[ by Charles Cameron — Malaysia flight 370 seen through the media glass, darkly ]
Here’s Fallows in The Atlantic on Malaysia flight 370:
As the years go by, I am more and more convinced that the immediate, fast-twitch talk-show responses on what we “have” to do about some development are almost always wrong, and the calm, day- or week-after reflections about proportion, response, and national interest are almost always wiser. If I could, I would put all cable-TV discussion of breaking-news crises on a 24-hour delay.
I would love to DoubleQuote that up with some other specific example — but which?
With the initial reporting that the Oklahoma City bombing was likely Islamic? From the American Journalism Review, Jumping to Conclusions in Oklahoma City?
Within hours of the bombing, most network news reports featured comments from experts on Middle Eastern terrorism who said the blast was similar to the World Trade Center explosion two years earlier. Newspapers relied on many of those same experts and stressed the possibility of a Middle East connection. The Wall Street Journal, for example, called it a “Beirut-style car bombing” in the first sentence of its story. The New York Post quoted Israeli terrorism experts in its opening paragraph, saying the explosion “mimicked three recent attacks on targets abroad.” “We were, as usual, following the lead of public officials, assuming that public officials are telling us the truth,” says John R. MacArthur, publisher of Harper’s magazine and author of a book on coverage of the Persian Gulf War. He believes the media overemphasized the possible Middle Eastern link and ignored domestic suspects because initially the police were not giving that angle much thought. “Reporters can’t think without a cop telling them what to think,” MacArthur says. “If you are going to speculate wildly, why not say this is the anniversary of the Waco siege? Why isn’t that as plausible as bearded Arabs fleeing the scene?”
With the student Sunil Tripathi, widely and falsely accused of being one of the Boston Marathon bombers, whose body was later found in “the waters off India Point Park in Providence, Rhode Island”? As later reported by Mary Elizabeth Williams in Salon:
Of all the ways in which last week’s horror in Boston showed the resilience and cooperation of a community in the wake of disaster, the tragedy will also inevitably go down as a shining example of the desperate, despicable scramble to hunt, to accuse, to blame first – and worry about ethics and responsibility later. If ever. We saw it in the epic bungling of mainstream media outlets like CNN and the New York Post. We saw it in the frenzy of Redditors and overeager tweeters. We saw it, most cruelly, in the story of a missing student, a young man whose body may have been pulled Tuesday night from the Providence harbor:
Sunil Tripathi was already making headlines before the Boston Marathon bombing. The Brown undergraduate was last seen on March 16, wearing “a black jacket, blue jeans and a Philadelphia Eagles cap.” … And then Boston happened. In what was later far too generously referred to as the “confusion” of its aftermath, the amateur detectives of Reddit decided that the missing man could be seen in images at the scene of the bombing. “The photos bear good resemblance… not perfect but there are definitely strong similarities… skin tone, hair color, approximate build, and yes that nose.” Where the whole thing really went berserk, though, was in the rumor, which instantly became a desperately repeated report, that Tripathi, along with another man mentioned by name, had been “identified on police scanner” as a suspect. Tripathi’s photograph was instantly splashed across the world. He was declared unquestioningly in the news feeds of both hasty, news-hungry social media users and several media outlets as a “suspect.”
And so forth…
Or should we go with something simpler and more general, like Moltke the Elder‘s dictum:
No plan survives contact with the enemy
or Philip Snowden‘s:
Truth, it has been said, is the first casualty of war
The DoubleQuote is a fine and useful form — but deep down, it’s pattern recognition — and as in the present case, a pattern may recur more than once…
In this instance… James Fallows later commented, in Malaysia 370 Update: Landing Strips, Cell Phones, and More:
Rupert Murdoch loses his mind. You can see it here. What’s most amazing about the response below is that it happened before anything was known about the flight — whether it had blown up, ditched in the sea, been hijacked, landed safely by mistake somewhere, etc.
It’s possible that the jihadist interpretation will turn out to be true. But the word “confirms,” before anyone knew (or yet knows) what happened to the flight, from perhaps the single most powerful “journalistic” figure in the world is … well, it confirms a lot of suspicions about Murdoch.