CNN Goofs On Miner Story, Fails to Report Own Mistake

January 5th, 2006 3:15 AM

The heartbreaking story of the 12 miners who died in a West Virginia mine collapse on Monday, January 2, is now common knowledge. The lone survivor remains in the hospital in critical condition. But if viewers were tuned into CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360 Degrees on Tuesday night, they were in for a surprise.

Anderson was on the scene when he breathlessly delivered the breaking news that 12 out of 13 miners had in fact survived the accident. The chances of these men surviving for days on end without oxygen were nil, but sometimes audiences want to believe in miracles. The families of the deceased certainly did and they acted accordingly, taking part in a spirited celebration at the local church. But several hours later they were faced with a cruel blow. They were told that their family members had died after all.

It turns out Anderson had relied on an "eyewitness" who was mistaken. He was identified simply as a "friend of Terry Helms," one of the trapped miners, and he claimed that the miners were on their way out with rescue crews. Family members also got wind of the news and were yelling "12 alive!" in the background. While the exact source is still unknown, it is thought that the corporate owners of the Sago mine, International Coal Group, delivered the erroneous report and it spread from there.

Although Anderson couldn’t corroborate the story, he forged ahead and reported it thusly:

That is incredible news. Again, if this turns out to be true, we have not been able to independently confirm this. But the family members have been told, a number of family members have been told, we're not clear on who exactly told them, but a mine official is traditionally the ones who tell them this information, that the 12 miners are alive

The governor of West Virginia, we are told, just walked out of the church, held up his thumb and said, "Believe in miracles. Believe in miracles." For the last two days, for the last 48 -- 40 hours he has been saying miracles do happen here in West Virginia. And it appears tonight a miracle has truly happened in West Virginia.

By Wednesday night, all the major cable news channels were covering the CNN gaffe, including, oddly enough, CNN itself. One might expect an official apology from the channel or perhaps an investigation into the error, but instead viewers found themselves treated to a surreal experience.

In a segment titled, "What Went Wrong in Mining Disaster," Anderson Cooper covered the whole episode without once admitting his own culpability. He described the family members’ grief at the bad news and their "sense of betrayal" as if CNN had no involvement whatsoever. Instead, he simply said:

You know, in stories like this one, you just hope for a happy ending. And, for a while, last night, it seemed like we might have that. But, then, all that talk of miracles turned to misery. And it unfolded right before our eyes.

Cooper may not have been the one who delivered the false news to family members, but he reported it as fact to millions of viewers and thus lent it credibility.

While neither Cooper nor CNN mangled the story on purpose, some acknowledgement of their role in the debacle would have been welcome. At the very least, they could have avoided profiting from the tragedy with their continued coverage. But the mainstream media’s typical approach to its own deficiencies is to sweep them under the rug and once again, it was true to form. In this case, it was just a bit more blatant than usual.

Then again, if CBS can cover Dan Rather’s "Memogate" scandal, I suppose anything’s possible.