VOICES: Where's the passion and the justice in CNN's Blair Mountain documentary?

By Joe Atkins, Labor South

H.L. Mencken, the "sage of Baltimore" and old-school curmudgeon of journalism, once had this to say about journalistic objectivity: "I've been a reporter for many years, and I can tell you that no reporter worth a hoot ever wrote a purely objective story."

As a professor of journalism ethics, I talk a lot about objectivity, how it means different things to different people, and how some notions of it typically give the ultimate word to the powerful or at best short-change the side of justice because "objectivity" means both sides get equal billing in the story -- whether they're equal or not.

That's what happened in the early days of the civil rights movement. Racist sheriffs in the Deep South complaining about "outside agitators" got equal say with local blacks who were "sick and tired of being sick and tired" of a system that kept them at the bottom.

Where's this leading? To Sunday evening, August 14, at 8 p.m. ET and CNN anchor and special correspondent Soledad O'Brien's Battle for Blair Mountain: Working in America, a documentary that attempts to tell the story of the battle between neighbor and neighbor in Sharples, W. Va., over whether the Arch Coal and (unnamed in the documentary) Massey Energy coal companies should destroy nearby Blair Mountain in search of coal and profits.

"It's us against the world," coal company supporter Linda Dials tells O'Brien. Her husband, James, a modern-day "coal miner" who essentially tries to rebuild the mountains his employer destroys, puts it this way: "I've got to work. That's the bottom line."

O'Brien, paying homage to CNN's notion of journalistic objectivity, threads a treacherous path through "both sides" of a complex, emotion-laden story. The Dials represent one side, and they get the first word and the last word.

They want the government to allow the coal companies to remove the mountaintop to get to the coal that lies underneath. Mountaintop removal is, as O'Brien says, a very efficient way of coal mining. Blast away, and there's the coal! It only takes 25 workers to do what 80 workers would do in underground mining, an option the companies now feel is too expensive.

Arch Coal declined an interview with O'Brien. Officials at notorious safety-standard violator Massey Energy (which began calling itself Alpha Natural Resources after 29 miners at its Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia were killed in an explosion in April 2010), it would seem, were never asked for an interview. Both companies applied for as many as six permits to blow the mountain up.

James Dial earns $65,000 a year (nearly twice what local school teachers earn) doing "reclamations" on destroyed mountains -- that is, taking his bulldozer and crew and trying to rebuild a mountain with the refuse of rock and sand mountaintop removal leaves. He's a trained carpenter, but that line of work doesn't pay $65,000 a year in rural West Virginia. He and his wife lead the effort to let the companies have their way.

On the other side of the equation are folks like: Jimmy Weekley, whose house is close to Blair Mountain; Billy Smutko, who worries about "what do you get" 30 years from now after all the mountains are destroyed, and along with them streams and other water sources; and Chuck Keeney, whose great-grandfather was one of the 10,000 coal miners who went on strike on Blair Mountain in 1921 to fight coal company tyranny and be able to join the United Mine Workers. That bloody battle was one of the key events in labor history in this country, and Keeney and others would like to preserve Blair Mountain for that reason as well.

O'Brien does an admirable job bringing together scientists, government officials, and activists who tell how destructive mountaintop removal is in Appalachia. It creates an environmental disaster, they say. This is where she frames the story: environment versus jobs, tree huggers versus blue-collar workers.

Yet the truth is that mountaintop removal destroys more than the environment. It destroys communities as well as jobs. In fact, the best quote in O'Brien's documentary comes from Billy Smutko: "When mountaintop removal started, that's when the community started disappearing."

The New York Times and other media outlets have written about the destruction that mountaintop removal leaves. This is how the Times put it in its headline to an article on the issue this April: "As mountaintops fall to mining, towns disappear and people scatter."

The Dials don't see it that way. James Dial wants to keep his $65,000-a-year job. Nothing wrong with that, until a journalist puts that perspective on an equal level with a mountain of evidence and the perspective of nearly everyone else who has any real insight into what mountaintop removal ultimately means.

As is often the case with so-called "objective" stories, the real issue lies beyond the two sides presented. Where is there real scrutiny of the coal companies and their practices? Their involvement in the communities? Their past records? They hand O'Brien a press release and take a powder. Where is there a real look into the history of this area, the epic, century-old struggle of miners for social justice?

What comes to mind is TV journalist/celebrity Diane Sawyer's prize-winning A Hidden America: Children of the Mountains broadcast on ABC in February 2009, the culmination of a two-year project by Kentucky native Sawyer about Appalachian poverty that said practically nothing about the role of industry in that poverty but tons about corporate media's lack of zeal for real muckraking journalism.

Where is the passion that drove George Stoney, Judith Helfand, and Susanne Rostock in their riveting documentary about the Depression-era cotton mill strikes, The Uprising of '34? Where is the passion that makes Alexandra Lescaze's 2003 documentary about textile workers in North Carolina, Where Do You Stand?, fill the viewing room with righteous indignation against greed and injustice?

The facts in O'Brien's story do indicate where justice truly lies, and, to her credit, she did a lot of legwork to gather and present those facts. However, the context is deeper and broader than what is presented in Battle for Blair Mountain: Working in America.

Ol' H.L. Mencken was a conservative (in many ways) Germanophile who probably would argue with me into the wee hours on most issues in politics. However, I have a feeling he would say this to Soledad O'Brien: "You were there. What did you see? What did it tell you? Did it make you angry? You got the facts. Did they tell a story, a story the people need to hear, a story of passion and tragedy? A story that might make a difference? Tell that story, and tell it with passion, dammit!"