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Thinking about the outrage over @HillaryClinton’s #coal (non)gaffe

May 21st, 2016 · 1 Comment

UPFRONT:  Hillary Clinton — unlike Donald Trump — has a serious and substantive plan to help American coal miners and mining communities flourish as the nation and global community move beyond coal.  Because of reporting on Clinton’s (non)gaffe on coal and her (campaign’s) reaction to it, few Americans — and few in coal country — seem to realize the robustness, substance and even quality of her campaign’s Plan for Revitalizing Coal Communities (see opening paragraphs after the fold …).

In the ‘sound-bite-ation‘ of the American (and, sigh, increasingly global) political process, any phrase powerful in isolation and out of context can be leveraged out-of-context for creating a powerful meme.  This abusive approach to political engagement is far from new but seems to be ever-more dangerous with skillful communicators leveraging ‘new’ media tools.  Fighting such abuse is hard and reflective of an overlapping concept: “a lie can travel halfway around the world before truth gets out of bed.”  The manipulative sound-biting can move quickly and powerfully — and can be hard to counter, especially if a ‘defense’ doesn’t even occur.

Such was (is) the case with Hillary Clinton’s “gaffe on coal”.  Most politically-aware Americans — and certainly all in ‘coal country’ have heard:

we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business

Now, if I were a miner, a family member of a miner, in a business reliant on miners, etc …, that phrase would outrage.

As one who sees as rapid a possible reduction of burning of coal — as well as one who strongly supports treating miners and mining communities as ‘heroes’ who have long sacrificed to power the nation (the world) and who advocates for aggressive action to introduce clean energy economic streams (read jobs! jobs! jobs!) into ‘coal’ communities — this phrasing really rang false to me.

And, facing withering attacks, Hillary Clinton seemingly backtracked from this comment and, as widely reported by pundits and headlines,

Hillary Clinton apologizes for coal comments

Not surprisingly, in the shadow of Trump media challenges (read the entire twitter feed), the media has run long and hard with Clinton’s “gaffe” and apology of it.

Few journalists or media outlets have, however, taken the few seconds required to place this truly in context and thus actually inform the readers. And, even the ones that have, often have the substance buried within a larger piece headlined about “apology”. And, since the vast majority of people read only that headline, the general populace remains misinformed.

What was the context of that sentence? That phrase, that soundbite that has become gospel for those attacking Hillary in ‘coal country’ had a context, a rich context that makes clear that the totality of substance is far different than what she is tarred with.  Dana Milbank, of the Washington Post, had a thoughtful article (Make America Empathetic Again) on how Hillary is pilloried for what can be misconstrued out of context while Donald is given a free ride for fundamental ignorance and”‘making a promise he can’t keep”.  From that,

Politically, it was not, to be charitable, a wise thing to say. But consider the context of that line, at a March CNN town hall:

“I’m the only candidate which has a policy about how to bring economic opportunity using clean renewable energy as the key into coal country. Because we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business, right, Tim? And we’re going to make it clear that we don’t want to forget those people. Those people labored in those mines for generations, losing their health, often losing their lives to turn on our lights and power our factories.”

The media often don’t put comments of this sort in context because, as you can see above, it takes a big fat, space-consuming paragraph to make it clear that she was speaking with empathy for coal miners, not consigning them to the economy’s dustbin.

Within context, there is not a ‘gaffe’ here. Obviously, on reflection, what if Secretary Clinton had said something even slightly different, ‘that 21st century trends will put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business’?  That would be truthful and align with the plan the Clinton campaign has issued.  The soundbite, however, will remain that sentence out of a paragraph and remain without the paragraph’s and the coal revitalization’s context for the vast majority of Americans — in no small part because few journalists will follow Milbank’s lead and make an effort to provide context.

This post was, in part, sparked by a David Robert’s 23 tweet ‘look’ at the issue of how do reporters cover outrageous behavior, making an analogy between ‘outrage fatigue’ during the Bush Administration and during the Trump campaign. And, the double-standard where journalists attack reasonable politicians more fiercely, for relatively minor ‘gaffes’, while letting pass seriously (serial) outrageous statements and behavior by those who move from one untruthful to racist to demagogic item to the next.

7. It just seemed like the Bushies’ capacity for evil was greater than anyone’s capacity even to *track* it, much less to fight it.

8. But as a consequence, *dozens* of minor scandals went by with barely a ripple. There was just no institutional capacity to deal w/ it.

9. The same thing is (already) going on w/ Trump. A neo-Nazi delegate? Women are what? Trade war with who? Scrap EPA? Wait …

10. It’s so much that no one piece of it really sticks. Contrast this w/ coverage of Clinton’s campaign.

11. Clinton is more of a typical politician, w/ reasonably mainstream views & a high degree of message discipline. So when she slips up …

12. with a “gaffe” like the one on coal miners, there’s plenty of time for reporters to lovingly toy w/ it, really make it into a Thing.

Yup, “reporters lovingly” made the coal comment “a Thing” — a Thing with far too many legs and, for most Americans, a Thing without context.

The truth — whether perfect or not — Hillary Clinton has, unlike Donald Trump, proposed a serious plan to address the challenges that coal miners and coal communities face in the coming years, to provide them paths toward prosperity even ad the nation and the rest of humanity burn ever less coal.  Sadly, few journalists seem interested in moving past a ‘gaffe’ to actually informing people about Clinton’s concepts.

Hillary Clinton’s Plan for Revitalizing Coal Communities

From Central Appalachia to the Powder River Basin, coal communities were an engine of US economic growth for more than a century.  Coal powered the industrial revolution, the 20th century expansion of the middle class, and supplied as much as half of US electricity for decades. The hard-working Americans who mine, move, and generate power from coal put their own health and safety at risk to keep our factories running and deliver the affordable and reliable electricity we take for granted.

But today we are in the midst of a global energy transition. The shale revolution, low-cost renewable energy, energy efficiency improvements, and pressing concerns about the impact of coal combustion on public health and the global climate are reducing coal demand both in the US and around the world. Coal now accounts for only one third of US power generation, with domestic consumption falling by 25% over the past ten years. In China, nuclear and renewable energy are growing three times faster than coal-fired power , with more wind and solar capacity added last year than the US and Europe combined.

Building a 21st century clean energy economy in the United States will create new jobs and industries, deliver important health benefits, and reduce carbon pollution. But we can’t ignore the impact this transition is already having on mining communities, or the threat it poses to the healthcare and retirement security of coalfield workers and their families. This is particularly true in Appalachia, where production has been declining for decades, but impacts are beginning to be felt in the Illinois Basin and Western coalfields as well. And it’s not limited to mining communities: reduced coal shipments impact barge and railroad workers, and power plant closures can contribute to local job loss and economic distress.

Hillary Clinton is committed to meeting the climate change challenge as President and making the United States a clean energy superpower. At the same time, she will not allow coal communities to be left behind—or left out of our economic future. That’s why Clinton announced a $30 billion plan to ensure that coal miners and their families get the benefits they’ve earned and respect they deserve, to invest in economic diversification and job creation, and to make coal communities an engine of US economic growth in the 21st century as they have been for generations.


Is the “plan” perfect and fully comprehensive?  No.  For example, not enough there as to renewable energy options to create jobs and economic activity in coal country.

Is the “plan” substantive with many viable (and valuable) proposals?  Yes.

Time for some discussion and focus on that value rather than manipulated and created ‘gaffes’.




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Tags: 2016 Presidential Election · coal · media

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