Lost and Clueless: CNN in the Unfriendly Skies

montage of CNN and missing jetliner

Lost and Clueless: CNN in the Unfriendly Skies
| Published Saturday, March 15, 2014 |

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

The week of March 9-15 (Sunday through Saturday) was a very busy news week, by any standard or measure.

There was the Ukrainian crisis—still roiling—a tense, dangerous military standoff with the chilling possibility of a shooting war between Russian troops, and Ukrainian troops aligned with the pro-western forces in Kiev; not to mention serious economic implications for almost all of Europe if oil and gas supplies are disrupted as a result of war. Crimea may hold elections this weekend to decide on a proposal to break away from the Ukraine, and Russian troops may be even now only hours away from a full-scale invasion.

There was the horrifying case of that mid-rise apartment building in Harlem which collapsed in flames after a gas main exploded, an urban catastrophe which may be one of many recent indications of critical infrastructure problems for many American cities.

There was the growing and dismal specter of humanitarian crisis in Syria, where hundreds of thousands have already died—many of them children and young adults—and where many thousands more have fled, in some cases on foot, into neighboring countries in search of refuge from a brutal civil war now in its fourth year.

That would have kept the news departments of any news organization busy enough, but there was still more: issues surrounding Obamacare and more concerns that millions would miss the looming March 31 deadline for registration; monumental political struggles over deep cuts to the U.S. military at the very moment when several international crisis seem on the brink of conflagration; complex and tricky negotiations between the U.S. and Iran over nuclear weapons programs; a major lawsuit by the FDIC against a dozen U.S. banks; the murder trial of South African Olympic gold medalist Oscar Pistorius; and the widening scandal at General Motors—a case in which GM executives may have deliberately avoided making a simple correction to a design defect, with the result that scores died needlessly over the last ten years.

And, there was that U.S. Airways jetliner with the blown tire skidding off the runway at the airport in Philadelphia.

The major news networks and major news outlets—CBS, NBC, BBC, ABC, Fox News, MSNBC, Reuters, Bloomberg, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times—had a difficult time knowing which way to turn the attention of their best correspondents and reporters.

But for the team at CNN, there was little struggle at all. CNN rendered the decision-making simple: they turned almost all their attention to the missing Malaysian airliner—this, despite a profound lack of actual news regarding that airplane.

A week ago, Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 took off from the airport at Kuala Lumpur. The flight proceeded as normal, with no surprises or glitches, until, at some point in the South China Sea as it approached the radar reach of Vietnam, it vanished. A massive hunt for the plane—or debris—now includes 20 nations, hundreds of aircraft, over a hundred ships, and even U.S. Navy destroyers and carriers. In the days that followed the aircraft's disappearance, dozens of major clues (and hundreds of smaller leads) have largely proven to be blind alleys for those frantically searching for…anything…wreckage, floating debris, electronic equipment, the cockpit data recorder (the “black box”), patterns among scores of radar data, objects in satellite images, even—a few might hope—an intact airliner parked on some remote airfield.

The mystery has deepened as each day passes and as each new lead, promising over the few hours of its lifespan, eventually proves to be a false alarm. Such was the case of those grainy satellite photos of floating material made available by the Chinese. Such was the case of the oil rig worker who claimed to have seen an airliner breaking up and disintegrating off the coast of Indonesia. And so on.

Terrorism was counted as a possible explanation. Then, well, no: we were told that terror was not a factor. Then, a day later: terror could not be ruled out.

But then neither could equipment failure, hijacking, human trafficking, kidnapping and ransom, piracy, sabotage, explosive cargo, bird strike or collision with small plane, accidental shooting, psychological episode by pilot or flight crew, electrical short-circuit and fire, even—we have now been told—the completely surreal possibility that the plane may have landed somewhere, engines still purring while the electronic systems ping their routine messages now collated by satellites and data systems. The search area now may include vast tracts of central Asia, and thousands of miles of Indian Ocean as far south as Antarctica.

In other words: the talking heads on most of the major news services have no idea. The tabloids and (…how to put this delicately…) fringe news websites and non-traditional news services have already begun the slow, inevitable descent into the realm of crop circles and sea serpents under Scottish lochs: alien abduction theories have made the rounds, as have a variety of religious scenarios that seem like chapters from the novels of Tim Lahaye. Conspiracy theories now abound: one is that the jetliner was shot down by the Chinese military; or downed by wealthy Chinese businessmen as retribution against certain Chinese executives aboard that flight. Other theories are so absurd they cross into sci-fi, such as the one that says the passengers were kidnapped to be used in biological/virus experiments at a secret facility deep under the ice of Antarctica. Think X- Files, the movie.

The complete lack of information necessarily fuels such wild speculation.

But CNN is undaunted, and apparently unfazed. By mid–week, complaints began to circulate widely in the mainstream press and those who analyze journalism: CNN was getting obsessed. Huffington Post reported that analysis of CNN’s news coverage of the missing jetliner was crowding out other stories. Some industrious folks had measured content, and their data indicated that CNN was placing 95% of its news airtime—minus commercials and “bumpers”—into the Malaysia Flight 370 story.

Intrigued, we decided to do a little gumshoe work ourselves—not into trying to find that missing Boeing 777 (which we believe will be found somewhere west of Honolulu, USA, but east of Bombay, India)—but into CNN’s newfound love affair with the case of the vanishing airplane.

We expected it to be obsessive. We were wrong. CNN’s enthusiasm is single-minded, insipid, and even, some could argue, journalistically irresponsible. CNN is enamored with that missing plane.

Our analysis: it was much worse than we expected.

Starting at 9:00 a.m. Eastern Time Friday (that would be 8:00 a.m. in the time zone where I live), we monitored CNN’s content off and on all day. In that first sixty minutes, here’s what we found.

At nine, viewers watched as CNN rolled into the top of the news hour. Carol Costello wasted no time, and she quickly summed up what we know: nothing. She transitioned us to Richard Quest, poised in New York City (nowhere near the Pacific, we point out), and for the next several minutes we listened intently as he bellowed through histrionic non-details about things we don’t yet know and facts not available to anyone. His conclusion: we just don’t know. Costello then brought in the traditional multi-screen talking head format. Tom Fuentes, a law enforcement analyst, loomed in one window, while Bob Francis, an entirely likeable fellow (who happens to be the former vice chairman of the NTSB) bobbled about in the right-hand screen.

Costello lobbed more questions that began with phrases like “how is it possible?” and “tell us what we know.” Fuentes and Francis did an admirable job of explaining that since we don’t know anything, they too, can only speculate. For the next few minutes all three engaged in speculation, based on nothing new—not even tasty rumors. “Let’s talk about what we know, and then, what we don’t know.” The conversation went in one, long circle.

Then, to add color and context, we went over to Tom Foreman. He, too, is a likeable and agreeable sort of reporter. Except when there is nothing to report. Foreman stood in a green screen space with giant maps underfoot—strangely illegible in spite of their vast size—and proceeded to show us a flight path on the floor which managed to crash the plane into the studio wall, twice. Now, he said, we learn it is possible that the plane flew west into the Indian Ocean for hours (at which point the studio camera widens and we see what appears to be a small hallway exit to the bathrooms).

The studio floor space is either not wide enough for his theatrics, or someone in charge of graphics in the control room can’t seem to find a better, more comfortably proportioned map. Thank God we finally see the edge of India or we would have panned all the way into the CNN snack room and vending machines. Geography lesson muddled, but complete.

Costello then intimated that it was break time, but before the commercials, she teased us with a look inside a flight simulator in Mississauga, Ontario, where CNN’s own Martin Savidge was standing-by (sitting, actually), and prepared to tell exactly what would have been happening in the cockpit of the missing airliner.

Break time. It is now 9:23 a.m.

Back from break at about 9:26. Costello takes us to Martin Savidge inside that expansive simulator. This time, we are relieved that we will learn something. Plus, it’s cool-looking: lots of pretty green lights, and a few red ones. We learn that it is very easy to disable the transponder in a 777: this after a week of telling us that it is akin to brain surgery. Savidge turns a knob on the center console, a knob exactly like the ON OFF switch on the radio in the 1988 Pontiac Grand Prix I drove in college.  A couple of clicks to the left and the transponder is now off.

Savidge also shows us how to punch in a signal on a small keypad that will alert air traffic controllers—just about everywhere—that the flight deck is under the control of someone unauthorized. Paradoxically, that maneuver is harder to perform and seems kind of deliberate. It’s like watching someone struggle with the buttons on an ATM machine. (“Excuse me, Mr. Cockpit Intruder, but let me punch in some non-random numbers here on this little keypad that looks like a security keypad!”)

This part of the CNN hour is actually illuminating to me, and I feel I have learned something. But time is running short. CNN has nothing to report and the whole day in which to report it. Costello takes us to Pamela Brown (no connection to the Pamela Brown who writes for Thursday Review), CNN Justice Department correspondent. More discussion, more conjecture. “Well, there is just so much we don’t know!” The conjecture borders on “blind” conjecture. Break time. It is now 9:39 a.m.

At 9:42 we return, and I am thinking that surely, surely, CNN can’t possibly sustain this for the entire hour. It goes on. Costello takes us to Barbara Starr, a highly competent Pentagon correspondent who has a track record of breaking great defense department and security stories. She has nothing, save for the same speculation that everyone else has already recycled for the previous 42 minutes. Still, she makes a game attempt to provide something.

At 9:44 another break, then, at 9:47, back to Carol Costello. This time she brings in Michael Brown, a former Under Secretary of Homeland Security. He is in a TV studio in Denver, and for several more minutes he and Costello trade theories and conjecture. “We just don’t have enough information.” On it goes. Another break, another return to the studio. More conjecture.

At 9:56 Costello says there is other news, and for the next 65 seconds she breezes through a rapid-fire run-down: that plane on the runway in Philadelphia with the blown tire; freezing temps and harsh, snowy weather in the Northeast; Wall Street concerns over the crisis in the Ukraine. Each vignette takes about 20 seconds.

Another commercial break at the approach to the top of the hour, and then, at 10:00 a.m., we are back at it.

Costello begins by repeating much the same news. She brings in Tom Foreman again, and he again walks around over a map of the southern Pacific and Southeast Asia, and this time the political borders look as if they were drawn with magic markers. For the second time the computer generated plane on the floor nearly collides with the green screen wall, and again he points out into the Indian Ocean on the floor. At 10:04, Richard Quest is back, and this time he is shouting louder than he was in the previous hour. He’s had too much coffee. At 10:07, Costello introduces Captain Sean Cassidy, a V.P. with the Airline Pilots’ Association; then, some back and forth with Quest. There is lots of agreement between Quest and Cassidy: we just don’t have enough information; there are more questions than answers.

At 10:10 we go to David Gallo at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts. By Skype he tells us “we just don’t have enough information.” He and Costello speculate anyway. After six more minutes, Costello dismisses Gallo, and we go back to Martin Savidge in that flight simulator where, we are told, we will get to relive those moments right before the plane disappeared from radar.

On it went—a more-or-less continuous cycle of speculation, conjecture, and random guesswork. We just don’t have enough information. There are so many unanswered questions. We’ve been lead down so many blind alleys. On and on.

Our plan at Thursday Review had been to monitor CNN for 90 minutes, at the most two hours. But now it had become fascinating to me--I am obsessed with their obsession. They adore this mystery.

At noon, and again at 1:00 p.m., the cycles began again, and repeated the same processes. The only small variables were slightly larger or slightly smaller search radiuses on those big maps, and a few new talking heads to replace the ones who left for lunch. By 1:15 p.m., Wolf Blitzer, now fully in charge of CNN’s main studio, was asking the same leading questions that Costello had asked four hours earlier. And by 1:56, when it was time to go again to the top of the hour break, we had again cycled through the exact same sequence of guesswork and speculation.

The process continued from 2:00 to 3:00, almost entirely unchanged save for a gradual shift in the types of commercials as the afternoon demographics shaped the ad content.

At 3:38 p.m. I left the TV to work at my computer, and when I returned at 4:00 p.m. the same cycle was starting afresh. I moved my laptop to the room with the TV, expecting a break of some kind to other news. There was none. Again at 5:00 we began the process, but this time with only the tiniest shreds of new information. For example, around 5:10 p.m., CNN was able to report that there was now greater search effort by the U.S. and others in the Indian Ocean that had been reported six hours earlier. The search area might have to be widened once again to include the ocean west of the Andaman Islands and well into the Bay of Bengal, and that there may be an effort to look further south as well. Also, there were a few new quotes from the Malaysian authorities, but nothing beyond the fact that nothing was being ruled out.

In other words, all options and scenarios were still on the table. There is just so much we don’t know. And so forth.

By evening, the baton was being passed from one A-list anchor to the next. Anderson Cooper carried the cycle for an hour, then, Piers Morgan for another stretch. Same questions, same speculative answers, same blind conjecture. By 9:00 p.m., CNN had repeated the same cycle of activity, through dozens of experts and analysts, and another dozen of its own reporters, with virtually no forward movement for 12 solid hours.

"This just in." "CNN breaking news." “Barbara, what are you hearing at the Pentagon?”

By the time I sat down to eat my supper at 9:05, CNN had spent roughly 95% of its non-commercial airtime on the same story, with only a tiny handful of "other news" headlines, each of which would last only 15 or 20 seconds.

What makes that number more shocking is that there was nothing new to report in those 12 or 13 hours of continuous news coverage on the one subject, that of the missing jetliner. No new or genuinely useful developments entered into the story.

Another two hours of monitoring CNN on Saturday produced a marginally more diverse result. There were some items about the GM recall and the potential for massive legal action against the automaker. CNN has been consistently late to this story, and its tardiness showed on Saturday as they reported much of the same information already presented by CBS and NBC days earlier, and as they began interviewing some of the same key players whose faces we first saw on Monday and Tuesday on other networks. Then, the news cycle from 12 noon to 1:00 produced three quarters of an hour of discussion about the missing jet, and what was left was given over to a loose patchwork of GM, weather and sports. Then, at 1:00, the cycle began afresh. More speculation, more guesswork, more interviews with people who said things like “we just don’t have enough information…”

Nearly every bureau had been employed. Even Nick Robertson, CNN’s man in Jerusalem, was brought in for a bit of feedback on Saturday, again shedding very little new light on an already dim set of circumstances. Clearly, the missing plane has been seen nowhere over the skies of Israel.

CNN’s outright obsession with the missing 777—when viewed in the context of our content analysis—seems wildly distorted, and certainly out of proportion when compared to the thin, sometimes scant, new data from their “sources.”

But CNN’s near-total absorption in the mystery may reveal a demographic pattern which has long been at the heart of the sometimes bitter ratings wars between Fox News and CNN. Fox News, not-so-secretly regarding its niche as predominantly “American” in its focus (never mind that it is owned by an Australian), has been largely successful in portraying CNN as the “liberal” cable news source. And, by liberal, some Fox loyalists can easily make the short jump to “foreign,” or even “not American.” Fairly or unfairly, CNN has been slowly nudged in that direction (think of how with every return from break the anchor or principal personality will say “we welcome our viewers from the U.S….and around the world!”) Fox makes few such stabs at internationalism.

Further, Fox has shrewdly heightened the notion that CNN is part of an elitist manifestation of liberal, left-of-center narrative—an easily acceptable (some might argue reasonable) point of contention for many U.S. conservatives for decades. CNN-haters dub the news outlet "Communist News Network," unfair of course considering its ownership by a huge media conglomerate with enormous profits.

For decades, newsroom infrastructures and cultures were often skewed toward the left, and many surveys and polls conducted throughout the 1970s and 1980s proved that such suspicions were largely correct. Reporting regarding the war in Vietnam and Watergate had a lot to do with the solidifying of that perception. Still, most journalists regarded themselves as neutral: reporter first, liberal second...and they often believed that their progressivism guided them only after they removed themselves from their studios or pushed themselves away from their typewriters at the end of the work day.

But for U.S. Republicans in general—and politically active, attuned conservatives more sharply—much of the work of mainstream reporters and producers has been shaped, consistently and demonstrably, by a deeply held set of leftist and progressive political beliefs embedded in the culture of traditional journalism.

CNN has, over time, lost many of its most important ratings battles with Fox. The majority of those ratings fights were won by Fox over a decade ago.  In the early and mid-aught years, Fox opened up that lead over its competitor's like CNN and MSNBC even further, and by 2008 was pulling in twice the viewership of CNN, and three times the audience of MSNBC.  And despite CNN's slight ratings gains during the election cycle of 2007-2008, Fox still maintained it's 2-to-1 advantage.  According to the Columbia Journalism Review, Fox now draws an average of 1.1 million viewers each night to its primetime programming.  It's overall ratings give it more viewers on any given day than the combined audience of CNN and MSNBC.  Fox’s Bill O’Reilly has easily clobbered anyone CNN has attempted to place opposite him in the same time slot (though Anderson Cooper actually edged out O’Reilly in Friday hour of coverage of the missing jetliner). CNN has also conceded much of its hard-fought ground in terms of showmanship and stagecraft, eschewing “news” and traditional news-trappings in favor of glitz, glamor and a tit-for-tat acceptance of every electronic trick employed by the more aggressive Fox.

Finally, CNN has in many ways given up trying to maintain the perception (some might argue the illusion) of impeccable balance. Though it has been careful for years to maintain its position in the "middle" between Fox and the passionately progressive MSNBC (which can be even more vociferous than Fox on most days), Fox has taken too much of the forward ground.  There are few on the Red side of the American political and cultural divide who will ever go back to CNN, for any reason. Those on the left, generally, have little patience even for CNN, and flock to MSNBC or other sources online (Huffington Post, for example) for information filtered through a center-left lens.  The great divide, ever-widening as the internet's freeform platform of blogs and mini-news services obliterate the gatekeepers once charged with maintaining the center of the national conversation, has left CNN poised awkwardly (and perhaps unfairly) on the left side of the chasm.

Further, CNN’s complete devotion to the story of the missing jetliner reveals much of its belief in a more internationalist approach, even anti-provincial, if you will. Fox News' graphics and logos almost always show that little electronic flag waving, a not-so-subtle reminder to anyone flipping through the channels that they are watching an authentic American news source. CNN may have conceded (if, in fact, they ever had owned it) the high ground of being invented and developed in the U.S. heartland. Therefore, they go in search of audiences elsewhere. Domestic items—the apartment building explosion in Harlem, recent stress fractures in Obamacare as the deadline approaches, a vicious knife fight between the Senate, the NSA and the CIA over who is spying on who in Washington—became small local issues compared to the missing 777. And with an ever-widening search area now fanning out as far west as Iran and as far north as Mongolia, the international angle seems to the CNN to be the best turf to occupy—for now.  Fox News, conversely, has not obsessed over the fate of that missing airplane, though their coverage has been as thorough as the circumstances of minimal new data would allow.

Like ABC during the early days of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the ensuing hostage crisis, CNN may be betting that they have the pulse of something bigger. Plus, maybe they are the right network in the right place at the right time. They were, after all, on the air when the Challenger exploded in 1986, and they were ingenious and tenacious enough to wrangle their way into a high rise hotel suite in downtown Baghdad for the start of the Gulf War. In January of 1991 the entire world watched CNN, electrified, when the voices of Bernard Shaw, John Holliman and Peter Arnett sent those live dispatches from room 906 of the al Rasheed Hotel. Maybe this time they have caught that same perfect wave. People love a good mystery, and the story of the missing 777 is loaded with possibility.

Still, it is hard to explain the sort of single-minded news cycles viewers experienced between Thursday and Friday of this past week, especially when so little information was coming in. In the absence of news, the once-great network became a repository of speculation, guess-work, conjecture, parlor games, and outright self-inflicted, unintended satire. Indeed, for many watching, CNN became a kind of parody of its former, sensible self.

On the other hand, CNN may be obsessed and crazy, but they may also be crazy like a fox (pun intended). Preliminary ratings by Neilson show that CNN had managed, by mid-week, to have regained ground long ago lost to Fox News. By Friday (the day we did our continuous analysis) they had briefly bested Fox News, and that night, for the first time in years, Cooper trounced O’Reilly.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Of Showmanship & The News; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; January 7, 2014.

How to Zuck Up the News; Thursday Review staff report; December 29, 2013.