On the politics of emotions in coal country

Over at Slate this week, science editor Susan Matthews takes New York Times daily podcast host Michael Barbaro to task for choking up during an interview segment with a retired coal miner from Kentucky. Coal country is back in the news with feeling this week after Trump signed an executive order to dismantle much of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan. Although this new order affects environmental standards nation-wide, much of the focus both from the White House and national media has been on Appalachia’s coal industry. I discussed this development with WNYC’s On the Media program here. With a similar intent, the New York Times selected a voice from Appalachia for its segment and included a former coal miner from Harlan, Kentucky, on their program. During the interview, Barbaro’s voice breaks several times with emotion after questions turn from environmental regulations and politics to the realities of coal mining and life in coal communities. For Matthews, this is irresponsible and unethical journalism. I’m certainly interested in Barbaro’s reaction, but it’s Matthews’ reflection on this segment that troubles me.

According to Matthews, “it’s a miraculous 10 minutes of radio, ending with Barbaro crying while he realizes he doesn’t really understand coal country at all, and perhaps if he just visited a mine he would have an entirely different perspective on the situation.” Matthews faults Barbaro for not challenging his subject’s views on the coal industry more forcefully, finding his line of questioning and emotional response not only dangerous but ultimately cruel for “allowing” the miner to believe his myths about the promise of better days. “I’m sorry, but what can living in a coal town teach you about whether coal is actually damaging to the atmosphere?” she asks as a means to de-legitimize the tone and content of the interview.

Matthews’ piece omits two key facts about the interview. The first is that Barbaro’s 10-minute segment with a miner was prefaced by a thorough conversation with an industry expert reporting on the overall financial health of the coal industry, the larger ebb and flow of energy markets, and Trump’s recent executive order. The second and most heinous omission is that Barbaro’s subject was suffering from Stage 3 Black Lung, a condition that I presume made the interview difficult on a number of levels. The interview is punctuated by moments where the miner has difficulty breathing and providing longer responses and the pair discuss the condition, although the miner is reluctant to dwell on the fact that he is critically ill. In short, broadcast of flawed beliefs aside, Matthews is shaming a reporter for displaying emotion during an interview with a man who has a terminal and very obviously debilitating illness without mentioning that fact.

But let’s return to those flawed beliefs. The miner is a Trump voter and proudly so, and is a believer in both narratives about “the war on coal” and related promises to revive the coal industry in Appalachia through de-regulation. In short, the miner’s thoughts are consistent with Trump’s public position on this matter and I’m comfortable agreeing that both are unrealistic. The miner is warm and excited to be interviewed, but resolute in his opinion that over-regulation killed an industry that is otherwise profitable and not unreasonably dangerous, both to individuals and the environment. Barbaro is perplexed by this and we can understand why – an individual whose life will be cut short by an industrial illness appears to be disregarding the consequences even to his own health. Barbaro is not accustomed to interviewing people who regard their health and labor in such stark ways and the shift in tone is obvious. The miner states clearly he’d choose mine work again even knowing he’d develop Black Lung because it let him provide for his family. He asks Barbaro why he doesn’t just visit Kentucky and look at coal country for himself. “Kentucky isn’t so far away,” he chuckles, and Barbaro loses his resolve.

On a broad level, Matthews’ frustrations are earned. Our political conversations are too often driven by unproductive debates about what we should think or feel about individual Trump supporters and their preferred outcomes. Barbaro’s interview, and his emotional response, tips the scale toward empathy, or at least understanding. Barbaro acknowledges that he’s never visited coal country and might well have a different outlook if his background or knowledge base was different. This satisfies the miner, who finds it odd that individuals outside the region have such strong beliefs about what its people and industries do right or wrong. But ultimately, Matthews’ only gives the pendulum a big push in the opposite direction by arguing that it’s a mistake to allow voices such as the miner’s out into the wider world and manipulates context that provides important background.

To return to this presumption that Matthews’ finds especially irritating – that a coal town could teach us anything about the dangers of coal to the atmosphere – let me offer a suggestion. And that is to find any number of environmental experts that live and work in coal towns that approach these issues through accepted science and offer them your platform. I think, for example, that it would be informative to hear or read the discussion that could take place between miners-turned-environmentalist and active or retired miners, and Nick Mullins’ work comes immediately to mind. The reluctance to see those inside the region as anything other than passive subjects results in the frustrations Matthews’ expresses, although she participates in it herself by preaching behavior modification – casting local and scientific beliefs as incompatible, referring to the cruelty of our ignorance – instead of alternative perspectives. But by branching out, it would mean accepting that Kentucky isn’t so far away, especially as a warning of what’s to come.

5 thoughts on “On the politics of emotions in coal country

  1. Andrew Gnas

    This is just the second article of yours that I’ve read. I feel that you do an excellent job conveying my frustrations with the way this area of the country and it’s residents are portrayed in the national spotlight routinely.

    As a realtor, I find myself constantly defending the Bluegrass and State at large to people that aren’t from here who seemingly know what’s good for us and their hopes that we can get out of our own way for their own sake.

    Thank you for providing our people with a media fluent, compassionate, and comprehensive voice.

    Keep up the good work.


  2. Jennifer Cleveland

    Thank you for your work, Elizabeth. I found Miller’s tone and POV nearly right up there with Patrick Thornton’s “I’m a Coastal Elite from the Midwest: The Real Bubble is Rural America” opinion piece in Roll Call.


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