If there’s one hard-and-fast rule about journalism, it’s that readers, viewers and listeners will respond to stories about people stuck in holes. NPR reporter Mike Pesca looks back on the media magic created when a person is trapped underground.
The Ballad of Floyd CollinsArtist: Vernon Dalhart
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This story of trapped miners had the happiest of endings, but you don't have to cast your mind back very far to see how rare that outcome is. In January, 2006, a coalmine exploded in Sago, West Virginia, and mining officials released incorrect information, so many media outlets reported that 12 of the 13 trapped men had survived. In fact, only one had. Agony. There are disasters every day, borne of disease, floods, fire and starvation, so what is it about mine disasters that captures our horrified imaginations? Journalism is a business that thrives by reflecting the public’s hopes and dreams and nightmares, and what’s more primal than being trapped without air or light or sound in a living death? Any story that can penetrate that purgatory, any reporter who can send a dispatch from that no-man’s-land between life and death, will always draw an audience. History tells us that the public will always respond to stories about people trapped in holes. Several years ago, NPR’s Mike Pesca looked back on the dramatic history of this most literal variety of underground journalism.
MIKE PESCA: Man, or men, or sometimes babies trapped underground has been a story for as long as people have been telling stories, or at least selling them in newspapers or broadcasting them. There was the case of Floyd Collins:
[CLIP FROM FILM ACE IN THE HOLE]:
KIRK DOUGLAS AS JOURNALIST: You never heard of Floyd Collins?
MIKE PESCA: That's Kirk Douglas in the 1951 movie Ace in the Hole. He plays a journalist who stumbles across a man trapped in a cave. Here he reminds a cub reporter about a similar story.
KIRK DOUGLAS AS JOURNALIST:
Floyd Collins, doesn't that ring a bell?
CUB REPORTER: No, not to me it doesn't.
KIRK DOUGLAS/JOURNALIST: Nineteen-twenty-five, Kentucky? The guy pinned way down in that cave? One of the biggest stories that ever broke, front page in every paper in the country for weeks!
CUB REPORTER: M - maybe I did hear about it.
And maybe you heard that a reporter on the Louisville paper crawled in for the story and came out with a Pulitzer Prize!
It's true. The 1926 Pulitzer Prize for reporting was awarded to William Burke Miller of The Louisville Courier Journal. Miller, known as "Skeets,” became a character in the 1995 musical Floyd Collins which dealt with the drama in the cave and the chaos in the newsroom.
[SONG FROM THE MUSICAL FLOYD COLLINS]
CHORUS: [CHANTING] Cave city comma capital K - capital Y, February 4 - [SINGING] cave victim losing hope -
MALE SINGER: According to Skeets Miller, comma, Collins is quickly slipping into a state of deep despair.
CHORUS: Asking for milk.
MALE SINGER: The trapped man was heard to cry out, quote, “Get me out of here, comma, even if you have to tear my foot off!” Exclamation, closed quote.
MALE SINGER: Floyd is reported to be in a state of delirium. They found him with the cave crickets, and even begging them to hurry, hurry –
CHORUS: Hurry, hurry, hurry, pull me out!
MIKE PESCA: A little more than a decade after Floyd Collins, reporter J. Frank Willis of the Canadian Radio Commission covered the collapse of the Moose River Mine in Nova Scotia, Canada.
J. FRANK WILLIS: It is a broken country down here, drab and desolate, a country of scrub and second growth, of rock, rock, relentless, hard, cruel hard. It is against rock of this sort that miners for the past week have fought and fought, grim-lipped, determined. And they're winning their fight. Inch by inch the rock is retreating.
MIKE PESCA: Today news networks never leave these stories. Even if little is happening on the scene, time will be filled with talking heads, recovery experts, and in the absence of that, speculation. Willis, however, was fiercely committed to the notion that only that which was newsworthy should be broadcast.
J. FRANK WILLIS: The rumor has gone abroad and has been published as a fact that the mine is in danger of caving in. This is absolutely not true! We're standing here. We can spit into this pit, and yet, from thousands of miles away people are contradicting what we have to say. This must stop. I'm stopping these broadcasts now, until something definite happens.
MIKE PESCA: One man died; two survived. The Moose River cave-in was one of the first times that radio displayed its power to connect with listeners on a real life event, occurring in real time. A decade later TV would demonstrate that ability in its coverage of yet another person trapped in a hole. In 1949, three-year-old Kathy Fiscus fell into a well near Los Angeles. Local station KTLA's round-the-clock coverage was groundbreaking in that it proved TV could find ample drama outside the scripted world of the studio. In fact, it was a KTLA reporter who informed her family that Kathy had died. Her grave marker reads: “A Little Girl who Brought the World Together for a Moment.” Almost 40 years later there was another moment. Another little girl was trapped in a well, Jessica McClure. Mary Alice Williams was one of CNN's primary anchors in 1987.
MARY ALICE WILLIAMS: We were the only ones on the air when this 18-month-old baby girl fell into a well, and suddenly all the huge international stories melted away. Of course, many, many hours later the broadcast networks caught on to the drama of this event.
BOB FERNAD: We were still rather looked down on by the other networks. They didn't consider us to be equals.
Bob Fernad was CNN's vice president and senior producer during the Jessica McClure rescue.
BOB FERNAD: Our ratings shot up as people left the three broadcast networks, assuming, correctly so, that they'd do the story and then go back to their regular programming and that we'd stay with it. And our ratings spiked, and for the first time we beat the three broadcast networks in eyeballs.
MIKE PESCA: And that's what made the Jessica McClure story a watershed for CNN. It confirmed what was an operating theory - that this new way of covering a story, wall to wall, was the formula for success. However, former anchor Mary Alice Williams thinks cable news took the wrong lesson from the little girl in the well.
MARY ALICE WILLIAMS: What it led to was the wall-to-wall coverage of O.J. Simpson. And the motive for watching O.J. was pure prurience. There was no other reason. It was a collective Schadenfreude: look how the mighty have fallen. Baby Jessica wasn't that. It was the opposite. It was a collective hope, a collective prayer, to save a person's life, a baby's life.
MIKE PESCA: Such is the fine line in TV news between pathos and bathos, between bathos and exploitation. It's not a happily-ever-after story for the rest of the Jessica McClure participants either. Jessica herself still lives in Texas; plays the French horn and makes A's and B's in school. She has a trust fund in excess of one million dollars. The only interview she does is with Ladies Home Journal, which recently revealed that Jessica has juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. Her parents, teenagers at the time, divorced. Her rescuer, Robert O'Donnell, couldn't handle the stress of having been a hero in the world's eyes, only to see the spotlight snatched away so quickly. He bored coworkers with endless stories of his time in the hole, squabbled with fellow rescuers over payment for the TV movie, developed a dependence on prescription painkillers, and in 1995 took his own life with a shotgun blast to the head. Perhaps most interesting is what happened to Skeets Miller who interviewed Floyd Collins in 1925. He left Louisville soon after he won his Pulitzer and moved to radio. By 1947 he was at NBC, where he served as assignment editor for the company's newest venture - television.
[HARMONICA PLAYING/UP AND UNDER] For On the Media, I'm Mike Pesca.
[CLIP/SONG FROM MUSICAL FLOYD COLLINS]:
MALE SINGER: [SINGING] Oh, come all you young people and listen while I tell the fate of Floyd Collins, the lad we all knew well.
[SONG UP AND UNDER]