Breaking news! Developing story. If you have been following CNN’s unrelenting coverage of the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, you by now have discovered new meanings for those two phrases.
At every “turn” in the investigation of this missing airplane, the information that leads to the reporting of that “turn” proves to be false or inconclusive.
Wreckage was found in the South China Sea — breaking news to be sure (or not). Two passengers on board used stolen passports to purchase their tickets — a developing story (that dissipated instead). And so much more over the past 46 days: The satellite data that suggested the airplane’s left turn away from its intended destination; the radar data that suggested a low-level flight toward the Indian Ocean; the sonar equipment that detected pings coming from what “must be” or “could only be” the plane’s “black box” on the ocean floor. All breaking news for a developing story but none of it leading to a shred of real evidence, as of this writing, to suggest what really happened to the airliner.
Not to make light of the enormous and painful loss being felt by the families and friends of 239 souls now vanished from the face of the earth, but the harsh reality is that the search story has proceeded so long that it has already become a magnet for the conspiracy theories and gallows humor that are prevalent in the information age.
One of my friends with a particularly wry and sometimes bizarre sense of humor wondered if any conspiracy theories should be considered based on an observation he had made of CNN’s coverage. Take note of the vast array of experts who had been summoned to the CNN news panels to provide insight into the disappearance. Then, he said, consider one person who has not yet appeared on any panel (drum roll please): David Copperfield, the magician.
About those panels. With so few people in the search effort being available for interviews, and with those people having so little new information to share, CNN assembled panels of “experts,” or at least people presented as if they are experts, to comment on the latest “breaking news” and offer insights into what it means, or doesn’t mean.
A week or so into the coverage, with real news already a rare commodity, I began to wonder: Could it be that one or more of the CNN panelists were there only to help fill air time between commercials? My candidate was a British panelist named Richard Quest. I never saw CNN list any credentials for him. And every time I tuned in Quest’s primary contribution seemed to be to address “parts of the puzzle” that might — or might not — lead to a solution. With his precise British accent and carefully structured sentences Quest seemed every bit the expert. But could he just be a shill, to keep the commentary moving?
Sounds preposterous. But I have experienced it before. In 1971, the brash, iconoclastic journalism review known as [More] magazine held a “counter-convention” in New York. A college friend of mine and I commuted in from Princeton to attend. One of the panels was on sportswriting and included an odd duck — a young guy who presented himself as a radical sportswriter with a somewhat unfocused agenda about — as I recall — how the sports pages should pay more attention to disabled athletes, among other subjects.
One person in the audience asked a sympathetic question — he turned out to be another college classmate of mine, whom I did not recall having any interest in sports journalism. All the other panelists treated the odd duck with deference — except for tell-it-like-it-is New York Daily News columnist Dick Young, who called the guy out for being totally unrealistic.
After the panel was over my friend and I sought out our classmate, the questioner. What was that all about? It was all a spoof, he said. The odd duck panelist was a friend of his. They had attended some earlier panels, and decided to liven up the tedious dialogue (and perhaps test the limits of political correctness) by concocting a political faction and demanding that they be represented on the panel. The organizers acceded. And the audience bought it.
More than 40 years later, could it be that we have become such knee-jerk consumers of news that we will uncritically watch hour after hour, day after day, week after week of coverage of no real news at all? Could Richard Quest be a total fraud? I googled Quest and discovered that he was trained as a lawyer, became a journalist, and was considered the “business travel” correspondent for CNN. In an amazing coincidence, Quest and his television crew filmed the Flight 370 co-pilot on a training flight in February.
Those are better credentials than some of the panelists, I am sure. But when journalists are interviewing other journalists about a story, you can assume that there is little that is either breaking or developing. And in the case of the continuing Flight 370 coverage, journalists are also interviewing experts who now seem to have no concrete evidence on which to comment. Lots of us apparently are still hanging on their words. The AP has reported that CNN has doubled its viewership in the 25 to 54-year-old demographic.
On April 18, just two days after the tragic capsizing of the South Korean ferry, Princeton-based writer and researcher Edward Tenner posted an op-ed piece on the New York Times website, pointing out three lessons that apply to many of the great disasters of our time: That “few great disasters have one single explanation;” that “organizations may be more to blame for disasters than individuals;” and that “crowds interact unpredictably with technology.”
In making his case, Tenner cited not only the circumstances of some of most horrific tragedies, but also various experts, including a folklorist, sociologist, and practitioners of a relatively new discipline called “evacuation dynamics,” which he described as being at “the intersection of physics, engineering, architecture, and social psychology.”
Back to the CNN panels: We have experts who are — through no fault of their own — clueless. We have journalists who are able to fill wide chasms of time by interviewing other journalists. Maybe we are approaching the time when CNN should expand its own “search zone” for commentators to offer insight on the tragedy of Flight 370.
Politics professors could debate whether national security interests are what led to incomplete data being relayed to searchers, or whether authorities released information to satisfy the hungry news reporters, whose broadcasts then misled some searchers. Historians could take the long view — as Tenner pointed out to me in an E-mail, it took researchers 73 years to discover the remains of the Titanic 12,500 feet below the surface.
Theologians and philosophers could grapple with the effect on the collective human psyche if the plane continues to be missing without a trace. We who believe that science and technology will always — sooner or later — come up with the answer may have second thoughts if an airliner and 239 people can be swallowed up in a twilight zone on our own planet, which we have long believed to be totally “conquered” by explorers, cartographers, and Google Earth.
The widow of one of my Princeton classmates has endowed a series of grants in his memory known as the “David A. Gardner ’69 Magic Project,” in honor of Gardner’s avocation as a sleight-of-hand magician and intended to foster some magical academic moments by encouraging “unusual, even surprising, intellectual endeavors that depart from the status quo.”
The question I ask now is bizarre but no more bizarre than the reality we now face: If David Copperfield were going to make an airplane and all its passengers disappear, how would he do it? Breaking news, coming up next, only on CNN.