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Serious news deserves serious reporting. We, as consumers, deserve reporting that sifts through the basket and separates the wheat from the chaff before they send it out across the globe.
Yesterday CNN started a story with: "Why are so many of the leads not only wrong, but they are false leads? That story coming up on CNN." CNN itself has been reporting all of the wrong and the false leads, minute by minute, for more than a week. There's no filtering and no serious intellectual analysis by reporters before they pass on the latest rumor. They just spasm and send out anything they hear.
My problem is not that they are focusing on what they see as a story at the core of their capability because that is to be expected. And I do not mind at all that they are looking all over for experts. Quite a few of those they ring are obviously both professional and appropriate. My problem is that their reporters and some of their editors are doing so in such an incompetent manner. I mean, seriously, how can they expect to be taken seriously when they do a segment on the "possibility" that the missing flight has a supernatural explanation?
The gap is in the quality of the hosts in the main studios of CNN. I watched Anderson Cooper lead off an interview with a mother of three whose partner was on the missing flight with this brilliant and insightful question: "So how does this make you feel?" Seriously? That's all you have? That is the question you are asking in order to advance our collective understanding about what is going on in this breaking news story?
Yesterday, other reporters expressed amazement that the flight computer could have additional waypoints programmed in while en route from point A to B. Again, seriously? How is it that these anchors do not even know that you can do something like this with the $200 GPS sitting on the dashboard of their cars? CNN also found it amazing that autopilots on aircraft can actually (*gasp*) change the course of an aircraft. How is it, 11 days into this story, that the reporters remain so willfully ignorant about some of the central elements of this story?
Of course, nobody can be an expert in everything. When there is a fast-breaking story on a topic, I can understand and sympathize with news channel hosts as they struggle to make sense of a topic they knew nothing about hours earlier. But that is not the situation here. We are more than a week into the event, heading quickly into a second, and somewhere around day 3 or 4 one would expect that all of the CNN hosts, from Wolf Blitzer to Anderson Cooper, would have spent a little bit of time getting to know the topics of modern aircraft navigation, general airline capabilities and limitations, the history of prior lost aircraft searches, and other simple things like search procedures.
None of that is difficult, and it would only take a few hours. If especially motivated, one could spend the $100 and buy Microsoft's Flight Simulator and a joystick and start learning by doing.
Every second of research would raise intelligent questions for the experts, as well as answer dozens of stupid ones that insult both the guest experts and the audience. For example, at one point yesterday, a host asserted that at 45,000 feet the plane might "fall apart", and at another she asserted that the pilots might try for that altitude to "get more breathable air." These are the sort of things that make me glad that I have no hair, lest I try to tear it out of my scalp.
Then there is the issue of unsubstantiated assertions appearing on-air because the reporter was winging-it at the time. This may be a throwaway to the reporter, but it is damaging because this becomes a new "fact" that will almost never die. Perhaps these statement of rumor may be forgotten by the general public before long, and this is the excuse that the hosts must clutch to as they sooth their hearts. But this inclination to "run" with the latest rumor is the one that does the most long-term damage. (See any 9-11 conspiracy theory.) What most annoys is that this is a long-standing problem with television news, and they know it. But in a recent story asserting that the plane climbed to 45,000 feet and added a new and different waypoint into the computer 12 minutes before sign-off, CNN is particularly culpable.
All of this was passed to the public without question. WHY would a plane climb to that altitude and what is the reliability of that report? If there was a new waypoint entered, how do you know that, and exactly where was that waypoint? I wanted to scream at the screen, "Don't just assume! Don't just accept every little bit! Ask first and then report to us something which is verified and attributed to a specific source!"
But they never do, which means all of us need to be smarter consumers of the news. Ask the questions of the news hosts that they are not asking of themselves before you believe what they say.