Weekly Column: People who work in the media are deeply divided into two factions right now: those who think TV news operations have lost their minds with their coverage of the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, and those believe there’s no such thing as too much when it comes to this Practically Perfect TV News Story that has held viewers spellbound for nearly two weeks and potentially launched a few new TV careers, despite a pesky lack of actual information. And while few things in this world are more painful than the realization that an estrangement has occurred between colleagues who for years have jogged along through life sharing the same views on the relative importance of TV news, the uselessness of overnight ratings, the urgency of attracting millennials (or at least viewers under 50) and how great House Of Cards is, the divide has been interesting to watch play out.
In the interest of accuracy, viewers actually have learned a lot watching coverage of the missing plane story. They now have useful information about the relative ease of boarding an international flight in Malaysia with a stolen passport, which may inform future vacation-making plans. Better still, they’ve learned where Malaysia is on a map, its proximity to Australia, and the depth of the Indian Ocean. They know how much they could get on the open market for a used Boeing 777. Security experts have told them they’re not alone in suspecting that a steward armed with an aisle-blocking beverage cart is not a terribly effective way to thwart a would-be plane hijacker during a pilot potty break. They now know what a “C block” is in the TV news biz thanks to Fox News star Megyn Kelly, who joked to NYT reporter Michael Schmidt, “Way to hold it right until the C block, Michael!” the other night when he was her guest — but waited to give her his scoop (that its first path-diverting turn was done by a computer system programmed in the cockpit) until later in her program so it would first break on his paper’s website.
Viewers love this story because it’s jammed with mystery, and pathos, and taps into their fear of flying — like Lost. So many had suggested it resembled the setup of the ABC serialized hit that a plan to screen the pilot during last weekend’s 10-year reunion panel at PaleyFest was scrubbed, out of consideration for the families of the missing passengers and crew. Last Sunday, CNN’s Don Lemon wondered, “Especially today, on a day when we deal with the supernatural — we go to church, the supernatural power of God…people are saying to me, ‘Why aren’t you talking about the possibility — and I’m just putting it out there — that something odd happened to this plane, something beyond our understanding?’ ”
Lemon, who’s among those trying out for Piers Morgan’s CNN time slot when Morgan vacates at the end of this month, may have found a show format a few days later, when he served up viewers’ tweeted-in questions about the missing plane and the investigation to his panel of aviation and security experts. Likewise, another candidate for Morgan’s slot, Bill Weir, got the best possible launch as Morgan’s fill-in this week in the thick of his network’s wall-to-wall missing-plane coverage.
Media critics who, in moments of mental stress, are apt to spray the blame a good deal, have blasted news outlets’ handling of the story, making for some strange bedfellows — Salon, Vice, and Rush Limbaugh, for instance. Salon lambasted the coverage for “gawking at a foreign disaster” without a local’s understanding of Malaysian politics or culture; it was written by a native of that country. Limbaugh, meanwhile, slammed the coverage as “such a show, ” before deftly getting back on-point by comparing it to coverage of President Obama’s approval rating. And Vice co-founder Shane Smith told the New York Daily News the other day that CNN — which has led the charge into the coverage and been rewarded with news demo ratings spikes that, in some time slots, put it in spitting distance of, and sometimes even ahead of, perennial frontrunner Fox News — “is a disaster” that’s “spiraling into sh*t” because “everything they do is a f***ing disaster.” But we think Smith was speaking more figuratively than relatively, to borrow from Betty Grable.
Fox News’ MediaBuzz host Howard Kurtz, who wrote recently about the media’s “perpetual plane hysteria,” pointed his finger in particular at former employer CNN, noting that rarely in his career has a story gripped the public as has this one, and rarely have the media missed the mark so badly, when their correspondents, pundits, anchors and guest experts begin vamping on camera with their theories.
In the other camp, CNN’s Anderson Cooper who, basking in his first-ever three-night run ahead of Bill O’Reilly’s show in the news demo (a streak that has since been ended), admitted to Seth Meyers on NBC’s Late Night, “I gotta say, I’m totally obsessed with it…It’s one of those stories you just can’t figure out what has gone on. Every day there’s something new.” Noting “it’s a horrific tragedy for the families involved and anybody who flies,” Cooper said he’s started hearing from people with whom he has not communicated in 15 years, “who are suddenly texting me random theories…with links to obscure websites….People are really obsessed with it. And it’s a fascinating, horrible story,” Cooper said, adding, “This has not happened — ever.”