Saturday, September 24, 2005

Faux News

In case it was not already available, ironclad proof that 24/7 news has achieved the impossible came with coverage of JetBlue Flight 292.

What would that impossible thing be?

A self generating perpetual vacuum. A space completely devoid of anything remotely approaching factual content.

For those of you in the viewing audience lucky enough to avoid exposure to such a dangerous vacuum, a little background is in order.

Flight 292, an Airbus A-320 with 145 people on board, originating out of Burbank, CA, suffered a nose gear steering failure, which resulted in the nose gear wheels being cocked completely -- and irrevocably -- sideways. The crew made a low pass by the tower to confirm the problem, then orbited near LAX to burn down fuel.

Fox News, slavishly following the dictum "if it bleeds, it leads," lept into turbo-bloviation mode, spewing forth vacuous speculation and parading a series of experts (a term which, in Fox News speak, apparently means anyone who might, but not necessarily, have any knowledge about anything whatsoever) injecting their own load of fragrant, steaming, hysterical, nonsense.

Distilled, this is what that load of nonsense amounted to: This is bad. It is really, really, bad. The nose gear will collapse. The nose gear will get torn from the airplane. The nose gear might cause the airplane to veer off the runway and cause bad, really, really, bad things to happen.

Now all that badness is bad enough, but this particular aircraft has an on board entertainment system allowing the passengers to watch this coverage of which they are a part. According to an AP story the next day, some passengers were horrified:

"It was absolutely terrifying, actually." [One passenger, on hearing] worst-case scenarios from the TV News reports, started taking swigs from another passenger's vodka tonic.

"They were telling us there could be a crash landing, the gear could be torn off, there could be a fire. The gravity of the situation was much worse than any of us assumed."
Well, no.

Had Fox News bothered to talk to a pilot this is what they would have heard: On landing, when the nose gear touches down, the tires will skid. Then, very quickly, they will fail. There will be smoke from the tires, and sparks from the wheels. The landing will, absent these visuals, be completely normal in every respect. So much so, in fact, that the passengers would not, if they hadn't already been told, notice anything out of the ordinary.

Of course, while being a completely accurate depiction of the upcoming events, this suffers the rather severe shortcoming of filling that entire hour long fact-vacuum in roughly 15 hysteria-killing seconds. (Interestingly, a TV Executive on board, without a hint of irony, appreciated getting to see the TV coverage on board, because it "offered more facts.")

That the 24/7 news cycle is often torturously repetitive and often nearly content free is nothing new. But in this case, the news coverage was feeding back into the event which it was covering, directly countering the efforts of the crew to avoid causing the passengers unnecessary distress.

Think any of this occurred to the Powers That Be at Fox News?


Blogger Oroborous said...

Well, it did make for spectacular footage upon landing, what with the shower of sparks and all.

Besides, to a non-expert, it's difficult to tell what's serious, and what's not.

The Concorde that exploded after takeoff in 2000 was apparently done in by a pretty innocuous piece of debris - I was amazed by the enormous effect of such a small cause.

turbo-bloviation mode

That's a nice turn of a phrase. Is it original to you ?

[I]n this case, the news coverage was feeding back into the event which it was covering...
Think any of this occurred to the Powers That Be at Fox News?

Not to be a killjoy, but IMO they shouldn't have to concern themselves with that dynamic, at least in situations like this.

If the crew thought that it was a problem, they should just turn off the TVs.

Many, many people being covered by television news will also be WATCHING television news.
To be too concerned about the impact of such would constrict what could be covered by television news orgs.

The situations that should cause TV news to be circumspect are any in which providing information could directly lead to death or injury, such as troop movements or tactics, or police operations during an ongoing crime or crime spree.

Unfortunately, it's certainly true that not everyone is as cautious as they should be about the above, but, a few bad apples, etc.

September 24, 2005 2:57 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

I agree with Skipper. I saw some of the coverage, and I found it alarmist and lacking in any informed content. Shepard Smith on Fox was giving commentary on a video feed that he had no information on. He didn't know where the plane was or what altitude, he at one point thought that it was making an approach to the Burbank airport while it was in fact circling high over Long Beach.

The problem with turning off the news feed is that it would tend to make the passengers paranoid about what was really going on and would probably cause more panic than otherwise. The pilot should have announced to the passengers that the landing would not be overly difficult. Of course he probably had no idea what was being said on the TV.

This is another effect of the communications revolution that airlines will need to come to grips with. This doesn't excuse the news services from their shoddy and sensationalized reporting.

September 25, 2005 7:03 AM  
Blogger David said...

All I saw was the footage after the fact, and I have to agree with Oroborous: It was pretty cool.

September 26, 2005 8:25 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


With regard to Concorde, nearly all accidents are the result of a chain of events, some of them very minor.

A small strip of metal on the runway apparently caused the Concorde's tire to fail when the aircraft was going about 170 mph. The result was chunks of tire with significant kinetic energy (decent amount of both mass and V^2) getting hurled into the bottom of the left wing fuel tank, which is exposed when the gear is down.

When these chunks hit the bottom of the full fuel tank, they caused an intense shock wave to propagate through the tank (think tsunami); additionally, deformation caused a reduction in the tank's volume. Since fluid is effectively incompressible, the tank did the only thing it could do -- rupture.

Hence the ensuing conflagration.

So far as I know, I made up the phrase "turbo-bloviation mode." But I emphasize the caveat.

Fox knew their coverage was possibly feeding back into the event -- the ONLY correct element of their reporting was the existence of the entertainment system on the airplane. That is no reason to stop coverage, but it certainly is reason to ensure the coverage they present is at least glancingly factual.

I don't know why the crew didn't turn off the TV system. Back when my airline had inflight phones, once the initial steps of handling an emergency were accomplished, the phones got cut off.

My gripe isn't the existence of coverage, but the complete absence of factual content.

The whole concept of "news" is to convey, or at least attempt to do so, a narrative that bears at least some objective resemblance to reality.

Here they completely failed -- in coverage that extended well beyond the 20 minutes or so I spent watching, they didn't once talk to anyone with any expertise whatsoever, but they were happy to spew the hysteria of those who were manifestly incompetent in this subject area.

They knew their coverage would likely be available to the passengers. They made no effort to consult anyone with subject matter expertise. They emphasized the hysterical.

In other words, they failed in every conceivable way, and spent a great deal of time doing it.

And just like the thousands of corpses that weren't in New Orleans, you could just about hear the air sucked out of the studio when absolutely nothing, save some interesting visuals, happened.

September 27, 2005 5:24 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


After writing this post, I thought I'd get clever and insert a frame grab from the landing.

There is an icon that purports to do such a thing, but apparently despite trying to be clever, I wasn't clever enough.

Do you know how to make that work?

September 27, 2005 5:25 AM  

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