On Tuesday, jurors in Charleston, West Virginia, heard closing arguments in the trial of Don Blankenship, the former CEO of coal giant Massey Energy, who stands accused of conspiring to commit mine safety violations and making false statements to federal regulators. Blankenship, a larger-than-life figure who built the company into the biggest coal producer in Central Appalachia, faces up to 30 years in federal prison if convicted on all charges.
The indictment itself was unprecedented. It was the first time a major coal kingpin faced criminal charges for mining-related practices, and investigators uncovered a culture of deception in which Blankenship's miners—allegedly with his knowledge—ignored and in some cases covered up serious safety violations from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. The marathon trial, which began in early October, was built on a mix of audio recordings, SEC statements, and internal memos, as well as the testimony of more than a dozen subordinates and mine workers who experienced firsthand the effects of the coal boss's hard-assed managerial methods. The jury began its deliberations on Wednesday.
But the trial was also about two things that aren't technically part of the case at all. The first is the 2010 explosion at the Massey-owned Upper Big Branch mine that left 29 of Blankenship's workers dead in the worst US mine disaster in 40 years. The second is President Barack Obama.
Blankenship is not on trial for the Upper Big Branch disaster. If there was any ambiguity about that, the judge's jury instructions on Tuesday made it quite clear. But the explosion was omnipresent during the proceedings nonetheless. The period in which Blankenship was accused of conspiring to commit mine safety violations ended the day of the blast. The false statements Blankenship allegedly made to federal regulators, in the form of a rosy Securities and Exchange Commission filing about Massey's commitment to workers' safety, were made when the company's stock was falling in the aftermath of Upper Big Branch. The details about the blast were so well known that the defense pushed, up until the final week before the trial, to have the proceedings relocated to as far away as Baltimore.
When Bernie Sanders was asked at a recent Democratic presidential forum to name his dream job, the Vermont senator didn't hesitate. "President of CNN." The South Carolina audience laughed—and so did his interrogator, MSNBC's Rachel Maddow. But Sanders was dead serious. "If I was president of CNN, trust me, the way media deals with politics would radically change," he said.
Of that, there's little doubt. Republican candidates have fumed publicly about slanted questions posed by the moderators at last month's presidential debate hosted by CNBC, accusing the pro-business cable network of holding the GOP contenders to a tougher standard than their liberal counterparts. But they're not the only ones who believe the media is broken. Sanders' critique of mass media is much older, more sophisticated, and runs far deeper than mere accusations of bias. It is a theory he's trumpeted since before he won his first election in 1981, and it goes to the heart of his critique of the capitalist system. He believes the media is making us dumber, making us poorer, making us sicker, and rotting the democratic system to its core.
On Monday, as more than a dozen mostly Republican governors pledged to block Syrian refugees from being resettled in their states, the State Department was mum about the legal ramifications, offering only a cautious statement that its lawyers were looking into it. By Tuesday, apparently, that review had been completed.
"This is a federal program carried out under the authority of federal law and refugees arriving in the United States are protected by the Constitution and federal law," a senior State Department official told reporters on a conference call, when asked about the governors' statements. Simply put, once a refugee has come to the United States, "he or she is also free to move anywhere in the country," just like anyone else. And there's nothing Bobby Jindal or Chris Christie can do about it.
But, the official was quick to point out, the government also wasn't interested in resettling refugees unilaterally. Although state and local governments have only a consultative role in the process, "this is a program that is very much dependent on the support of local communities" to make the adjustment to a new life work—picking a new arrival up at the airport, furnishing a new house, finding gainful employment, and providing access to health care. And in that respect, the governors' strongest bargaining chip might be their open hostility. "We don't want to send refugees anywhere where they would not be welcomed."
The second Democratic presidential debate of the 2016 race had one clear winner—the moderator, John Dickerson. The longtime Slate political correspondent—who co-hosts the Political Gabfest podcast and recently took over as host of Face the Nation on CBS—was "the only star of the show" (The Daily Beast), and won plaudits for his "ferret-like journalistic questioning" (Politico) without making the show about himself.
But Dickerson's pointed queries and tough follow-ups should come as no surprise. John Dickerson is a political junkie's political junkie. He brings that same curiosity and attention to detail to yet another podcast: Whistlestop. This weekly gem is his obsessively researched dive into the dramas of campaigns past—forgotten and otherwise. Whether the subject is George Romney's last campaign, Grover Cleveland's love child, or the historical precedent for Donald Trump, the man has got you covered.
Mother Jones: How do you find the time to keep doing Whistlestop when you're juggling so many other jobs?
John Dickerson: It's fun! I love history. I love the human drama. And when you do something fun, it unlocks lots of other ideas in other areas of your work life. It's also a way for me to think about changing standards in campaigns and public life—what do we expect from our politicians and from our press and from the voters? And it's an antidote to the scandal or gaffe of the moment that has consumed so much of our political coverage.
MJ: How do you prep for it?
JD: I have a set of books on presidential campaigns. So whatever topic I'm writing about, I look through those books to re-familiarize myself. Then I have a researcher who goes into the archives and collects relevant newspaper clippings—I've done Whistle Stops on the races in 1840 and 1884, so I get a bunch of PDFs of the newspapers of the time. If there's anybody living who was a part of these stories, I sometimes call them. I interviewed Clark Hoyt, a newspaperman for the Knight chain in 1972 when Thomas Eagleton was put on [George] McGovern's ticket—he co-wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning piece about Eagle-ton and electric-shock therapy. I do all of that, and then make a huge outline and start writing.