What the media gets wrong about ‘coal country’

There’s little room for discussion. Competitive energy products, like natural gas or solar energy, as well as concern for the environment will eventually push coal into the ranks of whale oil and charcoal.

Despite of this, Trump rolled through the Mountain State with roughly a three-to-one margin, leaving many wondering why Appalachia would, in few words, cling to coal.

One example is New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, who recently called coal country “a state of mind.”

In his article, Krugman argues that it’s been 25 years since coal-mining jobs represented as much as 5 percent of West Virginia’s total employment, and as a result “coal country residents weren’t voting to preserve what they have,” but rather “voting on behalf of a story their region tells about itself, a story that hasn’t been true for a generation or more.”

Krugman concludes that “Trump votes weren’t even about the region’s interests; they were about cultural symbolism,” and attributes Trump’s victory in West Virginia to the successful pandering of a “cultural nostalgia,” one he describes as “a longing for a vanished past when men were men and miners dug deep.”

This is a common thread among media figures who discuss Appalachia. If there are so few coal miners, is Trump’s pro-coal attitude really the deciding factor in the region?

By and large the question is never really answered, leaving readers to fill in the blanks for themselves. In Krugman’s column, he writes what’s already on many Democrat’s minds: It was racism and nostalgia, not coal, that brought Appalachia to Trump.

While this reasoning speaks to the frustrations of many Americans, it falls short of accurately explaining why West Virginia — a state that was once a Democratic stronghold and symbol to the Progressive Era — trends increasingly redder every election and is willing to hedge bets on near-impossible promises, all in the face of overwhelming, contradictory evidence.

The problem with this coal-isn’t-that-important mindset is that it portrays the mining industry as an obsolete fad; a run-of-the-mill business that has fizzled out with the changing times. Simply put, the media’s obituary of the coal industry fails to respect that it was not crowned king for its passing influence.

Mining is West Virginia’s second-largest industry after government and represents 13.4 percent of the state’s GDP. For Krugman’s theory to hold true, the coal industry’s decline would need to occur in an airtight vacuum, thereby allowing West Virginians to cast their ballot in the name of cultural nostalgia, not economic interests.

I spoke to Dr. Calvin Kent, a former Energy Department official under Bush senior and author of a 2016 Marshal University study on the collapse of the coal industry. Kent’s work tracked what he called spread effects, or ways coal’s decline has negatively spilled out onto other areas of West Virginian life.

“If one person in the coal industry loses their job, it leads to another .58 persons losing their job too,” Kent said. “The first immediate impact is to the retail industry due to reduced aggregate demand, a result of lower incomes and the out-migration of residents.”

Coal’s collapse, Kent said, also affects any businesses related to its transportation since less coal means fewer people delivering it by truck or barge.

“Then you also have all the other service industries, the job loss in those are extremely impressive,” Kent said, explaining how manufacturing industries that provide equipment to the coal industry — like roof beams, rail cars and rails — are also in a great deal of distress.

Equally concerning is the fact that coal is a major proportion of West Virginia’s property and severance tax revenue, responsible for funding county governments and schools. This lack of tax revenue — much of it left unpaid due to coal companies going bankrupt — has caused teachers, bus drivers, janitors, cooks and other county employees to lose their jobs.

“The importance of property tax revenue to county governments in West Virginia cannot be overemphasized,” Kent’s study detailed. “Counties have almost no fiscal autonomy.”

At the time of his study, one school district in coal-rich Southern West Virginia was hit with a $9 million revenue shortfall, forcing it to either lay off 48 teachers or remove almost all of its extra-curricular activities.

Other counties have suffered cuts affecting anything from police, fire departments, ambulance services, waste pickup, and funding for fairs, libraries and parks.

In total, the entire state is facing a half a billion in revenue shortfall.

That’s why articles like The Washington Post’s “The entire coal industry employs fewer people than Arby’s,” not only come off as insensitive and unfeeling — they completely miss the larger picture: Coal is still king, regardless of how many miners it actually employs.

That article, written by Christopher Ingraham, does acknowledge that coal jobs “matter to the people who have them and to the communities they support,” but ultimately ends on this strange, robotic note:

When coal mines shut down, towns go under. National media sends reporters and TV crews to those towns, and the resulting coverage can make coal’s impact on national employment levels feel much larger than it actually is. That national impact is only likely to get smaller, regardless of Trump’s actions. Even a quarter-century ago, the coal industry employed only 131,000 people. If Trump were to somehow bring all those jobs back, there’d still be more people employed by the retail shoe sales industry (224,000).

In another example published by The Washington Post in late March, Philip Bump writes, “There are fewer coal miners than you might realize.”

“Coal miners are important parts of the economy and the cultural identity of certain states important to presidential politics, but there simply aren’t that many actual coal miners,” writes Bump, who drives home his point by asking readers to take an endless quiz comparing coal industry employment to other sectors  — well, seemingly endless. This reader grew tired of clicking after question 293, which asked: “Are there more coal miners or models?”

Like the examples above, most news stories miss that other jobs — even if they have absolutely nothing to do with coal and are miles away from the nearest mine — are still fundamentally dependent on an industry that has been the primary economic drive in the region since before it was even annexed a state.

As for Krugman’s article which argues West Virginians voted on behalf of cultural symbolism instead of the region’s interests, I passed it along to Kent to hear his thoughts.

“It makes me wonder if he’s ever been to West Virginia. It’s real economic hardship that you can’t measure just by looking at the number of people employed by the coal industry,” Kent said.

“I certainly can’t discount a cultural factor,” he added, “but to reach that conclusion, it’s not supportable by any evidence. These are real economic problems. If any of these people who still write editorials aren’t familiar, they can come on down and I’ll take them so they can see for themselves what exactly is going on.”

Phil Smith, a union spokesperson for the United Mine Workers of America told me something similar.

“People who don’t live or work in ‘coal country’ have no concept of what the people who do live and work there are feeling,” Smith said when I asked him if he felt the media had missed or oversimplified anything about Appalachia during the election. “The reason people voted the way they did are more than just one or two simple slogans. They have lost hope that Washington cares about them or their lives.”

“They saw thousands lose their jobs in coal and ancillary industries and no one in Washington cared enough to come and talk with them about it or say what they were doing to help,” Smith continued. “They see their loved ones die from drug overdoses and no one does anything. They see their infrastructure crumbling, their schools closing and their communities shriveling. And no one in Washington is doing a damn thing about it.”

The media’s view of West Virginia comes from the vantage point of successful and diversified economies, where labor markets can afford to be more flexible and where economies more swiftly recovered from the financial crisis.

Despite what news outlets might have audiences think, coal industry employment isn’t a useful metric for understanding the scope of West Virginia’s economic devastation. It most certainly isn’t a figure to tout around as a rebuttal to vocal and distraught Appalachian communities — communities who must not only deal with fallout from the coal industry’s collapse, but also work to convince media pundits that such fallout exists at all.

Regardless, and with much irony, coal industry employment isn’t even a useful metric for understanding the coal industry itself.

“Over the long course of U.S. coal industry history, employment has fallen even during periods of rising profitability and production,” explains a study by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, sourcing the “longer-term trend in which the coal industry has evolved to use fewer workers to mine more coal.”

Miners are subject to the same disruptive market forces that have led to decreased employment in other blue-collar industries, an issue most Americans can sympathize with. But miners are put into a different category of labor than truck drivers, manufacturers or retail workers. Instead of being members of the working class who depend on good-paying jobs — some of the best paying jobs in the region that don’t require a college degree — they are framed as dirt-loving men who can’t wait to get up in the morning to dig tunnels and inhale coal dust.

“Coal is all we knew, it was the only job there was to feed our kids, there was never a choice for those miners,” said Mari-Lynn Evans in an email, the director of “Blood on the Mountain,” a documentary film cataloging the coal industry’s long history of abuse in the Mountain State. “It is not coal they love. It is their families, their communities, and their home West Virginia.”

This revelation doesn’t come as a shock to those familiar with West Virginia’s history, which has long told the story of communities fighting against the industry whose labor they supply.

At the turn of the last century, the state saw three bloody decades of radicalized coal labor strikes and armed insurrection against anti-union mine operators. Their struggle against the moral and political ramifications of industrial capitalism meant that, in the words of historian James Green, the “Bill of Rights finally had real meaning to the people who lived and worked in the coal country of West Virginia.”

Senator George W. Norris, a maverick Republican from Nebraska who would later go on to co-sponsor the 1932 Norris–La Guardia Act, one of the the nation’s most important pro-labor pieces of legislation allowing workers the freedom to strike and associate, was in part, inspired by the epitaph on a miner’s grave that read: “For 40 years beneath the sod, with pick and space I did my task, the coal king’s slave, but now, thank god, I’m free at last.

The relationship between coal miner and coal operator has rarely, if ever, been amicable. West Virginia’s history shows that mining towns will field loyalty to what’s good for their community, not what’s in the interest of the coal industry.

Today, both parties, labor and management, face a unique challenge. The industry they rely on is fading, and so far, only one side is having their interest looked after.

“Addressing climate change solely through technological innovation and regulating polluters — the Democratic Party’s approach so far — will leave behind states like West Virginia whose economies have depended on fossil-fuel extraction for decades,” wrote energy analyst Cathy Kunkel for Jacobin Magazine.

“The alternative, a continued failure to address underlying economic realities, will continue to drive voters to the Right,” concluded Kunkel.

The media’s coverage of Appalachia is almost always critical of coal miners, commonly portrayed as stubborn hillbillies and mindless political props. All the while, little attention is given to the industry who these miners and their communities have fought — and continue to do so — for generations.

“The coal industry has been the dominant industry in southern West Virginia for our 150 year history as a state,” explained Mary-Lynn Evans. “The economy of the entire state has been held hostage to the will of this industry. Coal controls the political system, it controls our churches and our schools. In an area where up to 90 percent of the mineral rights are owned and controlled by out-of-state land companies, people have no control over their own land.”

In “Dark Money,” Jane Mayer details the coal industry’s “major role in delivering West Virginia’s five electoral votes to Bush in 2000.” In addition, Mayer also highlights the Charles Koch Foundation’s contribution of nearly $1 million to West Virginia University, a donation that allowed the donor network to create and partially oversee the “Center for Free Enterprise,” a pro-business, anti-regulatory institution that would bring into question mine safety standards and clean water regulations.

Larry Leamer, the author of “The Price of Justice,” a nonfiction account of a legal battle between two Appalachia lawyers and Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship’s judge-buying, described the coal industry’s influence on West Virginia in dire terms.

“I can’t exaggerate,” said Leamer. “It’s so endemic it doesn’t seem like corruption. It’s just the way the judges, the legislators work. Nobody cares.”

“The coal industry has influenced everything from local schools to state and national government,” Leamer said. “The so-called ‘Friends of Coal’ was a propaganda machine that worked to make miners and their true friends believe that all their problems stemmed from the environmental movement and Democrats. The mainstream media was largely nonexistent except when there was a coal disaster. Then they showed up, wrote their heartbreaking stories, and left. Nobody stayed to understand.”

“People treat West Virginia likes it’s the frontier regions of Pakistan, a debased area best to be forgotten,” Leamer said. “But what has tragically happened here could happen anywhere in America.”

West Virginia communities won’t be the last or largest to suffer from the 21st century’s economic upheaval and transformation. Still, the region’s worsening circumstances coupled with Washington’s mild response and the media’s empathy-lacking coverage, may serve as a canary test for how these institutions will react to a time in our nation’s future, perhaps just beyond the horizon, where automation and oil-killing renewables make coal’s death pale in comparison.

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