As soon as it came out that a boy
had ridden in the wheel well of an airplane from California to Hawaii (and
lived!), I knew we were in for it. The media circus surrounding the tragic loss
of Malaysian Air Flight 370 was only just beginning to taper down when this,
another stranger-than-fiction ratings booster, came down the wire. Media outlets
froth at all things airplane. There is something about the collective human
consciousness that is so captivated by all things aerial that the sleazier Internet news outlets were posting articles later that afternoon asking, “Why
are we so fascinated by the boy in the wheel well?” Just weeks before, people
were asking the same of MH370.
This is a question that I ask
often. Some folks look at me in dismay, utterly shocked that I could dare be so
insensitive. This isn’t about whether or not I hurt deeply at the tragic loss
of human lives that are just like mine—I do. It’s just that, of all the ways
that thousands of people die every day, we place an inordinate weight on airplanes to the extent that the people aboard become a sort of fodder for bylines, a feeding frenzy of competing news organizations that want to be the first to reveal that there
was an infant on board or a stolen passport used or that someone in an airplane six miles
in the sky thinks they saw something white floating in the Indian Ocean.
I obviously don’t want the
investigative crews to quit doing their jobs. For future air safety
considerations, it helps to know what went wrong with such a modern plane. But
until they have somewhat definite findings to report, we need to quit creating
the demand for around-the-clock coverage of random “expert” opinions. In the
case of such a vague and shocking story, everyone is an expert—an ex-airline
pilot, a former Navy SEAL, a random fisherman who has used sonar on his boat
before. They don’t know anything that we don’t.
I don’t even think the question
here is about being informed. It might not even be about airplanes, though it
seems the sky-high aluminum tubes hold our attention longer than anything else,
which CNN’s massive ratings boost in the last month seems to confirm. Do we
inherently care more about planes because the act of defying gravity is so
unnatural, or have decades of psychology-majors-turned-marketing-experts simply
ruined our ability to know what we actually care about?
This much I know for sure: After
flying to Austin, Texas, for spring break, my friend picked me up from the airport, from which we went straight to my favorite Mexican restaurant. Sitting on the patio, I could barely swallow my avocado margarita because every TV in the restaurant
seemed to be alluding to the rampant conjecture about the missing plane. I
mentioned this to our waitress, who seemed unaware of the assault of coverage, as if she
were numb to it altogether or didn’t realize that it was unpleasant to eat
chips and salsa while the umpteenth talking head of the day rambled about some
alleged bit of new information.
Making matters worse, this was a
Malaysian Air flight, and the search was headed by the government of a country
most Americans know nothing about. The potential for exoticism was
high. Every hint of foul play, incompetence, or gubernatorial oversight was
turned up to 11 and spawned caps-lock conspiracy theories in real time. It
became hard to know what was more disgusting: the television-mongering of 239 lost souls or the complicated relationship major news outlets
seemed to have with fringe Asian countries. The Indian Ocean, Malaysia,
Beijing, Iranians, stolen passports—this was either a Liam Neeson movie or the
loss of hundreds of lives in a freak accident, an aircraft with an almost
perfect safety record sitting at the bottom of the ocean.
This was all anyone could talk
about—the latest theory one person believed from a news anchor on one channel,
the debris sightings reported by another. Nobody knew anything at all, but they
frothed. In a world overrun by stressful situations and over-diagnosed mental
illness, the last thing we need is more neurotic mass paranoia. Undoubtedly, if
and when the truth is revealed, it will be harrowing. Planes don’t disappear
for absolutely no reason, but accidents do happen. We all fear accidents, but
news outlets don’t spend months describing the latest diagnosis of the root rot
that leads to a tree falling or the specific Facebook post a truck driver was
liking when he T-boned a bus full of schoolchildren.
These incidents sell for a
matter of hours; the mystery and latent unease of airplanes sell almost
indefinitely. Instead of encouraging this rote sale of grim news and breathless
guesstimates, we should shy away from superfluous story-creation and follow Dragnet detective Joe Friday’s famous
plea: “Just the facts, ma’am.”
John Montesi CM ’14 is a literature major from Fort Worth, Texas.