FLYING HIGH

The Secret of CNN's Turnaround: Flight MH370

Richard Quest’s new book shines less light on the mystery of the airplane and more on the network. Jeff Zucker’s order was to go “all in” and they did—week after week as ratings went through the roof.

03.06.16 5:15 AM ET

CNN found the secret sauce two years ago, early in March 2014.

It began on the evening of March 7, when the network’s aviation correspondent, Richard Quest, arrived at CNN’s New York headquarters in Columbus Circle and headed for Studio 73 on the seventh floor.

At 7.25 p.m. that evening Quest had received urgent emails from producers telling him that a Malaysia Airlines flight had gone missing. There were very few details.

His first appearance was a brief live conversation on Anderson Cooper 360, carefully limited to the bare bones headlines and some background on the airline. As the night wore on, CNN went into its full “breaking news” mode. Correspondents, producers and camera crews all over the world were alerted and assigned.

In New York, Quest was on the air through the night, providing live commentary for both CNN in the U.S. and its far larger network, CNN International. By dawn on March 8 the missing flight had a number, MH370.

Fourteen months earlier, Jeff Zucker became the president and CEO of CNN. Zucker, previously a programming powerhouse at NBC, had been hired to reverse what seemed to be an endless slide in CNN’s ratings and a perceptible drift in its command of the medium it pioneered, 24-hour cable news.

Zucker told his staff that news would remain at the core of their work, but that when a big story broke they should immediately set out to own it—to go “all in.”

Until Flight MH370 disappeared, no story had been big enough to gain the kind of sustained traction that Zucker wanted.

As Quest records in a new book, The Vanishing of Flight MH370, that moment (and opportunity) finally arrived as the baffling catastrophe unfolded.

“We threw everything at it, and then tried to throw more,” says Quest.

It worked. In the first 10 days of coverage, CNN’s viewership was up by 68 percent and—even more crucially—in the target age group of people aged 25 to 54 it was up 79 percent. At Fox News, widely seen as the potential nemesis of CNN, Bill O’Reilly’s ratings for the first time fell behind those of Anderson Cooper three days in a row.

There were two qualities to this story that were exceptional.

First, it defied the basic logic of live network news that for a story to grab the audience, it had to include the kind of dramatic, in-your-face frontline reporting of actual events and action that a war, for example, generates (think of Peter Arnett, John Holliman and Bernard Shaw narrating the bombardment of Baghdad in 1991). In this case there would be precious little action to show. For a brief time there were reports from a fruitless air search for wreckage, but for the most part the drama consisted of various Malaysian officials doing a shambolic job of trying to explain what had happened.

The second exceptional quality gradually established itself as the potential for live drama quickly vanished: This was a story about a tragedy that was becoming stubbornly difficult to explain. And yet, the more this became clear, the more compelling the story seemed to be to the whole world. Gradually unfolding into public awareness was the greatest mystery ever in modern aviation.

It was like a murder without a body. Investigators faced the near-impossible challenges of trying to work out what had dispatched 239 people into oblivion without having any physical evidence to examine.

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And so, in the absence of action, CNN found a surprising substitute: talk—lots and lots of talking heads, talking endlessly. For example, on one night, March 12, out of 271 minutes of news coverage, CNN devoted 256 minutes to Flight MH370.

Not everybody was happy. Larry King, whose appeal in his peak time slot at 9 p.m. on CNN had proved impossible to repeat after his retirement, lamented that the coverage was “absurd” and said he was happy no longer to be at CNN. Some media critics were similarly unimpressed and, inevitably, Jon Stewart on The Daily Show lampooned the multiple-screen wall of jabbering aviation experts now making their nightly observations. (Personal disclosure: I was one of the talking heads that he showed.)

But the fact was that Zucker’s formula was working. As weeks went by and the search for the remains of the Boeing 777 moved into the great void of the southern Indian Ocean, the public’s appetite for the coverage diminished very little; no story appeared that had more legs.

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There was some collateral damage. Other networks struggled to ride the same wave. MSNBC, for example, began to lead each hour with the same “breaking news” fever that CNN persisted with. Even Chris Matthews, a man of protean gifts as a political analyst, opened his show one night with the snappy grab line “the pilots did it” – and followed with a report falling so abysmally short of the normal standards of credible sourcing that his discomfort was palpable.

CNN was on a roll, and at the heart of their journalistic credibility was the most experienced anchor on the network, Wolf Blitzer. Blitzer’s show The Situation Room, going out nightly to both the U.S. network and CNN International, became the centerpiece of their coverage of Flight MH370. Blitzer had the knack of keeping an editor’s grasp of essentials as he fed CNN’s reporting into a catholic academy of analysts who frequently disagreed with each other.

Consequently, Blitzer became the fulcrum of the network’s “flood the zone” approach to big stories; it’s hard to see it remaining coherent without him.

That kind of grip was missing on the night of March 19, 2014, when Quest and Don Lemon hosted a show that included questions from viewers and one asked whether the Boeing 777 had disappeared into a black hole. Rather than dismissing the idea:

“A lot of people have been asking about that, about black holes and on and on and all of these conspiracy theories,” Lemon said. “Let’s look at this.”

After an awkward few exchanges, Mary Schiavo, a former inspector general at the Department of Transportation, intervened and said, “A small black hole would suck in our entire universe”—but by then the damage was done.

As Quest writes, “Even before we came off-air, I knew the black hole was going to become a talking point.” It was more than that—it was the reductio ad absurdum of the coverage and caused some to ask whether the network was stretching the story beyond the limits of its natural life.

It wasn’t.

Later, Quest asked Zucker whether they had continued their depth of coverage for too long. Zucker replied:

“No. It’s a tremendous mystery. I get on an airplane all the time. I want to know what happened. There’s a lot of layers to this story and as every day went by and it wasn’t solved, it became an even greater mystery and so that is what I think made it a great story.”

In fact, Quest’s inside picture of how, from the onset, CNN recognized the power of the story and marshaled its resources to cover it is the most original contribution of his book to the so far slim and tendentious literature on the subject of Flight MH370.

Indeed, his account raises fundamental questions about how the conventional 24-hour news channels respond to the intervention of social media and instant feeds from not just journalists but those involved in the actual events as they break. This intensifies the competition for attention. The best-resourced journalism can look slow and too deliberative when the audience’s attention span has dwindled to that of a gnat.

There is also the issue of what news gets ignored when one story takes over all the airtime. As the saga of Flight 370 sucked up all the energy in the CNN newsrooms, reporters in CNN bureaus all over the world, with deep experience of their own assigned turf, were sidelined. In the Middle East, for example, Syria was disintegrating, the forthcoming horrors of ISIS were incubating and an unprecedented refugee crisis would be generated, and in Eastern Europe Vladimir Putin was grabbing Crimea.

Prescience is as important a quality in serious journalism as alacrity of response—just not as sexy.

Eventually, Flight MH370 stopped being the story du jour. But CNN continues to go “all in” on stories that obviously have legs—the riots in Ferguson, the savagery of ISIS and, at the moment, the primaries and Trumpenstein.

Inevitably, Quest’s account of the disappearance of Flight MH370 and its consequences covers a lot of the familiar details that he and many other reporters dealt with day by day. It’s when he can call on reporting that he did himself that the account takes on force—and flesh.

As an experienced reporter in Asia, he was already on familiar ground with Malaysia Airlines—and with the politicians who made such a hash of managing the official response in the days following the catastrophe. As it happened, his knowledge was even more intimately appropriate than at first he knew. Within hours of the 777’s disappearance a CNN editor in Atlanta emailed Quest that a blogger had a photograph of the copilot of Flight 370, Fariq Hamid, in the cockpit of a 777—with Quest standing behind him.

Two weeks earlier, Quest had been reporting on Malaysia Airlines for a travel show he had presented on CNN International for 12 years. The airline invited him to take a flight on a 777 from Hong Kong to the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur. In an unusual move, they allowed Quest on the flight deck, where he found that Hamid had just graduated to the 777 fleet as a first officer after having flown smaller airplanes for around 2,700 hours.

The captain on that flight told Quest that Hamid was one of the airline’s best young pilots—“exceptional” was the word he used. Hamid was at the controls for the landing in Kuala Lumpur and the captain described it as “textbook perfect.”

It was an extraordinary coincidence, and Quest found himself early on in the story with a scoop—he could testify personally to the competence of Hamid, even though he had only nine hours’ experience flying the 777.

Seven days after Flight MH370 went missing, the Malaysian prime minister, Najib Razak, announced that the 777 was being flown in a way that was “consistent with deliberate action being taken by someone on the plane.”

Since then rigorous investigations of the backgrounds of Hamid and Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah have turned up nothing that would support that either of them were involved in a deliberate act to destroy themselves, the passengers, and the airplane. Quest writes:

“The truth, which is inconvenient to those who want to vilify the captain, is currently there is no evidence that he did it. I am not saying that he didn’t do it, but I am saying that there is no evidence that he did.”

Instead, Quest inclines to the belief that a mechanical failure of some kind was responsible. He cites several possibilities, including an electrical problem, but concludes, “I am not wedded to any specific theory of how this accident happened.”

There is, however, a strange absence in Quest’s analysis of possible mechanical causes.

He is incurious about the airplane involved, the Boeing 777. He points out, correctly, that the 777 has an exemplary safety record. But he never wonders why that might be—never delves into the design philosophy behind the 777 that made it probably the most robust airliner of its generation. For that reason he misses the acute paradox at the heart of the mystery: What could possibly have exposed a fatal vulnerability in an airplane so immaculately conceived to have no vulnerabilities?

In the answer to that question lies the ultimate need to discover what happened—in case it should happen again.

When it comes to the Malaysian politicians, though, Quest is at his best. He singles out one, in particular, for lamentable behavior in handling the crisis.

Hishammuddin Hussein was, at the time, both defense minister and acting transport minister. All the Malaysian politicians displayed the combination of arrogance and unpreparedness that comes of a regime accustomed to unchallenged power and  supine media coverage for too long. But “Hish” (as he was called) was glaringly unready to field questions from the sudden swarm of reporters who turned up at his press briefings.

After a complaint from CNN that his briefings were a shambles, Hishammuddin snapped back at them: “You guys are so powerful, you can bring governments down, you can bring countries down.”

In 2015 Quest returned to Malaysia and interviewed Hishammuddin in his office at the Ministry of Defense, in the hope of getting a better understanding of the man.

“I had wondered myself,” says Quest, “if he was incompetent, a fool, a fabricator, or somebody who had been dealt an impossible hand of cards and had played them as best he could.”

After an hour, Quest leaves, having encountered a man living in what could politely be called a permanent reality distortion field. “There is,” he writes, “an astonishing gap in the minister’s perception of what happened and the rest of the world’s.”

Hishammuddin had told him, “If you can get away with the present media today, with not embarrassing your nation, no matter what mistakes we make along the way, that’s the best you can get out of it.”