Monday, January 05, 2015

Flights of Insanity: The Media and Missing Jetliners

The Pilot Newspaper: Opinion

What is it about missing jetliners that causes media outlets to completely lose their minds? (I mean, even more than usual.)
You may remember what happened after the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in March of last year. Bafflement about what had happened to the unfortunate aircraft quickly gave way to the type of crack-brained speculation you’d expect from a barefoot bearded guy raving on a street corner in a dirty pajama bottom and a stained Army surplus jacket.
Our old friends at Fox News, for example, trotted out one crazy theorist after another. They had a retired lieutenant general who came on and said he was “certain” the plane had been hijacked and secretly taken to Pakistan.
They had Erik Rush of WorldNet Daily, who appeared on Fox and claimed to have a source who told him that the U.S. (on President Obama’s orders, of course) took control of the plane via remote control of the “fly-by-wire” system, then diverted it to the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia. There, software engineers who were preparing to defect to China with sensitive computer data were taken away, and everyone else on the flight was murdered to cover up the plot.
The one who really led the charge over the Cliffs of Insanity, however, was CNN’s Don Lemon, whose commentary on the disappearance of Flight MH370 earned him a spot on the Columbia Journalism Review’s “Worst of 2014” list.
Lemon got the ball rolling when he began openly wondering if there was a “supernatural” explanation for the plane’s disappearance. “Why aren’t you talking about the possibility,” he demanded, “that something odd happened to this plane, something beyond our understanding?”
What cemented his place in last year’s Hall of Shame, however, was the moment when he suggested, in front of a panel of guests, that the plane might have been sucked into a black hole in the sky. “I know it’s preposterous,” Lemon said, “but is it really preposterous?”

Yes, Don. Yes, it is. I hear that Stephen Hawking is working on designing a mechanical arm so he can whop you upside the head with it.
Now, with the disappearance of AirAsia Flight QZ8501, it appears as if the same silly circus is beginning again. Fox News host Anna Kooiman asked if maybe the plane crashed because of “differently trained” pilots using the metric system. “It’s not just a difference in the way that we measure things?” she asked. “Is it not as safe in that part of the world? Because our viewers may be thinking, ‘International travel, is it safe? Is it not safe?’”
Over on CNN, “aviation expert” Mary Schiavo attempted to assure us that it couldn’t be a terrorist attack because “most terrorist activity takes place in good weather.”
Meanwhile on Twitter, CNN viewers have been begging the network for “less crazy this time.” Well, we can hope, I suppose, especially now that they may have started finding actual debris and bodies from the terrible crash.
Part of the problem, as always, can be laid at the feet of the 24-hour news cycle, which constantly demands new material to view, read or download. Certainly there’s a powerful temptation to feed that ravenous beast with anything near to hand, even if it’s garbage.
In addition, as people like Harvard Law professor Cass Sunstein (author of the book “Conspiracy Theories and Other Dangerous Ideas”) have pointed out, inconsistent information from “official” sources contributes to an environment of uncertainty. That kind of uncertainty provides fertile ground for the wildest conspiracy theorists.
That’s a reasonable explanation for the behavior of the paranoid fringe, wrapping their tinfoil hats on tighter as they hammer away on their keyboards to blog about their latest demented fantasy. But when it comes to supposedly “legitimate” news sources (and, for the moment, I’ll include Fox in that category) — well, to paraphrase one of my favorite lines from one of my favorite movies, it’s not their job to be as freaked out as we are.
Certainly it’s the responsibility of governments involved in a mass disappearance or other disaster to provide accurate information in a timely fashion. But in the event that they don’t, it’s equally the responsibility of news organizations not to fill the void with ridiculous speculation and wild theories that would embarrass a writer of ’30s pulp novels.
Like it or not, the news media help shape public perception and opinion, and that gives them a responsibility beyond just filling air time with nonsense. Someone needs to act like the grownup here.


Rob Cornell said...

I can just imagine the comments you're getting over on the Pilot website. Alas, those juicy bits are hidden behind a pay wall.

But tell me: How many are calling you an Obama apologist for not taking the defection to China theory seriously? :)

JD Rhoades said...

Actually, Rob, reaction has been somewhat subdued. It always confuses them when hatin' on me means supporting something else they hate, such as CNN. I'm sort of surprised that I don't get the usual knee-jerk adoration of Faux News, though.

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