Ken Ward Jr. is one of the best reporters in the country, rural or urban. Period.
Ken has worked for the past two decades, mostly covering the coal business, the environment and coal mine health and safety. We read his blog, Coal Tattoo, every day, and so should you.
The Columbia Journalism Review recently ran an interview with Ken. The CJR notes that the Gazette’s late publisher, Ned Chilton III, would say that the “hallmark of crusading journalism is sustained outrage.” They remember that at the Gazette.
Here are some excerpts from the interview with Ken:
I think that most journalists, certainly in America today, are dishonest with the public by telling them that they’re objective. I used to go give talks at some of the trade groups in West Virginia, and I’d use this Hunter S. Thompson quote—that objective journalism is a pompous contradiction in terms—and people would always say, “A-ha! That proves it! Ken Ward’s biased, we knew it all along.”
And then I would say, “Well, let’s talk about my biases.” And I would say things like, “You know, I think everybody should be able to earn a living so they can take care of their families. I think everybody should have clean water to drink. I think everybody should have clean air to breathe. I think every kid deserves to have a chance at a good education. I think that everybody ought to share in the wealth of our nation.” Nobody ever really wanted to disagree with any of that. But they didn’t really like how it manifested itself in stories….
Way back when Jim Noelker and I used to ride around and talk to people in the coal fields, we never found one that wanted their kid to be a coal miner. They always said, “I’m doing this terrible work so that my kid can go to college.”
Now, the politicians have sold this idea that coal is their only way of life, and that they need to fight to make sure their kids can do that. It’s a complete reversal, and that notion is kind of maddening.
I find, reporting about coal over the years, that when you get a really good story, a story that really explains something that isn’t right, when you listen to the criticism you get, it isn’t that the story’s wrong, it’s that you did the story in the first place. You’re disloyal. And it comes from the coal industry, of course, but from the miners too. I’ve known a lot of coal miners and I have a lot of respect for them. They do ungodly difficult and dangerous work and they deserve every penny they get paid for it.
But there’s all this romanticism about coal mining. Ten thousand people died of black lung in the last decade. Is that modern?
Working at a paper the size of the Gazette in this economy is not the most fun thing in the world all the time, and on days when it’s not very much fun, it’s like, “God, why did I do this, am I crazy?” I don’t want to wake up in twenty years and think I missed some great opportunities. I’ve had chances to go to other places—bigger newspapers, a lot more money, more readers.
I remember one interview, I went in asking this editor a bunch of questions, trying to see if she would convince me that this was a move I should make. I said, “Let me describe to you what I do now. I set my own agenda for what I’m going to do each day. I don’t get assignments, or very seldom get assignments; my editors trust me to sort out what’s important. So basically, I do what I want. Can you offer me a job doing that?”
And of course they all say, “Wellll…” And I say, “Okay, when you can offer me that, call me.” I don’t get too many calls like that.
• A psychologist asks readers what bugs them the most about living in rural communities.
Val Farmer is a clinical psychologist who lives in Wildwood, Missouri. He lists what he hears the most in his practices.
Gossip and intolerance come first. Then, there’s the lack of anonymity. Complacency with the status quo. The “tyranny of the peer group.”
Lots of stuff. And Farmer is asking for more!!
• The dispute over water deliveries in Dimock, Pennsylvania, continues.
Initially, gas drilling in the area tainted groundwater supplies. For the past three years the company that did the drilling, Cabot Oil & Gas, has been delivering water to 11 families with affected wells. Cabot has also been banned from drilling new wells in the area.
Cabot provided the families with new wells and new treatment. The company says the water is fine, and a judge agrees, saying Cabot no longer needs to deliver water. The families aren’t buying it.
• Congress held a hearing yesterday on the massive flooding in the Missouri River valley this year. (BTW, the effects of the flooding are still there and the water is still a problem in places; levees are still broken.) In Missouri alone, 207,000 acres of crop land were lost, totaling $110 million.
Congress held the hearing to tell the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that it should make flood control a priority on the Missouri. Over the years, the Corps has tried to manage the river to promote tourism and protect wildlife and members of Congress believe it was this mixed message that made the 2011 floods worse.
The flood was personal for The Daily Yonder. Letter From Langdon writer Richard Oswald lost his house and saw his farm inundated. He was there yesterday to testify. “There isn’t a way it didn’t affect me,” Oswald told DTN.
Oswald testified he lost 1,400 acres and over $1 million in crop contracts. Crop insurance will only cover part of the loss. Oswald told Congress:
Over the last several years, river management has made life especially difficult for bottomland farmers like me. Damage done by this flood to many productive fields is irreparable. We have huge sand dunes and blowouts. Sandstone chunks from a 60 foot deep crater litter one field. Drainage ditches that should allow flood water to drain back to the main channel are plugged with silt and sand from the river. Fertile fields lay stark and barren.