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Special Bulletin: We Have No Idea What We're Talking About

Truth in Journalism

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, February 02, 2000.

News coverage in the United States is extensive, pretentious, often wrong in its command decisions, sometimes simply ridiculous, and overwhelming. It probably gets it as right as reason allows in the long run because of the Internet and competition, although there are claimed exceptions. Despite complaints from the left and right, we do hear the other sides for the most part, or have the ability to access the information. Not as often as the more extreme wish, which is enough to convert the masses to their view, but often enough to keep the fires going. I have never felt we will lose freedom of speech from censorship or political upheaval or revolt. We will lose it by the dumbing down of language, and the assurance of authority in people not really qualified and only interested in meeting the requirements of appearance and not substance. We will lose it, if we do, by incompetence.

If you watched the coverage of the recent plane crash off of California, you were no doubt impressed by the instant, 'expert' coverage of the event, initially said to involve hundreds aboard a 737. MSNBC gave detailed history of the 737, its recent problems and crashes, while news helicopters hovered over other helicopters over a swath of floating debris in the ocean. The network had experts discussing what could have happened, and what part of the plane might have failed. It was, in its way, impressive.

It was also utterly wrong. Hogwash. Crap. Not intentional lies, just inexcusable incompetence. Although I clearly heard the announcer say a 737 had gone down with two hundred people aboard, it turns out that a much smaller plane with 85 went down, and the two hundred number came from the numeral attached to the flight. The originally stated location was wrong as well. This went on, I am guessing, for well over an hour until the correspondents began to say that they 'didn't know whether to trust their sources,' which I suppose sounds better than "Man, we don't know what the hell we're talking about, we're just filling air with contradictory rumors."

I remember this quite well, and will remember this quite well, because the person watching the television where I was working received a phone call to tell him he'd lost his son-in-law on that flight, and what I had initially thought was a tearful overblown demonstration against the unfairness of Life's Horrors and the Humanity, the Humanity was a personal and ghastly family tragedy.

In the course of the next two hours, helping him get organized for his trip to the coast I realized that hanging over it all was the thought that if the news people were incapable of discovering the sort of plane, could the authorities have screwed up the passenger manifest as well? They could, and sometimes do, and it was going to be a while before the authenticated manifest was released. Isn't it awful, you can never really be sure who was on the plane - or wasn't. Who was alive, who was dead. Was this man's son-in-law actually on the plane? He was supposed to be. It was like the quantum mechanics conundrum about the unseen cat. Is it dead, is it alive? Without the body, without an accurate - which is aboard the plane - manifest or video tape of the boarding, you never know. And you can never know.

This is DC, see you next week.