Flight 370: the Question Becomes the Answer

Flight 370

Flight 370 has undergone a metamorphosis from news story to conspiracy obsession. As in many other cases of media-fueled speculation, however, the question becomes the answer as reporters look for stories where none really exist.

The conspiracy-obsessed media has been criticized – by other media outlets – for spending so much time speculating on the fate of MH370. On MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” news program, co-anchor Mika Brzezinski has mocked CNN’s “in-depth” coverage of the search for Flight 370. On the Comedy Channel, Jon Stewart has made fun of CNN for covering its own coverage of the story by interviewing the hapless producer who has been stuck in a flight simulator since the search began, demonstrating how the real searchers are searching for the missing aircraft.

The answer to why the media is covering what has become a non-event is begged by the question. The news media are continuing to cover the search – which is a real event – because the search continues despite the obvious fact that the passengers and crew of the ill-fated airliner are most probably dead by now. If they were not dead, they would have phoned home by now. Continuing implications that the passengers may be alive and held as hostages does a terrible disservice to the bereaved families. If they were being held hostage, ransom demands would have been made by now.

If Flight 370 had ditched at sea successfully, life rafts would have been deployed in the water, and those life rafts would have been easily visible because they are equipped with radio and visual beacons to attract rescue teams. If the plane crashed somewhere on dry land, searchers would have found the wreckage by now, because plane wreckage burns ferociously on dry land.

The real question is not why the media is covering the non-event of a futile search so much as it is why the search itself still continues. One answer is that there is no way to call off the search, which is being conducted simultaneously by several different nations, each with its own agenda. Implicit in those agendas is the fear that the missing aircraft might appear again over a major metropolitan city filled with explosives and heading toward some prominent building.

Covert operatives have been mumbling things about the possibility that the “fly by wire” aircraft may have been taken over from the ground. These speculations suggest that the remote hijackers may have used a cell phone connection to the aircraft, to take over the plane, and increase the aircraft’s altitude to 45,000 feet long enough to kill everyone on the aircraft before flying it elsewhere. That theory does not, however, explain why the pilots on board the aircraft failed to shut off the automatic pilot through which it may be possible to control the aircraft from the ground before passing out due to oxygen deprivation.

Concerns about security gaps that enabled hijackers to take over the aircraft may be the real reason that the search continues to occupy so many people, and why the media remains fascinated by what has become a non-event.

The definition of news requires that something has happened, and not finding a missing aircraft after weeks of searching no longer qualifies as news because nothing has changed. Sometimes, the news makes the media. In other words, as with Flight 370, sometimes the question is the answer. That happened in 1979 when the Iranian Hostage Crisis spawned ABC’s Nightline program, grabbing market share from the otherwise invincible Johnny Carson Show and making Howdy-Doody look-alike Ted Koppel as familiar a figure as Carson himself. This happened again during the Persian Gulf War, in 1991, when CNN’s live coverage from Baghdad became a focal point for world-wide media coverage as the rest of the media covered CNN’s coverage, putting the struggling news network on the map.

Sometimes, however, the media itself makes the news. The Civil War, inevitable as it was, happened when it happened largely due to the constant barrage of abolitionist propaganda from Republican news outlets, which helped push the South toward secession after Abraham Lincoln’s election.

Thirty-eight years later, newspaper tycoons Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst used their podiums as newspaper editors and publishers to push the United States into a war with Spain in 1898 on the trumped-up charges that Spanish agents planted the bombs that blew up the U.S.S. Maine in Havana harbor. Contemporary conspiracy theories claimed the Navy had blown up its own ship.

During World War I, isolationist sentiments in the media keep the United States out of the Great War from 1914 to 1917, when German U-Boat attacks on American merchant ships forced Woodrow Wilson into asking for a declaration of war against Germany.

During the early years of the Cold War with the U.S.S.R., the American news media was complicit with the ongoing “witch hunt” led by Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy to find “communists and fifth columnists” inside the U.S. Government, in the film industry, the broadcasting industry and the news media itself. McCarthy’s reign of terror continued until CBS News, in what was almost certainly the network’s finest hour, aired a series of reports by legendary reporter Edward R. Murrow debunking McCarthy’s claims.

On February 27, 1968, CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite announced his opposition to the War in Vietnam in an on-air editorial that resulted in President Lyndon Johnson’s decision not to seek re-election. This caused the unintended consequence of putting Richard Nixon into the White House, extending the war for several more years. Thirty-five years later, American news media colluded with the Bush administration in a conspiracy of silence, never airing reports claiming that Iraq possession of weapons of mass destruction were speculations at best and fabrications at worst.

In 1964, Marshall McLuhan wrote that “the media is the message,” and that’s exactly what has happened with Flight 370: the question became the answer. McLuhan’s thesis was that form trumps content, images overwhelm text, and reality becomes what “reputable sources” say it is. Point taken?

Commentary by Alan M. Milner
Follow me on Twitter @alanmilner

The Week
US News 

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