Way Out There: The media’s perpetual plane hysteria


Nate Silver’s New Digs

Way Out There: The Media’s Perpetual Plane Hysteria

Rarely in my career has a story gripped the public like this missing Malaysian plane—and rarely have the media missed the mark so badly.

The ill-fated Flight 370 is one of those sagas that literally has everyone talking: relatives, colleagues, tweeters, the women in the makeup room. Everyone is puzzled by the bizarre mystery, and everyone has theories.

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    The same is true of anchors, correspondents, pundits and guest experts—but when they utter those theories in front of the cameras, they are veering seriously off course.

    It’s hard to remember now, but the O.J. trial, aired gavel to gavel by CNN, had the country debating not just the Juice but Marcia Clark and Johnnie Cochran and Kato Kaelin—and blacks and whites viewed the trial very differently.

    The Monica Lewinsky scandal consumed the media for more than a year—to the point that it created a backlash for Bill Clinton—while everyone talked about Monica and Linda Tripp and Ken Starr and the blue dress.

    And, of course, 9/11 fundamentally changed our country and ushered in an era of media seriousness that lasted many months until a sense of normalcy returned.

    The Malaysian plane carries echoes of that horrible day when planes were used as weapons. But even now, after the news about the transponders and after the pilots’ homes were searched, we know very little about what happened.

    And that is a combustible mixture when it comes to 24-hour cable news.

    There has been speculation, some of it reckless, on every network—perhaps more of it on CNN, which has essentially gone wall to wall with the story. CNN is well-equipped to cover such a fast-moving international story, but filling all that airtime—which has been rewarded by a ratings bump—leaves more time for missteps.

    My list of false alarms has grown long indeed. A possible aircraft tail in the Sea of Thailand! Oil slicks off the coast of Vietnam! Lithium batteries in the cargo (CNN was pushing that one for awhile).

    And who can forget the initial frenzy over two of the passengers having forged passports? Or the Fox commentator who says the plane may have landed in Pakistan.

    Even when television types rein in their own speculation, they often shift to the speculation of U.S. officials, who themselves are trying to piece together this puzzle (and who, we learned in Iraq, don’t always have a slam-dunk case).

    Or, in the case of CNN’s Don Lemon, who wondered aloud whether something “supernatural” took place, something “beyond our understanding.”

    Even now, with strong circumstantial evidence that the plane was deliberately steered off course, there is so much we don’t know. And yet the airwaves are filled with talk about whether the plane landed in Pakistan and other scenarios, when it could be at the bottom of the Indian Ocean. Or not.

    These are all questions that should be raised and pursued—in the newsroom. There’s just been too much loose talk on the air.

    At the same time, beat reporters for the Wall Street Journal and New York Times have done some very good work in uncovering some of the clues to what happened.

    In short, the disappearing plane has shown the media at their best, and also at their worst—a snapshot, perhaps, of today’s news business.

    Nate Silver’s New Digs

    Any lingering doubt that Nate Silver’s 538 blog would just be about sports and politics was dispelled yesterday by this headline: “You Just Had Sex, So How Many Calories Did You Burn?’

    Spoiler alert: Sex provided “only a modest exercise benefit,” burning fewer calories than walking on the treadmill.

    Silver, the data whiz who left the New York Times for ESPN, unveiled the revamped blog, and while there are plenty of numbers, the mix of subjects is packaged quite attractively.

    Yes, there are sports stories: “Baseball’s Most Surprising Seasons, Good and Bad,” and building a better basketball bracket.

    And there is politics as well:

    “From Colorado to Florida, voters are likely to see them as Democrats and Republicans first, and as individual candidates a distant second. In recent years, gubernatorial elections have become increasingly nationalized, to the point where voting patterns in these races bear a striking resemblance to those in presidential races.”

    But what would keep me coming back is the sense of whimsy. Maybe you wouldn’t click on “Toilet Seat Covers: To Use or Not to Use?”, but it’s nice to know someone cares.

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