Watching the Chile Mine Rescue

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to spend much of the evening inside the Al Jazeera newsroom in Washington, DC. It was a unique opportunity to see how a newsroom functioned while covering a major global story–the rescue of “Los 33,” the miners trapped and, as I write this, slowly and happily emerging from the San Jose mine in Chile.

As readers of this blog (and of Coal Mountain Elementary) will know, I am typically quite critical of the major media’s coverage of the mining industry–the trend of sensationalizing the “miracle narrative” while neglecting the almost daily death toll in the industry, the heartless pairing of stories about miners’ deaths with advertisements from  global energy lobbyists, the rote structures used when covering the death of miners (particularly in China), etc.

Yet from my seat behind Al Jazeera anchor Shihab Rattansi yesterday, I was fortunate to see that another kind of media coverage was possible. I watched the critical consciousness of a news anchor at work. Instead of the bombastic purple prose of CNN this morning (did anyone else catch that butterfly in the mine segment? why was that reporter grimacing behind the flames all the time? is there some relationship between butterflies and over-earnestly reporting from behind a large campfire that I’m not getting?), Rattansi critically pushed his guests and the on-site Al Jazeera reporters. Ecopoetics editor Jonathan Skinner messaged me after my first segment: “Clear statement[s] on the need for union presence and for development of alternative energy technologies. A *little* soft on the mining corporations, but I know you don’t want to get kicked off the show!” For me, it felt like I’d made it through the first round of critical conversation’s version of a heavyweight fight.

Behind the scenes, Rattansi furiously performed research multi-tasking, simultaneously questioning the newsroom researcher who was following Twitter feeds from Copiapo as well as the other researchers, reading and highlighting wire feeds, asking off-camera questions of the reporters on the ground in Copiapo, listening to information coming in through his ear bud, taking cues from the cameraman, sitting still for touch-ups from the make-up artist, and nibbling a chocolate chip cookie during 60-second breaks. Little of this, as I’ve seen at the BBC and elsewhere, is atypical of the news anchor.

What was atypical was the way in which Rattansi processed this information when the camera was on. On multiple occasions throughout the night, he probed his interviewees about the media coverage of the event, particularly the seemingly staged presence of Chilean President (and former TV mogul) Sebastían Piñera. Rattansi criticized the “made for media” eventness of the entire rescue–mentioning frequently how closely the rescue was following a schedule released to the media earlier that day.

During each of my three segments last night, I felt engaged by someone who was not simply covering the story but someone who was questioning the story–someone who was not simply processing the tweets and the wire stories and the ear bud messages for the most heart-wrenching human interest stories (and the best Nielsen ratings), but someone who was processing all that information in order to simultaneously tell the story and question the story’s telling.

For all the time I spend critiquing the media (and trying to foreground not the occasional miracle but the everyday tragedy in the global mining sector), I was re-energized by spending an entire evening engaging the story of the rescue of the Bolivian and Chilean miners with Shihab Rattansi and the staff at Al Jazeera.

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