Trial by Media (again)

Two weeks after vanishing, the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 is still a very troubling mystery. But the US media is not reporting the story as enthusiastically as when it seemed more certain that terrorism was behind it. Aside from a demented Soviet despot preparing to take over Eastern Europe, nothing big has happened to deflect attention from the lost plane story. Since American journalists habitually avoid covering stories that make Obama appear inept (Putin taking Crimea), you’d think they’d devote more time and energy to this strange tragedy. The lack of recent interest is likely due to the fact that they have been unsuccessful in locating a scapegoat thus far, although not for lack of trying.

As we all know, the instinctive knee-jerk reaction to any aviation mishap is to immediately assign blame to terrorism. Naturally the media introduced this breaking news story with the speculation that some terrorist group was most certainly the culprit. But after a couple of days, nobody had come forward to claim responsibility. When was the last time that happened? It never happens. It defeats the purpose of terrorism. Air planes crash innocently pretty frequently in this world. So on the rare occasion that one is destroyed by radical group of psychotic killers, you can be sure that they will let you know that THEY did it – and they won’t wait two weeks to tell you. When the glamour of covering a terrorist act is no longer available, what is the second best option for the media ghouls to pursue?

If you answered “character assassination”, congratulations! You are correct. Since every tragedy is a Hollywood movie for the press, they sometimes have to take liberties when writing their stories. Facts are not as sexy as what can be imagined, in the absence of facts. Because nobody yet has any hard data on what happened, it’s perfectly acceptable to just make something up. And who better to blame than the pilots themselves? Never mind that everyone who knew these men, held them in the highest regard. They had exceptional records of performance and conduct. They were honorable and considerate people… Involved in their communities, and concerned about helping others. This is what we hear from their colleagues, families and neighbors. But the media informs us that one of them owned a flight simulator, which automatically convicts him of mass murder???   Does anyone know if Chesley Sullenberger (the pilot who saved 155 passengers from a doomed flight in 2009) owned a flight simulator? Personally, I would prefer that the pilot flying my plane practice his craft as much as possible.

The press has done this sort of thing on numerous occasions in the past. They dutifully report when law enforcement entities have identified a person as a suspect. But then they will indict that person, try that person, convict that person, and execute that person – in a court of public opinion. In recent memory I can think of a few disturbing cases of ‘trial by media’. Richard Jewell is generally remembered as the guy who got arrested for bombing the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. The only problem is the fact that he was completely innocent. Not only was he not a bomber, but he was actually a hero, saving who knows how many lives – by discovering an unexploded device. Sure the cops wrecked his life, but the press was eager to join in the destruction. The TV news started each program with ugly pictures of this heinous man-beast, and regurgitated irrelevant, intimate details of his personal life.  He was ultimately vindicated of any wrong-doing, but not until after his life was completely destroyed. Likewise, Brandon Mayfield (accused of the Madrid Train Bombings of 2004) and Steven Hatfill (accused of the 2001 “Anthrax Attacks”) were publically assassinated by the press. Feel free to google those names to find out how their lives were torn apart by a media starved for blood.

Journalism serves a hugely essential function in the world. Reporters provide important information to the masses. It is a responsibility that requires the same level of accuracy that a surgeon or a soldier or a pilot would employ in their work (because doing it recklessly results in unnecessary suffering). I don’t doubt that there are members of the journalism community who feel disgusted by the vile and devious reporting that I have described. But I still find it unsettling that there is seldom a retraction or apology furnished for people who have been so badly damaged by irresponsible press coverage. In many ways, the media acts as a fourth branch of government. The press is frighteningly powerful, because they are experts at influencing the minds of people who prefer not to think things through. Uninformed people are the most abundant in society, and indoctrinating or brain-washing them is not all that challenging. If you want to sell them an inferior quality snack, or beverage, or automobile – it’s easy to do. And if you want to have them vote for your candidate, or feel a particular way about a certain topic, they will not resist. And when I say “they” I mean “we”. We are the consumers of this product, and until it harms us on a personal level, we seem untroubled by others who may be harmed by it. In the case of the lost Malaysia Airlines 370, I prefer to hold off on judging anybody until all the facts are in. Let the families grieve, without adding undeserved pain to their already unbearable loss.