THE MEDIA BEHAVING BADLY ON MH370
By Joe Brancatelli
March 12, 2014 --The media are never so transparently lame, self-servingly crass and downright wrong as when a commercial aircraft crashes. Unless, of course, a plane disappears without a trace and the televised "experts" and the "informed sources" in print are free to speculate, regurgitate and fantasize at will, under the guise of "getting information out."
The heart-rending and irritatingly fact-free case of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which disappeared from radar screens last Friday evening U.S. time, is first and foremost a horrific human tragedy. Unless you believe the Flying Dutchman myth, adhere to Twilight Zone scenarios or think the TV show Lost is historical precedent, chances are that all 227 passengers and 12 crew members are gone. Families have been torn asunder and business travelers worldwide have been reminded that our lives on the road are not always in our control.
Malaysia Flight 370 also is a chilling aeronautic reminder that our machines are not perfect, our pilots aren't supermen and our security strategies are not foolproof. In the 21st century, we don't expect widebody jets to disappear without a trace, we don't want to believe that an aircraft at "safe" cruising altitudes are at risk and we can't shake the horrible suspicion that every travel incident is somehow attributable to terrorism.
But the disinformation, distortions and outright fabrications that you've been fed in the name of news since Friday have been appalling. As a card-carrying member of the "mainstream media," I know why this stuff happens. But I don't like it and I certainly won't alibi it. And as a business traveler with far too many frequent-travel cards in my wallet, I despise the lunacy I'm being fed every time I flip on the television news, pick up a newspaper or follow the chattering classes on social media.
The first answer is the wrong one
Let's start at the very beginning: a plane crashes or--in the case of MH370 or Air France Flight 447 in 2009--goes missing. The news media gear up to report what happened and face an immediate crisis. They know no one has any answers, but they have time and space to fill. And rather than tell you they don't know anything, they throw up supposed experts with fancy titles and impressive-sounding credentials. And the talking heads talk: about possibilities, rumors, urban legends, discredited myths, gossip and even the weather. But none of them know what happened and, guided by some fragments of facts, they concoct scenarios. The stories they weave sound plausible enough, but they are almost always wrong. Today's 24-hour news cycle is voracious; heaven forbid an "expert" recruited to talk tells you the truth. And the truth is that there is virtually no legitimate, provable news to report in the first days--and sometimes even months--after a crash.
One is the loneliest (and most wrong) number
Anyone who has been around aircraft incidents will tell you bluntly and without hesitation: There's no single cause of an accident. It's never one thing. It's always a confluence of factors. Even when there is an immediate and obvious issue--bad weather in the crash of Colgan Flight 3407 in 2009 in Buffalo or the botched landing of Asiana Flight 214 last year in San Francisco --aviation investigators always find a string of contributing causes. Of course, that narrative doesn't play well, especially on TV, which specializes in flip, fast, easy answers. Whatever happened to MH370--and whenever we learn about what happened--investigators will almost surely point to a multitude of contributory circumstances.
The terrorism trope
In case you hadn't noticed, everything changed after four aircraft were hijacked on September 11, 2001. Terrorism is now constantly on the minds of journalists and government officials. So even when a terror attack is unlikely, as it was with the Malaysia Airlines disappearance, the media will stoke the real or imagined flames of untoward acts. And why not? Raising terrorism fears allows the media to bring on an additional cast of characters: the self-appointed "security experts," former government functionaries and the hateful jihadi alarmists. They all have an agenda to push a terrorist connection because, without one, there's no reason for them to come on television or be quoted. But the overwhelming reality of MH370 was that terrorism was never a plausible possibility. After all, what kind of terrorist takes out a flight over water (no pictures) and then doesn't even claim credit for the dastardly deed?
The passport panic
But what about those two passengers on MH370 who were traveling on stolen passports? That surely was a legitimate lead and potential terrorist tie. Granted, but a balanced reading of the situation by the media would have almost immediately dismissed it. With an estimated 40 million stolen travel documents in the world, travelers flying on bogus credentials are much more common than the media initially reported. And even after all of its huffing and puffing, Interpol decided by Tuesday morning that its concerns were misplaced and there was no logical tie between the disappearance of the Malaysia Airlines flight and terrorism. The media have a responsibility to handle an important issue such as passport theft with facts and insight, not feed a specious narrative to fill time. But, of course, that would deny media barons such as Rupert Murdoch the opportunity to make baseless claims on Twitter, in his newspapers and, of course, on Fox News.
No news ... is our fault
Nature, not to mention news operations, abhor a vacuum and MH370 has been a vacuum. There are no grisly pictures of smoking wreckage and no investigators in blue windbreakers with big, yellow letters crawling over the hulking remains. But more than the less-appealing aspects of news coverage, there's been a vacuum because the plane's black boxes (which aren't actually black) have yet to be recovered. And that raises an issue that the mainstream media haven't: Why are our primary sources of information two last-century devices (the flight-data recorder and a cockpit-voice recorders) that can't be tapped until we find them in a debris field? Because it doesn't want to admit it has no news to report, the media have buried the fact that the airline industry hasn't spent money on modern, real-time methods of staying connected to our aircraft. Or as one aviation consultancy noted, "you can get real-time data from Mars, but not from a 777." And this is no idle carp: It took almost two years to find and recover the black boxes from the Air France 447 crash in the mid-Atlantic. That delayed the final accident report until mid-2012, more than four years after the crash.
The plane truth
At least in the jet era, no plane has gone missing forever. The Boeing 777 that operated as Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 -- or at least some parts of it -- will eventually be found. So will the craft's data boxes. And that's when the actual news begins. Everything else you hear until they find the aircraft is speculation at best and malicious gossip at worst.