The Dangerous Dichotomy: Us vs. Them in CNN’s Battle for Blair Mountain

Much has been written in the last few days about national journalist Soledad O'Brien's "Battle for Blair Mountain" hour-long special that aired Sunday evening on CNN.  Matt Wasson of Appalachian Voices was one of the first to point out a serious challenge in O'Brien's telling of the Blair Mountain story.  Wasson writes: "While O’Brien and her crew were able to tell both sides of the debate in compelling and emotionally powerful ways, the documentary suffered from the same flaw that just about every environmental story CNN has ever done suffers from: it is presented in a “jobs vs environment” frame that is devoid of any actual analysis of whether that frame is appropriate. Following is a brief fact-check of statements made by by mountaintop removal supporters and opponents in O’Brien’s documentary."

Author Jeff Biggers articulated the perspectives of several community activists and leaders who are regularly affected by the operations O'Brien examined in her piece.  Biggers notes that Battle for Blair Mountain "arguably reached more Americans during prime time than any other film documentary in the past decade," which makes the concerns about the frame — us vs. them, jobs vs. environment — as well as the perspectives included (and those left out) in the piece all the more challenging to supporting a meaningful, informed dialogue about the choices we are making as a country that impact the Appalachian region.  When the issues surrounding Blair Mountain in particular, but many other communities throughout the region as well, are pitched as having only some winners and many losers, it is hard to think constructively, intentionally about a transition to a diverse, sustainable economy in which everyone could participate.

Melissa Waage at NRDC writes that the problematic, oppositional frame stems from not having enough voices represented: "But crucial voices are missing from this piece, and it relies far too heavily on a clunky, over-simplified "us vs. them" theme. Somehow the show manages to acknowledge the facts about mountaintop removal actually killing jobs, yet still shoehorn the story into a factually unsupported "jobs. vs. the environment" frame."  By leaving out stakeholders, the O'Brien case missed a chance to portray the facts about the mixed at best employment picture in the Appalachian coal industry in recent years. 

Ken Ward, on his Coal Tattoo blog, pushes Waage's argument a step forward —

From where I sit, the CNN piece did as well as any other national media at explaining this point of view, and a better job than most at articulating the science that supports this point of view.

But the critics are right that it then fell into the media’s comfortable narrative, through which any environmental controversy is simply a “battle” of “jobs versus the environment.” It’s like I used to joke in the newsroom about what happens when national media descend on anywhere in the country with such a controversy — the inevitable headline is, “Town divided over [fill in the blank].”

Where the CNN piece fell down is where all of us in the media have failed, as far as covering these issues in the Appalachian coalfields: It accepted as unavoidable the notion that, without a new mountaintop removal permit — and another and another and another after that — there will be no jobs and no future, not just for James Dials, but for the generation after him and the generation after that …

Ward goes on to illustrate a tough, but important point — that the future of our region, today's kids, should have options and choices and by extension, continuing to advance this kind of perspective on a false dichotomy between jobs OR environment has the effect of holding today's kids hostage to the employment opportunities of their predecessors.  He writes:

Coalfield politicians make out like all we need here to improve things is for those nasty folks from the Obama administration to get out of the way, and let the next coal boom bring on the good times.

But the truth is, experts don’t think that boom is coming, regardless of what EPA or the Obama administration do.  And in their zeal to kill off any regulations on greenhouse gas emissions, coalfield political leaders have at the same time halted a key test project aimed at technology that is absolutely necessary if coal is to survive very far into our future.

Meanwhile, as kids in the coalfields prepare to head back for another year of school, our society continues to foster attitudes that have many of them thinking that the only possible future for them is coal. If a kid wants to work as a coal miner, that’s one thing … but do we really want our kids to think they have only one option in life, no matter what that option is?

Ward closes his review artfully, highlighting what is a key question in this on-going, evolving transition dialogue: how our past choices now impact and limit our children's future opportunities:

The problem was most simple. CNN interviewed Art Kirkendoll, who has been a county commissioner in Logan County for 30 years. They let him go on about what God does or doesn’t want done with West Virginia’s mountains.

But they didn’t bother to ask him about the fact that Logan County’s poverty rate is twice the national average, or why the college graduation rate there is one-third of the national average … They didn’t bother to ask him why kids in Logan County don’t deserve more than one option in life.

We believe kids throughout the Appalachian region deserve options, and hope that through the work of this effort and the efforts of other partners, examples of different real, meaningful opportunities can be lifted up and made known to young people throughout the region.

Kristin Tracz

About Kristin Tracz

Kristin Tracz served MACED’s Research and Policy team from 2009-2012 working on clean energy policy, energy efficiency programs and the Appalachian Transition Initiative. She joined MACED after finishing her Master of Environmental Management degree at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. She now lives and works in Washington, DC.