Hyatt Hotels: Please reconsider your action on the Skywalk Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri

Mr. Farley Kern
Vice President, Corporate Communications
Hyatt Hotels Corporation
Chicago, Illinois

Dear Mr. Kern,

Thirty years after the Kansas City Hyatt Regency Hotel skywalks collapsed, I have learned that the Hyatt Hotel Corporation will not contribute to a memorial for the victims of the worst structural failure in U.S. history. “We are disappointed that we will not have the opportunity to continue to operate the hotel and as such, Hyatt will not be making a donation to the Skywalk Memorial,” said a letter dated Nov. 30 from Rusty Macy, general manager of the former Hyatt Regency Crown Center.

The scene on July 18, 1981, the day after the collapse of the skywalks at the Hyatt Regency hotel in Kansas City. The collapse killed 114 people. Photo: Kansas City Star

The disaster killed 114 guests and employees at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Kansas City and injured more than 200 others.

I suspect the Hyatt Hotel Corporation has made millions of dollars operating the hotel during the past three decades.  It should donate a small portion of those profits to the Skywalk Memorial.

I admit, I do take this personally. I covered the tragedy that terrible night as a reporter. I saw first hand the suffering that took place. The memory haunts me and  many others to this day.

I implore the Hyatt Hotel Corporation to reconsider its action; For the sake of your company’s credibility and out of respect for the victim’s of the Hyatt Regency skywalk collapse.

The skywalk collapse was the worst structural failure in U.S. history. Photo: Kansas City Star

Where is the Hyatt’s corporate responsibility? Your company is in the hospitality business. Why is it inhospitable to the memories of the hotel guests and employees who died in your hotel? Where is your corporation’s sense of human decency?

Because of the Hyatt Hotel Corporation’s action, I must now boycott Hyatt properties as an act of conscience dedicated to the memories of the innocent men, women and children who died and were injured in the Hyatt Regency Hotel collapse.

Please reconsider this decision. Honor and help memorialize those Hyatt Regency Hotel guests and employees who died at your property 30 years ago.

Bernard Rogers McCoy
Lincoln, Nebraska

XL pipeline- Getting the facts straight

Pieces of the Keystone XL pipeline await construction in South Dakota. Photo:North Platte Post

Every big controversy seems to generate its own information fog.  Facts may be  incomplete or missing altogether. Reporting can get fuzzy.

The debate over the proposed Keystone XL pipeline is no different. Rhetoric abounds. Facts may be iffy.

The question is whether the fact omission is deliberate or accidental.  Both happen. Either may detract from what should be an informed, vigorous public discussion.

Take Darrin Goode’s Politico article this week entitled “On Keystone XL Pipeline, Democrats slow to probe.”  Goode writes:

“Labor unions — an important constituency for Obama and a lot of other Democrats — are backing the pipeline and the jobs it could bring.”

Goode’s statement is inaccurate. Early today, I wrote the following to Mr. Goode and requested a correction in his Politico article.

“You did not note that large labor unions also oppose the Keystone XL pipeline. They include the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) and the Transport Workers Union (TWU). The two unions represent more than 300,000 workers in the U.S.
These unions are calling for “New Deal” type public investments in infrastructure modernization and repair, energy conservation and climate protection as a means of putting people to work and laying the foundations of a green and sustainable economic future for the United States.”
I ask that you add this correction to your story for the sake of fair and balanced journalism.”

I will let you know if Mr. Goode agrees with my clarification and makes a correction. I should note that the Politico article is not the first to make the false assumption that labor stands unified in favor of the proposed pipeline.

TransCanada's Keystone pipeline, shown here under construction. Photo: The Globe and Mail

Meanwhile, in the comment section for Goode’s Politico article I received this reply to my clarification from a reader.

While the ATU & TWU represents a measly 300,000 workers opposing the pipeline, they are trumped by the AFL-CIO (11,000,000 members), Teamsters (1,400,000 members) and LIUNA (630,000 members).

Last time I checked, 13,000,000 is more than 300,000.

Need more proof? Here:
“It’s the vision and competence of TransCanada in the U.S. that provides our skilled local workforce with the means to perform the trade they have been taught while contributing to their communities.” – William Hite, General President, AFL-CIO.

“TransCanada has a solid reputation for its responsible construction practices, and Canada is our largest and most responsible oil supplier. Allowing the project approval process to move forward was the right decision to make.” – Jim Hoffa, General President, Teamsters

In a protest, debate or fist-fight between a group of Environmentalists and Union workers, I will place my money on the Union workers everytime!”

To which I replied:

“Hello Van-

Yes, some unions and union members support the XL pipeline. BUT- The ATU and TWU are in fact AFL/CIO member unions who oppose the Keystone XL pipeline. Many other unions and union members in the U.S and Canada have also stepped forward opposing the pipeline.

Examples: The Alberta Federation of Labor and the CEP (Communications , Energy and Paperworkers Union), the Canadian union that represents the tar sands and refinery workers who would work on the project oppose the pipeline claiming it is “unsustainable and cuts off the possibility of creating a democratic energy policy that benefits workers in Canada for the long haul.”

The Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada (CEP) is opposed to Keystone XL. “The pipeline will create environmental destruction, take potential upgrading and refining jobs away from Canadians, and put our country’s energy security at risk,” says CEP President Dave Coles.

The president of the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL), Alberta’s largest labor organization, thinks the pipeline shouldn’t go ahead. “Members of the Alberta and federal governments have been acting like sales executives for pipeline company TransCanada, travelling to the U.S. to persuade Americans what a great idea the raw bitumen pipeline will be, but they are ignoring what’s best for Alberta and Canada,” said Gil McGowan, AFL president.

These examples disprove your contention that this debate is strictly between labor and environmentalists.  In fact, hundreds of thousands of union members on both sides of the border are against the XL pipeline. They’re joined by nine Nobel laureates, ranchers, farmers, first nations members, students, NASA climatologist James Hansen, politicians, clergy and others.

In short, you made a poor bet backed more by rhetoric and less by fact when you assumed all labor unions and all union members (of which I’m one) support the XL pipeline.”

Pieces of the Keystone XL pipeline await transport. Photo: National Radio Canada

Let there be a fair, factual and informed debate over the Keystone XL pipeline. Likewise, let there be fair, factual and informed reporting on the topic.  It’s in the best interest of our democracy and the credible journalism citizens rely.  It’s also how society can best demand transparency, accountability and clarity on an important issue.

The Keystone XL pipeline: Missing the point

Alaura Luebbe was overcome with emotion as she described her concerns that the proposed Keystone XL pipeline would threaten her family's Nebraska ranch. Luebbe's comments came during a U.S. State Department hearing last Friday. Photo: Andrew Harrer, Bloomberg News

The controversy surrounding the proposed Keystone XL pipeline reached new heights Friday when the U.S. State Department hosted the last in a series of public hearings on the 1,700 mile pipeline. It would carry tar sand crude oil from Canada to Texas.

Graphic: New York Times

The Washington, D.C.  hearing drew the national news media’s attention.  In turn, the news reports that followed missed the most important point behind the controversial project.

They suggest the proposed pipeline is a trade-off pitting environmentalists against new jobs, lower oil prices and a dependable foreign oil supply.

 NPR reports: This one pits potential job growth versus environmental concerns.

The Washington Post reports: Hundreds of members of the Laborers’ International Union of North America filled the auditorium at Friday’s hearing; Brent Booker, who directs the union’s construction department, said the project will provide “thousands of jobs” to his members….Shortly afterward, two Nebraska women broke down in tears as they testified. Alaura Luebbe, a rancher’s daughter, sobbed as she spoke of her ranch being threatened by the project, while activist Jane Kleeb declared, “We are the Sand Hills lovers. We are the Ogallala Aquifer lovers. And we are begging you — not asking, we are begging you — to deny this pipeline permit.”

The real story: The Keystone XL pipeline is a litmus test of President Obama and our political leadership’s resolve to make a true commitment to alternative energy in America and ween ourselves from foreign energy reliance? It’s also a test of the American consumers’ ability to consume less energy and create less waste.

It won’t be easy. If our leaders, as well as and you and I are sincere about America’s  security, energy independence and guiding our own national destiny we can do this. A sustained move to alternative energy sources is a commitment we’re better off making today, before we deplete traditional energy sources, cause more pollution and burden future generations of Americans.

Dust hangs in the sunset sky above the Suncor Millennium mine, an open-pit north of Fort McMurray, Alberta. Canada's oil sands are layers of sticky, tarlike bitumen mixed with sand, clay, and water. Around a hundred feet of soil must be stripped off to reach many deposits. Photo: Peter Essick, National Geographic

To be sure, other concerns have been expressed by opponents and supporters of the project. Supporters say the Keystone XL project could create 20,000 pipeline equipment and construction jobs, and give us lower oil prices courtesy of a more dependable foreign importer. Opponents say the costs will be  the pipeline’s “dirty” extraction process, human health problems, permanent damage to Canada’s forests and a pollution threat to places like Nebraska’s Sand Hills country and the Ogallala fresh water aquifer.

The mowed strip across Nebraska's Sand Hills counrtry is what plaintiff groups claim is evidence of Keystone XL pipeline construction before federal approval is granted for the project. Photo: Bruce McIntosh, Center for Biological Diversity

Conflicting jobs message: If the pipeline is approved, most or all of those 20,000 jobs will end when the construction’s complete. It should be noted that according to TransCanada data supplied to the State Department, the project will only create between 2,500 and 4,560 construction jobs in the U.S. A recent Cornell University report says “[the pipeline] will not be a major source of US jobs, nor will it play any substantial role at all in putting Americans back to work.”

Instead, lets get back to Barack Obama’s economic recovery plan of two years ago. It envisioned creating about 500,000 jobs by making new investments in clean energy, doubling the production of alternative energy over three years and improving the energy efficiency of government buildings and homes.

Lower oil prices? Maybe not. Here’s another reason Mr. Obama, the State Department and politicians from  both parties might be better off denying a permit for the Keystone XL pipeline-  Many pipeline supporters suggest it would lead to more stable or lower oil prices due to the new influx of up to 700,000 barrels of crude oil a day from Canada.

CNN reports: “For the Obama administration, having an answer to high prices will be much more important in 2012 than it is today,” said Kevin Book. managing director at the research firm ClearView Energy Partners. “We think it will get approved.”

According to a CTV report, the Keystone XL pipeline might actually increase oil prices. It would do so by reducing the crude oil over-supply problem in Cushing, Okla., one of the largest crude storage facilities in the world. Industry analysts say this has driven prices down.

Via CTV:  “We have a unique problem now with North American supply,” said Mike Ming, Secretary of Energy for the State of Oklahoma. “We’ve brought on more oil supply than we really have outlets to get it to market and it’s tended to bottle up at Cushing.”  Cushing is the prime delivery point for New York oil futures contracts and helps set the value of West Texas Intermediate, North America’s benchmark oil price.”The problem is, we’ve got too much oil in Cushing relative to our pipeline capacity to get it out to the Gulf Coast mainly, because that’s where the majority of the United States refining capacity is,” said Mike McDonald, the former Chair of the Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association… If it is approved, the TransCanada Keystone XL Pipeline would link Cushing to refineries on the Gulf Coast with a 500,000 barrel-a-day spur line, helping to relieve the glut and the pressure on West Texas Intermediate.

Conflict of interest? Finally, the proposed pipeline permit should be denied because of the real or perceived conflicts of interest involved in this project.

On October 7th, The New York times reported: The State Department assigned an important environmental impact study of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline to a company with financial ties to the pipeline operator, flouting the intent of a federal law meant to ensure an impartial environmental analysis of major projects…The E.P.A. has criticized two prior draft environmental impact statements prepared by Cardno Entrix on Keystone XL as “inadequate” and providing “insufficient information,”

A few days earlier-

The New York Times reports: The State Department has also faced charges of political conflict of interest over its handling of the Keystone XL application because TransCanada’s chief Washington lobbyist, Paul Elliott, was a top official in Hillary Rodham Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign.

Beneath a green sweep of fen and forest in northern Alberta lies a promise of wealth—vast layers of hydrocarbons that can be refined into petroleum products like gasoline. Undisturbed until now, these trees may soon fall: This land has already been staked out by prospectors. Photo: Peter Essick, National Geographic

What is the state of our nation’s political accountability and transparency? Can we create sustainable energy policies that support our economy and democracy while, at the same time, provide America greater control of its destiny? These are real questions. The decision on the Keystone XL pipeline project will tell us if the Obama administration is truly willing to act in the best interests of our country and set us on a new course of self-reliance and energy sustainability.

What are your thoughts on the Keystone XL pipeline proposal? I’d like to know.

Bevo Francis will get Hall of Fame recognition

Bevo Francis remains college basketball's all-time signle game and season average scoring leader. Photo: Rio Grande University Archives

From February, 2, 1954 to March 13, 2012.

Any way you look at it, it’s a long time to wait.

  • 58 years, 1 month, 12 days
  • 3032 weeks (rounded down)
  • 21,225 days
  • 509,400 hours
  • 30,564,000 minutes
  • 1,833,840,000 seconds

That wait is almost over for Bevo Francis.

Next March 3rd, Francis will be inducted into the The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) 2011-12 Hall of Fame. I was thrilled to get the news this month from NAIA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament Director John McCarthy. Francis will be recognized for meritorious service, including the 113 points he scored for the Rio Grande (Ohio) College Redmen in a basketball game against Hillsdale College (Michigan).

Bevo’s scoring mark remains the highest single game scoring effort of any college basketball player. Francis also holds the NCAA and NAIA records for highest average points scored per game. He averaged more than 47 points a game during the 1953-54 season.

Most surviving members of the Rio redmen team remain close as friends today, gathering each year for a team reunion at Rio Grande University in Rio Grande, Ohio. Photo: Rio Grande University Archives.

The Rio Redmen helped restore the game of college basketball after a point-shaving scandal in 1950 and 1951 involving many of America’s top college basketball teams. “College basketball was playing to a sea of empty seats,”  former ABC Sports Anchor Dave Diles told me. “Nobody cared about it. It had been stained so badly.”

Criminal charges were filed against dozens of  players and the point shavers themselves. The scandal sent fans running for the exits and sent college basketball into a tailspin.

The Rio Redmen helped bring the fans back. They did it by playing hard and winning against opponents with a style that was all their own. They proved that pedigree matters little if you outplay your opponent.

If you ask Francis, he’ll tell you his scoring record wasn’t the most important thing in his life.  It didn’t then. It doesn’t now.

“I couldn’t have done it without my teammates,” said Francis in an interview for the documentary I produced a couple of years ago about his amazing team. “What matters to me is my family and my friends.”

Francis and his teammates came from impoverished backgrounds. They and their families survived by working the farms, mines and the steel mills that dotted the Appalachian hill country of southeast Ohio. A century ago the editors of the New York Times described the people who lived in Appalachia thusly: “The majority of mountain people are unprincipled ruffians. There are two remedies only: education or extermination. The mountaineer, like the red Indian, must learn this lesson.”

In reality, then and now, Appalachians are one of the most misunderstood, exploited, impoverished and politically disfranchised groups in America.

“If you’ve never had dirt under your nails. If you’ve never heard your belly growling,” Diles said. “There’s a hunger that comes from that, that privileged people can’t understand.”

All the former Redmen players I met have stayed married to the same women they met, or were already wed to in college.

They helped raise their families. They had productive careers as steelworkers, coaches, teachers and businessmen.  Through good times and bad, they’ve also stayed in touch with each other and the college they attended.

Mostly, they all understood there are no shortcuts to success…or happiness. Their success came through hard work and perseverance both on and off the basketball court.

Less than 100 students enrolled at Rio Grande College when Clarence “Bevo” Francis first strolled onto the southeast Ohio campus in 1952.

Rio Grande was about to go bankrupt. It would have had not the Redmen barnstormed across the region, playing any team they could that first season to raise money to pay the faculty.

In 1954, Rio Grande College's Bevo Francis set the all-time single game scoring record in college basketball. He scored 113 points in a 40 minute regulation game against Hillsdale College of Michigan. Photo: Rio Grande University Archives

The team went 39-0. Francis obliterated almost every existing NCAA scoring record.

The Redmen brought in 25 percent of their college’s revenues during the two years they played together. It was enough to keep Rio Grande College open and faculty paychecks from bouncing.

“I think it helped make enough money to help the professors so that they didn’t close it down,” former Rio Redman guard Jim McKenzie told me. “They were in the process of doing so.”

After the first season was over, skeptical NCAA coaches met in Kansas City, Missouri and passed a new rule.  The new rule only recognized scoring records against four year degree granting institutions.

Bevo Francis and his Rio Grande College teammates and classmats in 1953. Photo: Life magazine

Before the rule’s passage, the NCAA had accepted scoring records against two year junior colleges and technical schools who made up many of Rio Grande’s traditional rivals.

For the first time in NCAA history, the new rule was retroactively applied to Rio Grande. It stripped the college of 27 of victories and Bevo Francis of almost all his  scoring records.

“We were the hottest thing in America,” said former Rio Redmen coach Newt Oliver. “Nothing compared with us and the big schools they resented that.”

It wasn’t fair, but it was reality.

Bevo Francis, under the watchful eye of coach Newt Oliver, practice in Rio Grande College's gymnasium. Dubbed the "hog pen" the gymnasium was so broken down, the Redmen played almost all their games on the road. Photo: Rio Grande University archives.

The Redmen channeled their anger into something they could control. The next season, the Rio Redmen scheduled all but one of their 28 games against colleges that met the new, tougher NCAA rule.

The team played almost every game on the road because their college gymnasium, dubbed the “hog pen,” was too small and broken down to accommodate paying spectators.  All of the Redmen’s college competition came from larger colleges and universities.

That didn’t stop the Redmen from winning, or Bevo Francis from reclaiming his scoring records. The Redmen went 21-7 that 53-54 season. They beat  the likes of Providence, Bradley, Creighton, Miami of Florida and defending Atlantic Coast Conference champion Wake Forest.

The ticket revenues the team earned allowed Rio Grande College to continue giving poor Appalachian students an educational path out of poverty.

The Redmen might have done even better had Francis not finished the season playing on a badly sprained ankle. Francis still averaged 47 points a game that season and torched the nets for that record setting 113 point game against Hillsdale College.

The Redmen won through hard work and hours of practice. Four and five hour daily shooting, passing and scrimmage sessions were the rule under hard nosed coach Newt Oliver. You shoot, you miss, you lose.  Make a pass, hit the shot, play better defense, you win.

"I couldn’t tell you if there was 10 people or 10,000 people," saod Francis. "I was never a grandstand player. Went out there to play the game to win. And to win that made me feel like I was free." Photo: Associated Press

Bevo Francis was never comfortable with the idea of overshadowing his teammates. But when he stepped on a basketball court, his talent couldn’t be ignored or stopped.

“Whenever I was out on the floor I couldn’t tell you if there was 10 people or 10,000 people,” said Francis. “That’s one thing. I was never a grandstand player. Went out there to play the game to win. And to win that made me feel like I was free.”

Former Redmen coach Newt Oliver put it best: “You can be well known and they forget about you in a year of two.  If you’re legendary like we are, they’ll never forget you.”

Bevo Francis will be be inducted at the NAIA Division I Men’s Basketball National Championship in Kansas City, Mo. next March 13th.

After 57 years,  Newt Oliver’s finally been proven right.

Remembering the Kansas City skywalk collapse

The July 17, 1981 Hyatt Regency skywalk collapse killed 114 people and injured more than 200 others in Kansas City, Missouri.

It was an honor to wrap-up several months of research and reporting for a television news special last Friday on the 30th anniversary of the Kansas City Hyatt Regency hotel skywalk collapse.

I worked on the special for KCTV5, the Kansas City CBS affiliate.  It’s  where I once worked as a reporter and anchor.

Photo: Kansas City Star

The skywalk collapse was the worst structural failure in U.S. history.  On that July 17th evening 30 years ago, 114 men, women and children died.  Another  216 people were injured.

This KCTV news special,  reporting by the Kansas City Star, and a partnering City in Shock website by the Star and KCTV5 devoted to the skywalk collapse gave surviving victims of the disaster  an opportunity to heal further and come to terms with a tragedy that shocked an entire city.

Click below to see portions of the KCTV special.

Had not so many talented reporters, videographers, producers, editors and news managers worked so hard on this project, younger generations may never have known about or seen video of the night of the skywalk collapse.

More than 1,000 emergency responders worked the Hyatt Regency skywalk disaster on July 17, 1981. Photo: Kansas City Star

Historic videotape reports of that disaster night may not have been located, cataloged, digitized and saved for future generations.  A local television station and newspaper may never have had the opportunity to serve its community and viewers by taking a historic look at one of Kansas City’s most important news events.

Barney McCoy, age 25, reporting at the 1981 Hyatt Regency skywalk disaster.

Truth be told, I’ve spent the last three decades of my life researching, reporting and reflecting on this tragedy. I was the first reporter on the scene that terrible night as a young reporter for Kansas City’s CBS television affiliate.

The KCTV5 Hyatt Regency skywalk collapse news special was a highlight project of my career.  After all, it’s rare that we have an opportunity to work on journalistic endeavors that defined an entire community,,, and us so personally and professionally?

It was a labor of love and respect for those whose lives were so profoundly changed by the skywalk disaster.

Missouri River turns Midwest areas into Waterworld

A flooded motor home is stuck along the Missouri River in Holt County, Mo. Photo: Barney McCoy

Heavy rains this week have compounded historic flooding on the Missouri River in parts of South Dakota, Nebraska, Missouri, Iowa and Kansas, rendering many towns, villages and rural areas a Midwestern version of Waterworld. 

As I write this update tonight, the National Weather Service reports the Missouri River is running at record flood stage in Rulo, Neb. The Missouri River there is more than a foot higher than when the massive 1952 flood struck and 9.66 feet above flood stage.

Rulo’s not alone. Brownville, Plattsmouth and Nebraska City, Neb., have also broken flood stage records this week along the Missouri River.

A home in Rulo, Neb., is flooded by the Missouri River which may remain at flood stage through the summer. Photo: Barney McCoy

Across the river in Holt County, Mo., more than 150 residents in Big Lake and 300 more in Craig, Mo., have been evacuated from their homes after levees broke Monday and over the weekend. National Guard troops are providing security for evacuated homeowners in the rural area.

Holt County Commissioner Bill Gordon told the Associated Press Craig had already been losing businesses and residents and more doom could follow in the aftermath of the flooding.

“This is probably going to destroy Craig,” Gordon said. “The bank has moved out, the hardware store, the restaurant is closed. The post office has moved its service to Mound City. There was a seed store there, and a couple small mechanic shops. Craig is probably going to be a ghost town when this is done, all thanks to the Corps of Engineers.”

Missouri River flooding near Blair, Neb. Photo: Nebraska Emergency Management Agency

There’s a strong possibility residents may not be able to return home until the flood waters subside in August or September- By then the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers believes six upstream dams filled to the brink with water from an abnormally wet winter and spring will finally be able cut back the 160,000 cubic feet or more of water a second being released into the Missouri River.  That’s roughly equal to 1.1 million gallons of water a second cascading over dam spillways from Montana and down across the Dakotas.

Gavins Point Dam in South Dakota will begin releasing 160,000 cfs of water into the Missouri River on Thursday. Photo: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Tonight, the U.S. Army Corps announced releases from the Gavins Point Dam in South Dakota will increase to 160,000 cubic feet per second by Thursday because of continued wet weather throughout the Missouri River Basin.

“Since the end of May, we have been slowly ramping up releases from our reservoirs to buy time for communities and local and state governments to be able to prepare for high water,” said Brig. Gen. John McMahon, commander of the Northwestern Division of the Army Corps of Engineers. “We thought we would be able to hold at 150,000 cfs for an extended period of time. Unfortunately, recent rains have reduced our flexibility, and we must evacuate these flood waters to manage the remaining flood control storage in the reservoir system. As we’ve stated all along, heavy rain storms could result in major revisions.”

The U.S. Highway 159 bridge over the Missouri River in Rulo, Neb. has been closed by severe flooding. The bridge closing means motorists must drive 108 miles north to Omaha or 50 miles south to St. Joseph, Mo. to cross the Missouri River. Photo: Barney McCoy

The flooding is also a costly headache for truckers and motorists. According to Departments of Transportation in Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri and Kansas, dozens of roads and some major highways in the region are under flood water and closed for the foreseeable future.  Detours that reroute vehicles more than a hundred miles around flooded roads and highways aren’t uncommon.

BNSF crews work to raise a railroad bed against approaching Missouri River floodwaters near Big Lake, Missouri. Photo: Barney McCoy

Before Missouri Highway 111 into Big Lake was closed by flooding from Missouri River levee breeches, I caught up with Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad crews  raising and fortifying a main rail line against the rising flood waters.

The BNSF line that runs through Holt County, Missouri is a major east-west shipping route for the railroad. Photo: Barney McCoy

BNSF had a massive operation underway, raising the railroad’s track bed and adding tons of stone rip-rap to fortify about 3.4 miles of line near Big Lake by as much as 20 inches. This was an effort to keep the main line between Kansas City and Lincoln, Neb., above floodwaters.

According to the Associated Press, Big Lake sought an injunction against BNSF Railway and the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission, claiming the railroad’s raising of its lines in the village is contributing to flooding.

Big Lake, Mo. filed a court injunction to stop BNSF railroad from raising its track near the northwest Missouri village over fears the project would back-up flood waters into Big Lake. Photo: Barney McCoy

Almost all the nearly 150 residents of the village have now evacuated their homes as high waters along the Missouri River have flooded their village with three or more feet of water.

Village residents believed the raised railroad creates a “bathtub effect” by trapping water, Big Lake attorney Creath Thorne told the A.P. Big Lake also claims BNSF did not follow a city ordinance that requires anyone building in the village to conduct a hydraulic study to determine the construction’s effect on flood control, the St. Joseph News-Press reported Friday.

Flooded croplands like these near the Missouri River in Holt County, Mo. are underwater and lost for the season. Photo: Barney McCoy

A few miles southwest of Big Lake, farm fields were already inundated by flood waters. Hundreds of thousands of acres of corn, soybean and wheat crops up and down the Missouri River are underwater and lost for the planting and growing season.

Royal wedding asks: Is U.S. TV news out of touch?

The second worst tornado in U.S. history devastated six southern states this week.  At least 343 people were killed. Thousands of homes and businesses have been destroyed. The lives of millions of American have been plunged into crisis mode.

TV News anchors Katie Couric of CBS, Diane Sawyer of ABC, CNN’s Anderson Cooper and Fox News Channel’s Shepard Smith were all there.  No, not the tornado ravaged south. They were in London, making whoop-de-do over the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton.

London’s UK Mail reports: “ABC has vowed to devote 20 hours to the Royal Wedding starting at 4am ET with a special edition of ‘Good Morning America.’ Robin Roberts will be live from Westminster Abbey before handing over to Diane Sawyer and Barbara Walters who will anchor the wedding itself. CBS News will have Katie Couric in London two days before the wedding and she will anchor the footage on the day itself. That night the network will broadcast a one-hour special called: ‘The Royal Wedding: Modern Majesty.’  CNN has unveiled its ‘global, multi-platform coverage’ of the big day with Piers Morgan, Anderson Cooper, Richard Quest and Cat Deeley presenting.”

The Wrap reports:  “Fox News Channel’s coverage will be anchored by Shepard Smith and Martha MacCallum and begin at 4 a.m. (ET) from Buckingham Palace — and will run commercial free from 5:30-8:00 a.m.”

The death toll from this week’s storms rose to 343 Saturday, according to an NBC News count. In Alabama alone more than 238 were killed by the storms. Four hundred and forty six others remain missing in Tuscaloosa alone. “I would classify it as a nightmare,”  Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox told the Los Angeles Times.  Today, Maddox said the confirmed death toll in his devastated college town had risen to 38 — a number he said he believed would continue to grow as search teams set out.  Maddox told disaster relief officials that their designation of his town as a “disaster” area was inadequate.

Video: In hard-hit Tuscaloosa, survivors take stock 

True, ABC, CBS, CNN and Fox News have reporters covering the tornado aftermath. (There were a reported 137 tornadoes in Wednesday’s storm system.)  These network’s anchors though, and most of the network’s resources, have been firmly committed to the royal nuptials.

After all, the networks dedicated weeks and millions of dollars promoting coverage of Kate and Will’s wedding.  I suspect the ratings will justify it even if the news network’s journalistic credibility suffers.

What’s wrong with this picture?  Nothing really.

It’s a crystal clear example of an inability by many TV network news executives to  distinguish  news from infotainment- Flash over substance.

Call me old school. I believe the TV networks should dedicate their talent, resources and priorities covering the still unfolding natural disaster in Alabama and five other states.  It’s what television does best;  cover important news that impact the lives of viewers.

Shouldn’t the networks and their marquee anchors prioritize coverage of the tornado aftermath rather than the pageantry and puffery of a royal wedding thousands of miles  away.  What message does this send to TV News audiences?

Here’s a check list of what makes a stories newsworthy:

  • Proximity- Where an event happens is important.   C.A. Tuggle, Forrest Carr and Suzanne Huffman elegantly state in their Broadcast News Handbook;

“An old maxim in television news says that one local death is worth (in terms of news interest) five elsewhere in the state, 20 elsewhere in the country and hundreds elsewhere in the world.”

  • Timeliness- What’s more important? Live coverage dedicated to search efforts to locate missing victims of tornadoes in the south or the royal wedding?
  • Impact- Which story impacts the greatest number of viewers, whether directly or indirectly?
  • Prominence- A person’s standing in society plays a role in making stories about that person(s) newsworthy.
  • Conflict- Disagreement makes for good copy and even better video.
  • Simplicity- Don’t dismiss stories automatically if they don’t seem simple: Make them simple. Relate difficult concepts to common things.

Kudos to NBC News and Brian Williams. According to TV Newser, Williams had arrived at London’s Heathrow airport on Wednesday, picked up his bags and was on his way to NBC’s Royal Wedding encampment when the damage and death toll from last night’s southern storm began to sink in.  “I never got to see our infrastructure in London,” blogged Williams, “or any of my colleagues beyond the confines of my car. We had a magnificent setup — the result of months of planning — to cover the big day in London, and we still will, live and wall-to-wall.  But for now, for us, for this story, one of us had to go back and lead a separate coverage team—as the death toll grows.”

I think NBC’s move was good journalism and good strategy. The network still devoted wedding coverage via its Today Show anchors.  NBC’s primary news anchor though kept the focus on the on-going southern tornado story.

Robert J. Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.

Robert J. Thompson,  founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University wrote about this week’s TV news coverage of the royal wedding: “Whether or not you care—or admit to caring—about the royal wedding, I suppose it can be acknowledged that the event does offer some things of interest, though perhaps more in the way of entertainment than news. There’s the distraction theory, which argues that in a time of war, economic uncertainty, natural disasters, and other bad news, we’re looking for stories of frivolous escape.”

Former CBS News Anchor Dan Rather: "What bothers me is the hypocrisy. The idea that we can't afford to throw resources at an important foreign story, but can afford to spend this kind of money on a story like the royal wedding is just plain wrong." "

Former CBS News Anchor Dan Rather also blogged today:

“Remember the millions of dollars, hundreds of staff and hours of coverage spent on a wedding in London when crises around the globe and here at home festered. Remember the unseemly pas de deux between the press and a reality TV show huckster peddling racially-fraught falsehoods, as both interviewers and the interviewee seek a bump in ratings…The networks couldn’t ignore the devastating storms that killed hundreds in the South, but you had the odd juxtaposition of that news being delivered by anchors sitting in front of Buckingham Palace.  There’s always the question, is the audience chasing the news or the news chasing an audience? I have nothing against the royals or their wedding. It is a legitimate news story, a big event for one of America’s most stalwart allies. We have had a lot of bad news lately, and if you are someone who finds this diversion interesting and exciting, then I think that’s great.  What bothers me is the hypocrisy. The idea that we can’t afford to throw resources at an important foreign story, but can afford to spend this kind of money on a story like the royal wedding is just plain wrong.”

What do you think? Would you prefer the news networks prioritize coverage on the tornado aftermath or the royal wedding?


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