If you met me, you’d never mistake me for CNN’s Anderson Cooper. I couldn’t even pass for the most anonymous schlub broadcaster at the smallest TV station around. But I never expected that during the Sago Mine rescue attempt, folks in Buckhannon and Tallmansville, W. Va., would mistake me for being a miner.
After stupidly getting off of the Interstate and following a pitch-black foggy road for 30 miles or so to get there, I set foot in Buckhannon on Monday night, stopping at one of the first mini-mart gas stations I saw. I got out of the car and asked a woman who was leading her daughter into the store where Tallmansville was.
“Are you going to the mine?” she asked.
I said I was. She gave me exact directions to Sago Road, where the coalmine entrance is located, just a few miles outside Buckhannon.
“You with the rescue?” she asked.
“I’m with the media,” I said.
I went into the store to get some coffee and other provisions. The young woman working behind the counter chatted with each customer, talking about the disaster.
“A friend of mine said the doctor told one of the guys who got out of there this morning that he’d never see again,” the clerk said to the customer, who was the same woman I’d asked for directions. The woman had in tow her fidgety daughter, who was about nine.
“I heard they’re going to close the schools tomorrow,” the clerk said.
“Yay!” the little girl cheered, jumping into the air.
After the woman and her daughter left, I spoke with the clerk for a bit, telling her I was with the media and trying to find out what she knew about the accident.
"It's a shame that it takes something like this to put this place on the map," she said just before I walked out.
I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that people were mistaking me for some kind of local. Part of it could be that I’m a pretty beefy guy, the kind of guy who looks like he might work with his hands. I also was dressed so that I was seemingly indistinguishable from some of the locals. With my nondescript beat-up dark blue jacket, no-name charcoal-colored fleece, regular hiking boots, jeans, and a dark baseball cap slung low over my face with my shaggy hair sticking out on the sides, I guess I might’ve passed for one of the boys from that side of the tracks, though I wasn’t trying to do so. I wore the jacket and fleece for comfort, and because I was going to a muddy coal mine during a continuous rain, so I figured there was no need to look pretty. Also, I didn’t want to stand out too much.
When I ran into the photographer who was covering the disaster for the news agency I was stringing for, he seemed amazed at my appearance.
“You look like you’re from here,” he said, laughing.
“I’ll take that as a compliment. That’s the look I’m going for,” I said.
I wasn’t trying to impersonate a miner or a West Virginian. I like my beat-up blue jacket and I wear it all of the time and will continue to do so, even if it makes some people think I look like I’m from the country. I also like all of the other clothes I was wearing, which were not the uniform of journalists at this media orgy.
Some of the sillier reporters were wearing suits and ties when they got there, but most had the presence of mind to dress down a bit. Dressing down for this group of journalists, though, meant wearing a spotlessly clean blue or black North Face jacket, a crisp dress shirt, new jeans and Vasque hiking boots. I also noticed that nearly all of the journalists tended to be slender or slightly built, and I am far from that body shape.
So forgive me for looking like the locals. Perhaps that’s what people should have expected, since I am a Pittsburgh native.
A while back a friend of mine who grew up in Chicago, Cleveland and Detroit, opined that Pittsburgh is not the East, and it’s not the Midwest, either.
Well, what are Pittsburghers then, I asked.
“Pittsburghers are like part Pittsburgh, part West Virginia,” he said.
He meant that Pittsburghers are city people, but they’re also part hillbilly, too. I didn’t disagree with him, because while his view is simplistic, I basically agree.
* * *
Maybe if all of the journalists who went to Tallmansville were locals or at least from within a few hours of there, or perhaps if there weren’t any TV cameras at the scene of the disaster, false hope would not have spread like a mine fire, then flamed out just as fast. I am glad I was taken off of the story just a few hours before that false hope was reported and published by all of the media at the scene of the disaster.
“It was attributed,” broadcasters and editors have replied when questioned about the fact that they published terrible falsehoods.
It seems to me that the reporters, photographers and cameramen got their reward. They wanted a big story, one way or another, and their insistence and pressure might have been partly responsible for false hope spreading so fast.
There were dozens, if not hundreds of journalists buzzing through the area during the rescue attempt. I personally spoke with a photographer from the New York Daily News, a friend who was one of two reporters for The New York Times, a reporter for National Public Radio, a People magazine stringer, a Baltimore Sun photographer, and a guy from The Independent, in London, plus many other reporters. I spoke with a Norwegian camera crew, as well as folks from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, folks from the Columbus Dispatch, reporters from other smaller, local papers and many other people.
On Monday night up at the mine’s coal tipple, satellite trucks, picnic tents, and bright-as-day camera sets ringed the small building where company officials were holding press conferences. Other, smaller TV trucks also were down by the entrance of the mine, their lights extended high above the scene, as if lighting a movie set.
By daylight Tuesday, national broadcast hotties had come to the scene. It was almost as if the national news was bringing in the first-stringers, after having some second-teamers do all of the work. In truth, some of them were at the scene from Monday night on, relentlessly pointing their lights and cameras at anyone who might make a good interview.
I suspect that people simply couldn’t resist all of that sexiness—the come hither-looks of the broadcasters or the bold, unflinching eye of the camera. All of that attention made people want to practically get naked in front of the camera, to pour out their souls and cry, to tell a lie in the hope that saying it might make it true.