Was Dateline unfair to tower sector?
Last week, NBC's weekly newsmagazine Dateline aired a segment called "Tower Dogs" that focused on those who climb to the skies in the name of telecommunications of all sorts and the dangers they encounter. The tower sector, led by the National Association of Tower Erectors, isn't happy with what it perceives was an unfair portrayal, which they say provided too much emphasis on the danger and irresponsible behavior by climbers, operators and not enough on the yeoman efforts being undertaken to make tower climbing safer.
"This is now America's perception of tower climbers," said Patrick Howey, NATE's executive director.
I didn't catch the segmentÑmuch to my dismay, as it looked pretty interesting. I was, however, able to view the half dozen clips taken from that segment and posted on NBC's web site. In one, a mother tearfully alleged that her 19-year-old son, who only recently had become a climber, died needlessly because he was too high on the tower, given his inexperience. He and two co-workersÑwho also perishedÑfell 1000 feet to the ground when the man basketÑa cable-supported contraption that hoists climbers and materials to the higher reaches of a towerÑgave way.
When senior writer Donny Jackson discovered that this was the topic for this week's column, he told me a story that bears repeating, as it underscores the danger that tower dogs face every day, and provides some insight into their mindsets. Jackson was visiting a tower site for a story he was writing, and was lifted 800 feet in a "very small elevator." The elevator had no front door and Jackson was plastered against the back wall, "scared to death." The experienced climber had positioned himself in the opening, facing Jackson, the heels of his work boots at the edge, effectively playing the role of human door. He kept from falling out by holding onto each side of the opening.
"I couldn't believe there was no latch, rope or anything to keep someone from falling to their death," Jackson said. "And this was just the trip up the towerÑhe wasn't doing anything difficult like technical work on an uneven surface at the top."
I don't like climbing a stepladder, so this is beyond my comprehension. When I spoke with Howey, he acknowledged that tower climbing is an extremely dangerous profession. He also conceded that "cowboys" who take unnecessary risks mar the profession, as do bottom-line-driven tower operators and project managers that put climbers in situations they shouldn't be in.
"All too often, unrealistic deadlines are put on projects, and climbers are forced to work in an unsafe capacity," Howey said. "If it rains for two days, they still want a five-day project done in three days."
Howey's point is that the industry is well aware of these problems and is working to eliminate them. For example, NATE has launched a program to educate tower operators about their responsibilities regarding climber safety. The organization also has worked with OSHA for the past year on a program in which member companies voluntarily agree to train their employees properly and to have a safety program in place. Other recommendations include having an inspector on site to ensure that workers are adhering to safety procedures and conducting voluntary site audits to identify potential hazards. NATE recently renewed its agreement with OSHA.
While much still needs to be done, Howey said tower-climber safety already has improved. "You don't see people climbing without helmets and harnesses anymore," he said.
Dateline ignored all of that, Howey said, even though it interviewed NATE board member Kevin Hayden, who helped found the organization. Hayden, who owns Hayden Tower Service in Topeka, Kan., told me that Dateline reduced a 20-minute interview to about a minute. He said he spoke of the NATE initiatives and the increased emphasis on safety throughout the sector, but that part of the interview didn't make the cut. "What aired was a far cry from what the interview was," Hayden said.
It's impossible for me to pass judgment on Dateline's editors because I didn't see the segment. But I can offer some insights regarding the journalistic process. When reporters work a story, they gathers way more information than they'll ever be able to use, the proverbial 10 pounds of sugar for a five-pound bag. Each reporter has to decide what to use. It's not an easy process, and usually tough decisions have to be made. Once the reporter files the story, the process begins anew. EditorsÑfaced with space (print) or time (broadcast) constraintsÑusually have to trim those stories to make them fit, often considerably.
The decisions these journalists make are determined in part by their own experiences, prejudices and moral compasses. Though journalists are trained to be objectiveÑand most try to beÑhow they perceive a story and what they deem important depends largely on intrinsic biases that are formed both by nature and nurture. One could provide two reporters with the same notes and background on a story and it is likely they will write similarÑbut not identicalÑstories, for they will have applied their individual value systems to determine what gets into the story and what doesn't.
When reporters and editors make such value judgments, they are bound by journalistic ethos that require them to provide the reader, listener or viewer with the most complete picture possible given the constraints they are working under. There always are at least two sides to every story, usually more.
If Dateline's reporters and editors failed to tell both sides of this story, they didn't do their jobs. Telling a one-sided story does everyone a disservice.
That said, it must be noted that the effort undertaken by the tower sector so far has been voluntary. For it to really have impact, it needs to be mandatory, with meaningful sanctions for non-compliance. Perhaps that's one of the reasons why Dateline gave it short shrift.
Unfortunately, very few, if any, trade organizations have the power to pull off mandatory compliance. OSHA would be a better bet, but that organization has had decades to clamp down on the tower industry. The chance of it doing so at this point is somewhere between slim and none.
However, should NATE, with or without OSHA's help, somehow be able to make participation in its safety programs mandatory, then it would have a story that Dateline would have more difficulty ignoring.
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