Five at 8 – 10/29/09: The news media’s dirty little secret

The Friday Morning Rouser:

1) I wrote last week that the significance of Northwest Flight 188 was that it revealed an inherent weakness in the nation’s air defense system. As the story unfolds, it also has revealed the news media’s dirty little secret … again. I’ve spent much of the last week wondering to myself why other people in the news media — local or national — weren’t seeing the obviously more significant lesson from Northwest Flight 188, the flight that “overshot” its intended destination last week. Today, they’ve gotten around to it and the route they took in reporting the story is an overshoot of its own.

Wayback Machine time: Let’s go back to a post I made last Friday:

To have been able to do that, the order to intercept would’ve had to have been given by 7:34 p.m., or almost a half hour after the plane “went dark.” That obviously didn’t happen. The military either didn’t know about a plane that had been flying without being in contact for a half an hour, or they did know about it and the decision was made not to intercept the possible threat.

I know what you’re thinking; the guy’s patting himself on the back. That’s hardly the point, which is: “In the news business, you can’t lead by following.” It was only late yesterday that the Wall St. Journal — which had pretty much concocted the “they were sleeping” story that the media followed — finally got around to the more significant angle of the story.

The delay has sparked consternation within the military, concern within the FAA and special oversight by the White House, these officials said, particularly because such time lags were supposed to be eliminated as a result of the lessons learned from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In the event of a hijacking, the military would order fighters into the air to intercept an aircraft and possibly shoot it down.

Then the rest of the media picked it up, led by the Associated Press:

“Air traffic controllers repeatedly tried to reach the pilots of the Northwest flight as it continued on course without deviation,” (FAA administrator Randy) Babbitt said in a statement. “The plane followed its filed flight plan, the transponder remained on and the plane did not send any emergency or distress signals. However, the controllers should have notified NORAD (the North American Aerospace Defense Command) more quickly that the plane was not responding.”

This morning, local news operations are all parroting the Wall St. Journal’s “work,” as if it is a new development. They could’ve asked the same questions at any time. But they didn’t. Why not? Because many news organizations are less in the business of reporting; and more in the business of “repackaging.” That’s not journalism. That’s show business.

What do we learn from this? For all the talk about the end of newspapers, newspapers drive the news agenda; not TV, not radio, not the Internet, and many of these sources which extol their journalistic virtue, are willing participants in the process. Newspapers say something; other news sources parrot (repackage) it, eliminating the most critical element of journalism — looking for answers to questions. It’s a corrupted process to which far too many of today’s “journalists” have become addicted. Their reporting sensibilities have atrophied from years of the addiction, coupled with an adherence to the “pack mentality,” that prevents journalists from producing stories based on questions nobody else is asking.

2)like this. Only reporters weren’t the ones who asked how it is a four-year-old boy swallows a toy car; scientists and artists were. It’s an art project that led the scientists to conclude that one of the reasons kids have a way of consuming things with lead paint, is because a chemical in it tastes sweet.

A single object was “explored” 24 hours a day for 7 days, just to see what secrets it held. The “artists” didn’t set out to make a significant discovery; it’s just a benefit from the desire to ask questions.

3) Is it too late to rename the northern Pacific Ocean “the Sea of Plastic?

Gawker today directs a spotlight on Mary Crowley’s Keisei Project.

4) The government this week is going to announce — officially — that the recession is over. WNYC(New York)’s The Takeaway explores how anyone would know that and interviews Rhode Quick of St. Louis Park, who lost her job in May and is now in danger of losing her home. How’d people in New York find her? They read News Cut.

5) Analysis of last night’s World Series game and, in particular, Phillies pitcher Cliff Lee. Caution: Don’t read if you don’t like math or you think postgame interviews are fascinating when they say things like “I just tried to stay within myself.”



President Obama made a pre-dawn visit to Dover Air Force base.


NASA on Wednesday launched the prototype of a rocket that one day may carry astronauts to the moon, which humans last visited in 1972. Is going back to the moon a good idea?


Midmorning (9-11 a.m.) – First hour: A vociferous defender of Darwin, Richard Dawkins has a new book that lists the evidence that the theory of evolution explains how life on Earth came to be.

Second hour: While extinctions still happen at a fast pace, some species are coming back, such as California condors and American crocodiles. Renowned primatologist Jane Goodall profiles these survival stories and others in her latest book.

Midday (11 a.m. – 1 p.m.) – MPR’s Chris Farrell jon the 80th anniversary of the 1929 stock market crash, to talk about what happened then, what we learned from it, and what’s happening now.

Second hour: Rabbi Harold Kushner, speaking in Minneapolis about his new book, “Conquering Fear: Living Boldly in an Uncertain World.”

Talk of the Nation (1-3 p.m.) – First hour: Considering the witness in acts of violence, from jeering participant to silent objector.

Second hour: Cornel West joins Neal Conan for a discussion on Schopenhauer and Sondheim, John Keats and James Brown. Plus, singer/songwriter, Carly Simon stops by.

All Things Considered (3-6:30 p.m.) – The University of Minnesota and planners of the Central Corridor light-rail transit project are scrambling to work out their differences following the U’s lawsuit last month against the Metropolitan Council. Can they get the issue resolved?

Forty years ago today, the first messages went out on Arpanet. What hath it wrought besides the Internet?

  • Bob Moffitt

    The news media has more than one “dirty little secret.” Then again, don’t we all?

    Hey, the Timberwolves gave their fans an opening game worth watching, and a win, to boot. Who knew?

  • Tyler

    We discussed Flight 188’s “overflight” in class yesterday, and the “possible terrorist angle” didn’t occur to anybody. Despite being in a War on Terror for 8 years, the Skittles Terror Level System, TSA Security Theater, etc., it seems that we, as a nation, haven’t actually learned anything from 9/11.

    How about that.

  • Bob Collins

    And that’s the lesson, Tyler. Despite all of the billions soaked into the war on terror, despite all the debate over the loss of civil rights and the right of government to acquire intelligence by whatever means, despite all of the new bureaucracy, we still have a significant problem with the incompetence of key links in the chain.

    What the FAA’s action tells us is that the only security profile of terrorists we have is whatever profile they used before.

    Babbit defended his people by noting the transponders weren’t turned off and the plane didn’t send out an emergency signal (the ones on 9/11 didn’t either, by the way). Others have pointed out it didn’t change course or altitude.

    That profile has been used only once before and prior to that, it wasn’t used at all and the fact we didn’t have that profile is one of the reasons the FAA was slow to react on 9/11.

    So what do terrorists learn from this? Keep your transponders on and hijack a jet that’s already heading to your target, and the U.S. government won’t bother you.

    There was a lot of incompetence going on in the cockpit of Flight 188, but the incompetence that is far more serious in the big picture is that exhibited by the command and control structure of the agencies in charge of the one area where people think the next attack will come from — the sky.

  • Erik Hare

    There’s a lot of red meat here to chew on. The way the story on our air defenses was missed is fascinating, and you are the only person who really has a handle on the series of problems that this brings up – including how the press isn’t providing a genuine review of what’s going on.

    In terms of the newspapers feeding the infortainment loop, you have something else that is very important. We see a lot more “citizen journalism” feeding into newspapers (and MPR, for that matter) in commentaries as part of an effort to contain costs, er, reach out to the community. The use of blogs, etc, is blurring a lot of lines that used to exist. The need for appropriate filtering mechanisms is going to be more and more critical to the process of “news” making its way through the system.

    Add into this the potential lessons that shoudl be learned from “Balloon Boy”, but probably won’t, and the future of journalism looks chaotic at best and more than a little dismal at worst. We can guess that nothing will happen without a real crisis precipitating, because this is the USofA, and that’s what we wait for, so it may be a useful to figure out just how bad things can get before it’s really obvious.

    I’ll leave it to everyone else to barf some of this rich meaty discussion back up at the thought of that last part.

  • Bob Collins

    I don’t think citizen journalism is an effort to control costs, I think it’s an effort — a well-intentioned one — to get out of the “Golden Rolodex” mentality where you hear the same voices over and over again.

    Where mainstream media has failed — miserably — in integrating citizen journalism, is in letting the citizen journalism inform newsrooms about stories to cover, rather than having the newsroom deciding what stories to cover, and then looking for new voices within those stories.

    Another failure of citizen journalim — at least in Minnesota — is it’s been pathetically weak in expanding the geographic reach of knowledge. Rural Minnesota remains completely disengaged in citizen journalism and as a result, metropolitan Minnesota has not yet been forced to recognize that there’s a world beyond the 494/694 beltway.

    Issues that play one way in the Twin Cities play an entirely different way outside of the Twin Cities, not because it’s redder or bluer, but because the culture and the people ARE different.

    Even within people of same ideologies, the culture is different. The “personal responsibility” philosophy held by people in a red suburb is entirely different from that held by someone in, say, the 7th District where people hold it because that’s all they know in many cases. Farmers simply had no choice but to dig in and do it when something went wrong.

    The upbringing of a suburbanite is different and they may come to the philosophy for entirely different reasons.

    Generally speaking, I find citizen journalism — and citizen commentators — to rarely say something I haven’t heard before, partly because it’s the nature of people to repeat what they’ve been told, and partly because of the failure of media to recognize that a different voice doesn’t by definition give you a different perspective.

  • tiredboomer

    //Newspapers say something; other news sources parrot (repackage) it, …//

    Sort of reminds me of the story on “Radio Lab” last week … about parasites.

    So, what happens when the newspapers die?

  • PaulBob


    As a random private citizen, I’m sort of glad that nobody thought that the overflight could be an act of terrorism. To me, that says that we don’t feel scared all of the time, and that our first instinct is not to assume that we are about to be murdered.

    That said, the failure of the FAA/military, who are specifically in business to assume that we are all about to be murdered by airborne terrorists, is quite troubling. How long did it take to scramble the f-16s when Payne Stewart’s private jet “went dark?”

  • Erik Hare

    I’ll take your word that CJ ventures by media outlets have the best intentions, thank you for saying so. It warms my heart.

    Rural Minnesota’s connections to the Cities seem to be falling off the map. Ag is such a small part of our economy and the connections to where people came from outstate are falling to a third or fourth generation in many cases. We’re left with The Cabin at The Lake ™ which isn’t all that much.

    I think that this has been allowed to happen because the White Middle Class has been under a lot more strain in recent years due to the changes in the world. It seems to me that it’s been met with a terrible stubbornness to remain as fat and happy for as long as possible, which is to say that first step out of the recliner is the hard one.

    My experience with the news media is that they don’t want anything too far outside of the experience of their readers/listeners/viewers either. I understand this, but I find it frustrating. Things have change very dramatically, and the economy / social structure we need to have right now has not been allowed to form gently because of the resistance it’s faced. We wound up disjointed and in a Depression (no, it’s not over) as a result – and still no one wants to talk about restructuring.

    New voices? They’re terribly uncomfortable and difficult to sort out. Better to keep the blinders on and keep plowing the furrow in front of us.

    Naturally, change will take place and it’s likely to be generational. If nothing else, the unemployment rate of about 40% among under 15 year olds will leave a scar of some kind. But I do not think that media, as we know it, really wants to hear new voices yet – and places like outstate do simply get left behind in our rush to keep ahead of our own past even as we deny there’s any real future that’s any different.

  • Al

    I, too, found the question of “Where were the fighter jets?” strangely absent. I think the first thing I said when I heard about the incident after fact was, “They’re lucky they didn’t get shot down.” Which of course begged the question of how close they came to being shot down.

    This failure to see actual news by most of the mainstream media isn’t exactly shocking, though. It’s painful to watch the fluff that TV outlets call news. When they air soundbites of a single sentence a dozen times for what turns out to be a 2 sentence story, can you possibly begin to expect their ‘journalists’ do any critical thinking?

    I attribute the decline of journalism to the idea that has taken hold over politics and business as well – money is all that matters. In politics, all government spending is waste to be cut. In business, every expense and employee is a cost to be cut. Thoughts of promoting the common good have evaporated from the minds of many, and quality journalism is one of the many victims. Quality journalism is too expensive when the fluff is cheaper and good enough for the masses.