind of sentiment -- blurted out in the midst of incredible emotional trauma -- really newsworthy? Does it offer some profound revelation about people's relationships with God? I don't think so. It was a cry of pain, one that might have best been uttered away from the glare of the cameras.

I remember one other notable scene in this whole drama when one distraught woman, comforted by a man, was literally walking through a gauntlet of reporters with mikes and cameras lining her path. With a look of palpable disgust, the man firmly, but surprisingly gently, brushed a probing micropohone away with the back of his hand. He had the gall to reassert the basic right that not all grief has to be shared with the American public looking on in their living rooms and dens.

 I admired his point and his self control. 

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