< The Miracle That Wasn't


Friday, January 06, 2006

BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.

BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. In a world aching for good news, this was just the tonic. After 42 hours in a subterranean death trap, 12 West Virginia miners were okay. [START CLIP]

WOMAN: God can make miracles happen.

ANDERSON COOPER: Family and friends flocked back to the church.

WOMAN: Barefooted, I ran to the [LAUGHS] - barefooted, to the church. [LAUGHS]

ANDERSON COOPER: Leaving the church, Governor Manchin gave a thumbs-up. [END CLIP]

BOB GARFIELD: But then a horrifying turn of events. If you were awake three o'clock Wednesday morning and tuned to CNN, you learned that the men were dead after all. [START CLIP]

LYNETTE ROBY (WITNESS): And I think they said the other 11 couldn't be saved. I don't know if that's for sure that they're perished or not, but I do know only one is, is - [OVERTALK]

ANDERSON COOPER: This is unbelievable.

LYNETTE ROBY (WITNESS): It's - it's totally - it's - it's the worst thing that I've ever heard. I don't know how the - this information could get this far. [END CLIP]

BOB GARFIELD: Still, fate was not finished twisting. Later that morning, most of America awakened to the wrong story, the earlier saga of miraculous survival repeated in front-page headlines around the country. The news cycle had betrayed them, as papers rolled off the presses with stories of death cheated in a jubilant small town.

It seemed careless and irresponsible, but it wasn't that. The spurious reports were based on official pronouncements and their very real euphoric effects. If there was any scandal, it was that the mining company officials, reasonably certain of their employees' true fate at a much earlier hour, didn't step forward immediately to discredit or at least question the supposed miracle.

This was not a "Dewey defeats Truman" moment based on faulty journalistic assumption. It was more like the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and the so-called "Jenin massacre," in which the reliance on official sources merely reflected the occasional unreliability of officialdom.

We learned once again that those in charge don't necessarily know what's going on, and sometimes they tell less than they know.

There's a temptation, too, to see this as some sort of zeitgeist episode, the failure of the old media paradigm in the face of new technology. But it isn't that either. Newspapers have been vulnerable to fast-breaking events since the first one was published. Live broadcasting is immediate but it certainly isn't new.

The miracle that wasn't is no more than a tragic convergence of official misinformation and the tyranny of the clock. You can't print a paper at two a.m. that lands on the reader's doorstep reflecting up-to-the-minute reality. The Fourth Estate was simply trapped in the fourth dimension, the inescapability of time. The real miracle is that it doesn't happen more often. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]