STUDY: Media Silent As GOP Obstruction Threatens Coal Miners

Major news networks have largely ignored Republican obstruction of a regulation addressing the recent resurgence of black lung, a disease caused by coal mine dust. By contrast, media coverage of the Republican narrative about “job-killing regulations” has been abundant, indicating that news outlets let the Republican Party define the media discourse about regulation of the coal industry.

Black Lung Surging Back After Years Of Industry And Regulatory Failures

Black Lung On The Rise After Declining In The 70s And 80s. Black lung, or “Coal workers' pneumoconiosis,” is a preventable disease caused by exposure to coal mine dust. It causes chronic cough, shortness of breath and restriction of airflow. In September 2007, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health announced that black lung rates among coal miners had doubled in the previous decade:

Ten years ago, about 4 percent of coal miners with 25 or more years of experience showed signs of black lung disease.

But new X-ray data from 2005 and 2006 found about 9 percent of miners with 25 or more years working underground showed lung abnormalities that indicate black lung.

Rates among miners with 20 to 24 years of experience also increased, from 2.5 percent to about 6 percent, over the same period, according to NIOSH data.

Since NIOSH began its miners X-ray study program in 1970, black lung rates had consistently declined. A small increase occurred between 1995 and 2000, and the most recent data shows that trend worsening. [Charleston Gazette, 9/14/07, via Nexis]

The following chart from NPR shows the recent uptick in the most severe stage of black lung:

Source: NPR

[NPR, 7/9/12]

Investigation Reveals Negligence On Part Of Industry, Regulators. Last week, iWatch News released reports, with support from NPR and Ken Ward of the Charleston Gazette, on the resurgence of black lung and the failure of regulators to prevent and punish violations:

The disease's resurgence represents a failure to deliver on a 40-year-old pledge to miners in which few are blameless, an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity and NPR has found. The system for monitoring dust levels is tailor-made for cheating, and mining companies haven't been shy about doing so. Meanwhile, regulators often have neglected to enforce even these porous rules. Again and again, attempts at reform have failed.

A Center analysis of databases maintained by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration found that miners have been breathing too much dust for years, but MSHA has issued relatively few violations and routinely allowed companies extra time to fix problems. [iWatch News, 7/8/12, emphasis added]

Republicans Blocked Coal Worker Protections Against Black Lung

Obama Administration Proposed Rule To Lower Miners' Exposure To Coal Dust. In October 2010 the U.S. Department of Labor's Mine Safety and Health Administration proposed stricter limits on the coal dust that causes black lung disease. The proposal would halve existing limits for coal mine dust and improve dust monitoring. Black lung expert Dr. Edward Petsonk called the rule “a major step toward reversing the problems we're seeing” and the National Mining Association criticized it as “an aggressive approach.” [Federal Register, 10/19/10] [Charleston Gazette, 10/14/10]

GOP Budget Delayed Implementation Of Worker Protections. The House Republicans' budget for the Labor Department delayed implementation of the black lung rule, stating that MSHA could not implement the resume work on the proposal or implement the rule until 240 days had passed or until the Government Accountability Office produces a report evaluating the data underlying the rule:

None of the funds made available by this act may be used to continue the development of or to promulgate, administer, enforce, or otherwise implement the Lowering Miners' Exposure to Coal Mine Dust, Including Continuous Personal Dust Monitors regulation published by the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) of the Department of Labor on October 19, 2010 (75 Fed. Reg. 64412, RIN 1219-AB64) until -

(1) The Government Accountability Office -

     (A) issues, at minimum, an interim report which -

         (i) evaluates the completeness of MSHA's data collection and sampling, to include an analysis of whether such data supports current trends of the incidence of lung disease arising from occupational exposure to respirable coal mine dust across working underground coal miners; and

        (ii) assesses the sufficiency of MSHA's analytical methodology.

     (B) not later than 240 days after enactment of this Act, submits the report described in subparagraph (A) to the Committees on Appropriations of the House of Representatives and the Senate; or

(2) the deadline described in paragraph (1)(B) for submission of the report has passed. [U.S House of Representatives Committee on Appropriations, 12/14/11]

Charleston Gazette: Republicans' Legislative Maneuver “Got Little Media Attention.” From a July 9 report by Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette:

Seldom mentioned by coal industry advocates is a little-noticed move by their allies in Congress to delay -- and potentially end altogether -- another Obama effort, this one aimed at saving the lives of thousands of coal miners.

It happened in mid-December 2011, in a legislative maneuver that got little media attention. The tactic and its potential impacts certainly avoided the sort of outcry that has come each time the EPA proposed new restrictions on mountaintop removal mining or the disposal of toxic coal ash.

Lawmakers added language to a Department of Labor budget bill that barred the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration from implementing or enforcing a proposal to reduce miners' exposure to the coal dust that causes deadly black lung disease.

A House Appropriations Committee summary listed the black lung language among several provisions “to reduce government overreach, rein in excessive regulation, and help foster a good economic environment for job growth.”


By the fall of 2011, Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., was pushing an amendment to the Labor Department's budget bill to block the MSHA proposal. Rehberg acted as the National Mining Association pressed questions about data MSHA used to design its proposal, and while coal companies including Murray Energy and Arch Coal helped fund his campaign to try to unseat Democratic Sen. Jon Tester.

By mid-December, the measure had made it into the final budget bill, a move that gave the Obama administration little choice but to go along with it. [iWatch News, 7/9/12]

Media Ignore GOP Obstruction Of Rule Designed To Prevent Black Lung

News Outlets Largely Ignored Surging Threat To Coal Miners And Lack Of Reform. We analyzed coverage by searching “black lung or pneumoconiosis or silicosis” in Nexis and Factiva from October 14, 2010 (when the MHSA rule was proposed) through July 13, 2012. News outlets included in the study are the Associated Press, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA TODAY, PBS, NPR, ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN and the primetime shows on MSNBC and Fox News.

  • In total, these news outlets only mentioned the recent increase in black lung cases on 7 occasions since October 2010. Each of those instances came from AP, the Wall Street Journal, PBS or NPR.
  • CNN, ABC, CBS, NBC, USA TODAY, and Fox News did not mention present-day U.S. cases of black lung at all during the study period.
  • Since October 2010, only AP, NPR and the New York Times have mentioned Republican obstruction of the MHSA rule.

Media Often Credulously Repeat GOP's Anti-Regulation Narrative

Study: Media Repeat GOP's “Job Killer” Allegations With No Evidence. Occidental College professor Peter Dreier and University of Northern Iowa professor Christopher Martin found that stories including the phrase “job killer” in major print outlets have spiked since President Obama took office. The study also found that since 1984, “in 91.6% of the stories alleging that a government policy was or would be a 'job killer,' the media failed to cite any evidence for this claim or to quote an authoritative source with any evidence for this claim.” A study from NYU's Institute for Policy Integrity similarly found that newspapers' use of the phrase “job-killing regulation” increased 17,550% between 2007 and 2011. [Media Matters, 6/14/12]

AP Noted That “Job-Killing” Attack Not Supported By Facts. In a fact-check of a Romney ad, the Associated Press reported that the economy is suffering from lack of demand, not “job-killing regulations”:

Romney's vow to repeal “job-killing regulations” that are costing the economy billions of dollars may not be as easy as he makes it sound. He and many fellow Republicans complain that government regulations are a leading drag on jobs, but Labor Department data show that few companies where large layoffs occur say government regulation was the reason.

There's little evidence that the regulatory burden is any worse now than in the past or that it is costing significant numbers of jobs. Most economists believe there is a simpler explanation: Companies aren't hiring because there isn't enough consumer demand. Economists believe high levels of economic uncertainty are a leading complication for business, arising more from struggles over taxes and spending in Washington than from regulations. [AP, 5/24/12]

Politico: Obama Has Issued Fewer Final Regulations Than Bush And Clinton. Politico reported:

[The Obama administration's Cass] Sunstein has imposed what is essentially a soft freeze on new regulations.

Even though that's not official policy, the administration has been increasingly frugal in issuing regulations, according to a POLITICO review of government data and more than two dozen interviews with current and former administration officials, lawmakers in both parties, business leaders and liberal activists. The analysis of the federal rule-making database shows Obama as of Tuesday had issued 1,004 final regulations since arriving in office. That's fewer than his two immediate predecessors, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. [Politico, 7/12/12]

Survey Of Business Economists: Vast Majority Of Respondents Feel Current Regulatory Environment Is “Good” For Business. From the National Association for Business Economics' (NABE) August 2011 Economic Policy Survey:

Regulatory activity has gained a lot of attention, with many groups suggesting that American businesses are overregulated by the current administration. With that said, 80 percent of survey respondents felt that the current regulatory environment was “good” for American businesses and the overall economy. [National Association for Business Economics, August 2011]

Small Business Owners Say Regulation Is Not Harmful To Them. McClatchy surveyed a sample of small business owners, and reported its findings that many business owners actually welcome regulations:

Politicians and business groups often blame excessive regulation and fear of higher taxes for tepid hiring in the economy. However, little evidence of that emerged when McClatchy canvassed a random sample of small business owners across the nation.

“Government regulations are not 'choking' our business, the hospitality business,” Bernard Wolfson, the president of Hospitality Operations in Miami, told The Miami Herald. “In order to do business in today's environment, government regulations are necessary and we must deal with them. The health and safety of our guests depend on regulations. It is the government regulations that help keep things in order.”


McClatchy reached out to owners of small businesses, many of them mom-and-pop operations, to find out whether they indeed were being choked by regulation, whether uncertainty over taxes affected their hiring plans and whether the health care overhaul was helping or hurting their business.

Their response was surprising.

None of the business owners complained about regulation in their particular industries, and most seemed to welcome it. Some pointed to the lack of regulation in mortgage lending as a principal cause of the financial crisis that brought about the Great Recession of 2007-09 and its grim aftermath. [McClatchy Newspapers, 9/1/11]

Wash. Post's Pearlstein Points Out GOP Pattern Of Opposing Regulations That Save Lives. From an op-ed by Washington Post columnist Steven Pearlstein:

What's particularly noteworthy about this fixation with “job killing” is that it stands in such contrast to the complete lack of concern about policies that kill people rather than jobs.

Repealing health-care reform, for instance, would inevitably lead to thousands of unnecessary deaths each year because of an inability to get medical care.

Although lack of effective regulation led directly to the deaths of 29 coal miners last year in West Virginia, Republicans continue to insist that any reform of mine safety laws is bad for miners' employment.

Republicans also continue to oppose food safety legislation that could save the lives of hundreds of Americans killed each year by contaminated food, just as they oppose any regulation that would effectively keep assault weapons out of the hands of convicted criminals and narco-terrorists who kill thousands of innocent victims on both sides of the Rio Grande.

And although a blue-ribbon panel has now concluded that a lack of effective government regulation contributed to an explosion in the Gulf of Mexico that led to the deaths of 11 oil rig workers (along with countless numbers of birds, fish and other wildlife), all Republicans can talk about is the jobs that might be lost as a result of more vigorous oversight of deep-water drilling.

I wonder how Republicans and their media posse would like it if Democrats started referring to “genocidal” deregulation or the “murderous” repeal of health-care reform. Or if Republican economic policies were likened to the infamous neutron bomb - they kill the workers but leave their jobs intact.

Unfair? No doubt. But no more so than portraying as “job-killing” every regulation, every tax and every dollar of government spending. [Washington Post, 1/6/11]