CNN’s MH370 Coverage a Sad Statement on News Coverage in America

As anyone who follows me on Twitter has probably figured out over the past month, I have a real problem with CNN’s coverage of the missing Fight MH370. And my argument isn’t that the story doesn’t constitute news. It certainly does. In fact it probably has deserved to lead every national newscast for the past month, except for a few days after the horrific mudslides in Washington. Instead my problem is that CNN shills out hour after hour of MH370 coverage, at the expense of other very important news, for ratings. Which leads me to my second problem, that America is more fascinated with this than it is with other news items, such as Russia annexing a sovereign country or the America’s new medical insurance program, which in some way directly impacts just about every American.

And this coverage has undoubtedly paid off for CNN in terms of ratings and profit. Recently released ratings for the month of March show that CNN is ahead of competitor MSNBC for the first time since last summer. MSNBC, for their part, has tried to stay away from excessive plane coverage. This shows a general correlation that more plane coverage = higher ratings, less plane coverage = lower ratings. CNN’s weekday primetime coverage for March 2014 is up 35% in total viewers compared to March 2013. Between March 12 and March 14 Anderson Cooper’s “360” beat Bill O’Reilly’s “Factor” on Fox News three consecutive nights.

And, so, it absolutely baffles me that so many people have watched CNN repeat the same news hour after hour every day. In fact, it seems much of the news is the same each day that passes. CNN’s coverage was fantastic in the first few days after the plane’s disappearance. However, CNN’s coverage quickly turned to filling time with conspiracy theories and other inane filler that doesn’t actually result in the reporting of any news, you know, what news reporters are supposed to do. The inane on CNN has ranged from countless “aviation experts”, some of whom have very questionable credentials, to a full-time reporter at a flight simulator in Mississauga (the only time Canada is ever mentioned on CNN, I might add), to model planes and the use of “breaking news” for the smallest of items.

I’ll start with the aviation experts. Some of these experts are in fact ex-pilots or flight engineers, or at least I’d hope they are. However, CNN’s go-to man on aviation expertise is Richard Quest. A CNN regular, Quest is only moonlighting as an expert on MH370, he has a day job as a CNN business analyst. One could question why Quest even still has a job at CNN, after he was found in Central Park with crystal meth in 2008. But I’ll simply stick to questioning why he is a plane analyst (er aviation expert), and the answer is I haven’t a clue.

Another aspect of CNN’s time-filling is their use of planes, big and small, real and fake. CNN has used the simulator in Mississauga quite often to show what it is like for a plane to ascend, descend or turn left at a rapid rate. Only problem is none of us viewers can actually tell what these movements feel like, so we have to rely on the CNN reporter inside the cockpit to describe them for us. Fascinating stuff. If a life-size simulator wasn’t enough, Don Lemon appealed to the inner-child in all of us when he showed the plane’s movements using a model plane a few weeks ago. This 80 second video is great because it pretty much sums up CNN’s speculation as well. And, unbelievably, it wasn’t Don Lemon’s worst on-air moment of the past month, but more on that later.

The craziest part of CNN’s coverage are the theories of what happened to the plane. Of course we really don’t know what happened and won’t until the black box is recovered, if it ever is. But that simple, newsworthy explanation would only take a minute to report. CNN needed something juicy that would last for days. And so, the conspiracy theories came in. The first of these was the immediate linking two Iranians with stolen passports (apparently a rather disturbingly often occurrence) to a supposed hijacking. When officials revealed the plane could be in any number of former Soviet Union countries, speculation began that the Iranians were going to use the plane for a later terrorist attack on Israel. Then investigators realized the Iranians were just normal passengers, so attention turned to the pilots, despite a complete lack of evidence that either had any motive. But no, CNN’s theories didn’t stop there at these surprisingly plausible explanations. CNN had to go a step further, quickly turning the “Zombie Plane Theory” (why not latch on to America’s most watched show, The Walking Dead?), while Lemon outdid himself questioning if the plane’s disappearance was supernatural or caused by a mini black hole.

But I think CNN’s coverage, and America’s consumption of it, shows a larger problem with society. In a reality show era of television, live 24/7 news has almost become just another form of reality TV. There are many examples before MH370. One of the defining examples was nightly primetime coverage of the Iraq War. CNN, along with Fox News and MSNBC, showed coverage of American bombings in Iraq. And the people loved it as all three cable news networks set ratings records. Fascinated viewers watched villages being bombed. Regardless of the fact that these bombings killed many innocent people, viewers didn’t care because they never actually saw this. It also deflected coverage away from talk about whether the war itself was just, ethical or any number of other things. Another example was the coverage of the search for the Boston Marathon bombers a year ago. Of course the difference was that search lasted 24 hours, not a month. And for the record, I thought it did make for fascinating television.

I think CNN could cover the plane story better by covering it less, and by focusing on other ignored aspects. For example cooperation, or a lack of, between the various Asian countries involved in the search could be investigated more. As could the poorly handled investigation by Malaysia or whether any Asian countries are considering better radar coverage. Or they could look into how outrageously easy it seems to board a plane with fake passports.

Actually I think CNN had one of the great, moving moments in news this year when it aired an interview with the previously mentioned Iranian passenger’s mother. Turns out she is living in Germany, receiving cancer treatments and awaiting refugee status. Her son wanted to visit her quickly in case her cancer became worse.  He figured a stolen passport was his best chance to get from Iran to Germany. Due to his love for his mother, he was on the plane. And now she has to live with that. The interview is absolutely heartbreaking.

The other thing that is fascinating about CNN’s coverage is the flow of events. When it came to light the plane had taken a left turn after leaving Malaysia, which I consider the turning point in this whole event, CNN has constantly clung on to one small piece of news per day, before discarding it for something else when it is proven irrelevant. They started off with the “northern and southern arcs”, and how the plane could have been flown to some remote former Soviet airstrip unnoticed. Despite that logic tells us the plane probably flew south crashing into the Indian Ocean, CNN focused on the remote possibility that it was refueling somewhere in one of the “stans” for a potential future terror attack.

When officials revealed it had in fact headed south, CNN turned their focus to the pilot’s flight simulator. They made it sound odd that a pilot who loved flying would own a simulator. They came up with theories that maybe he had practiced flying a plane into the Indian Ocean, or maybe an airstrip on a small island in the Indian Ocean, and that this was (or had once been) recorded on his simulator. When these theories had finally run their course, and investigators announced there was a new “search area” off the coast of Australia, CNN moved their coverage to an entirely new continent.

And with this new search area came over a week of day-after-day coverage with breaking news, officials had found “their best lead yet.” Of course that isn’t saying much considering every lead in this story has turned out completely wrong. And so CNN took to showing grainy satellite images of objects in the ocean, and day after day these turned out to be ocean trash. And now with the news that Chinese and Australian officials have found the much-talked about, famous “pings” of the black box maybe they will finally find the wreckage and CNN can move on to reporting actual news about the crash, which I think we are all anxious to hear, and put behind them this embarrassing reality-show style coverage.

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