‘Is It Really News?': Cable Journos Squirm Over Flight 370 Overload

The disappearance of MA Flight 370 has proved a ratings bonanza, particularly for CNN. But with no new developments, and wild conjecture filling the void, even CNN's own journalists are questioning its coverage.

03.20.14 9:45 AM ET

It has been nearly two weeks since Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, with 239 people on board, vanished without trace, minutes after the young co-pilot radioed “All right, good night.” In the days since March 8, when the Boeing 777 lost contact with ground control en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, few facts about the disappearance have emerged.

Yet that hasn’t stopped America’s cable news networks from going all in on the mystery, especially ratings-challenged CNN, which has scored big numbers with round-the-clock coverage that offers a tantalizing mix of informed and uninformed speculation, high emotion, conspiracy-theorizing, and fantastical ruminations, sprinkled with just a pinch of news.

With scant hard information, the prevailing storyline has evolved, in pop-culture terms, from Agatha Christie to Tom Clancy to Oprah, with Wednesday’s most indelible image--aired several times each hour on CNN--being that of the Chinese mother of a missing passenger wailing in grief and anger as Malaysian security officers dragged her forcibly out of a Flight 370 press briefing. Increasingly the focus has been: How does it feel?

"Is it really news coverage, when there is no news to report?" an anonymous CNN staffer asked in an email to FTVLive, a television business insiders’ blog. The email seemed representative of the handwringing said to be occurring in various cable newsrooms among journalism traditionalists. FTVLive’s proprietor, TV news veteran Scott Jones, noted that while the NBC Nightly News on Tuesday took two minutes to give “all the new information” on the story, CNN “took all day to give you the same information… CNN's coverage is mainly just a group of talking heads guessing what might have happened to the missing jet."

CNN's former Washington bureau chief, Frank Sesno, echoed those concerns, especially when a more consequential story, the Russian takeover of Crimea in the Ukraine, is getting comparatively short shrift on CNN’s air. “When I’ve watched CNN on my television, I thought they were doing it [the missing plane] way too much, especially given this other gigantic story that’s unfolding in Crimea,” Sesno, director of George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs, told The Daily Beast.

Sesno added that while Flight 370 is “a fascinating, huge mystery, the Russian takeover of Crimea is potentially world-changing…My issue is what is the proportionate amount of coverage that the [missing plane] story should receive?” Absent new facts, “there are four pieces to this puzzle: what you say, how you say it, how often you say it, and how loud you say it."

CNN anchor Jake Tapper, cautioning that “I can only speak for my own show,” the 4 p.m. program The Lead, and not the network as a whole, argued that committing overwhelming airtime to the plane disappearance is journalistically legitimate. “When there’s intense interest in an important story we often focus on it for several days if not weeks,” Tapper emailed The Daily Beast. “There’s high viewer interest in this story, which combines a potential tragedy involving 239 missing persons – three of them American – with discussions of and reporting about the state of modern aviation, counterterrorism, Boeing, the U.S. Navy, geo-politics and international relations."

He added: “I’ve covered and will continue to cover Ukraine and other important stories these past few weeks, but one of the biggest aviation mysteries in history, with 239 missing persons and a never-ending and ever-changing supply of developments, seems worth covering in depth."

CNN’s Flight 370 menu is hardly different from that of its cable rivals, there’s just much more of it--although anchor Don Lemon’s recent musings about “the supernatural power of God” and “something beyond our understanding” being involved in the disappearance arguably pushed the envelope of mainstream newsgathering.

Indeed, CNN’s Flight 370 coverage can reasonably be compared to MSNBC’s weeks and weeks of wall to wall Chris Christie “Bridgegate” broadcasts, Fox News’s frequent campaigns against pretty much anything related to President Obama, or CNN’s own relentless coverage a year ago of a Carnival Cruise ocean liner without power or working toilets--otherwise known as the “Poop Cruise,” and as it happens, also a ratings triumph.

“Too bad for CNN that there isn’t a missing plane or a natural disaster every day,” said an industry wag who demanded anonymity so as not to provoke reprisals. “They might actually have a sustainable business model if that were the case.” CNN has been struggling under the leadership of Jeff Zucker, and viewer response to the Flight 370 coverage is a welcome and encouraging development. "On TV: we are wall to wall with the plane mystery; this is a strategy we are confident and comfortable with," says a CNN coverage note, obtained by FTVLive, and quoting Zucker from a recent morning meeting with his news executives."When a major story happens (à la Boston Bombing, Oklahoma Tornadoes, George Zimmerman) we go all in…That is our vision and our strategy." The note added: "We are not ignoring other stories because we have multiple distribution platforms."

Still, it's Flight 370 that dominates the channel.

“Watching some of the media coverage is painful,” Fox News star Bill O’Reilly grumbled Tuesday night on his generally top-rated program. “Today somebody did five minutes on a possible electrical fire on the plane. Well, if there was an electrical fire, don’t you think the pilots would have radioed about it? Another dopey pundit put forward that a stowaway might have hijacked the plane. On national TV! A stowaway! Unbelievable!”

O’Reilly didn’t mention CNN or the fact CNN’s Anderson Cooper beat his 8 p.m. show, The O’Reilly Factor, in the all-important 25-54 ratings demographic during three nights last week--surely, for the competitive O’Reilly, a disturbing anomaly. Indeed, while O’Reilly has narrowly reclaimed his No. 1 prime-time position from AC360 this week, CNN bested Fox in the Monday demo at 7 p.m., 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. By Tuesday, CNN was still leading at 7 p.m., but Fox News was back on top from 8 to 10 p.m.

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“I know I’m old school,” O’Reilly went on. “I know it’s ratings. Obviously it’s ratings. People want to watch the mystery. But it’s now corrupting the news business, I think.” O’Reilly’s guest, conservative pundit Charles Krauthammer, chimed in: “You know what this is? Capitalism at work. They see the ratings and they go after them.” (Weirdly, the Fox Newsers’ grievances closely resembled those of Kremlin-funded RT television anchor Abby Martin, she of the 9/11 “truther” conspiracy theories, who attacked CNN’s “speculative coverage” as “insane,” “soap opera,” and “a new low” for the mainstream media, driven by “desperat[ion] for profits.”)

Right after O’Reilly signed off, his Fox News colleagues committed exactly the sins he was complaining about. Megyn Kelly at 9 p.m. and Sean Hannity at 10 p.m. spent a near-solid two hours on the missing plane, their programs full of sound and fury. Hannity gave almost eight minutes of airtime to a retired Air Force general who claimed that there’s a good chance the plane is hidden in Pakistan. It’s a conspiracy theory violently at odds with prevailing reports based on U.S. government and other official sources that reconnaissance teams are searching for wreckage in the southern Indian Ocean.

“My concern is, if this airplane could be used as a bearer of a weapon of mass destruction or even conventional munitions that could attack a carrier, the Israelis, other allies, American Forces, for instance,” Lt. General Thomas McInerney told Hannity, while coyly refusing to shed light on his sources of information. “If the Pakistani government doesn’t talk soon, they’re going to be complicit in this.” Afterward one of Hannity’s missing plane “experts,” conservative columnist Deroy Murdock, a polemicist not known for his aeronautical proficiency, praised the grim-faced, silver-haired general as a credible “grownup.”

On AC360, meanwhile, Cooper invited Sarah Bajc, the fiancée of American passenger Philip Wood, to directly address the plane’s possible hijackers or, as he put it, “anybody who you believe may have been involved in this.”

Bajc, a teacher based in Malaysia, from which she appeared by satellite, began calmly enough, pleading with possibly nonexistent perpetrators to spare innocent lives. But predictably, she lost her composure--creating a TV moment that was re-aired on CNN the next day. “I’m just hoping, I’m hoping, and I’m asking please to not hurt the people on the plane,” she said through sobs. “Find some other way to accomplish what you’re trying to accomplish. Don’t hurt the people. Let Philip come back to me. Please.”

“Stay strong,” Cooper told her from his studio in New York, before turning to the camera and adding: “We’ll be right back.”