The other night I got into bed later than usual and wondered if I had missed the nightly installment of this month’s hottest talk-radio topic: the missing Malaysian plane and wild theories about its fate. Silly me. The talkers were still at full throttle, ranting about, The plane! The plane!
Daytime talk shows on radio and TV tend to dwell on basic stuff when a sensational story like this one comes along. You know, terrorist plots, government conspiracies and even mundane mechanical failures. But late at night and online — where media are pretty much off the wall, even without a provocative story like this one — the missing plane is sparking nonstop discussion about secret landing strips, vast worldwide conspiracies and, of course, UFOs!
This much we know: Whatever became of the 239 souls aboard Flight 370 is tragic, as is the uncertainty about their fate that drags on for families and friends. But while actual details — “news,” if you will — grows scarce, the media stampede on the story isn’t letting up.
After more than a dozen days, the “search area” was described as roughly the size of the continental U.S., perhaps near Australia. That’s like saying a plane was lost over New Jersey and it could be in the Grand Canyon, or maybe at the bottom of Lake Michigan, or in myriad other places in between.
The problem isn’t extensive news coverage, which was welcome at the start. It’s excessive coverage, when there is little or no news to report. CNN has moved into drop-everything-mode, as if covering the Kennedy assassination. That prompted actress Mia Farrow to Tweet: “Has TV ‘news’ gone completely crazy?”
Of course, Farrow is hardly an objective judge of CNN’s product since her son Ronan now hosts a show on MSNBC. Still, her point is well taken. For example, CNN flashed the words “Breaking News” on the screen during marathon coverage nearly two weeks into the story. And what was the big break? That a CNN reporter was inside a flight simulator and would show what a 777 cockpit looks like.
Even Fox anchor Bill O’Reilly believes the missing plane commentary is over the top. “Watching some of this coverage is painful,” said O’Reilly. He concluded, “It’s now corrupting the news business.”
Cable and the Internet have an unquenchable thirst for stories that tweak the public’s imaginations and a keen eye for running stories that could be treated as a BIG DEAL. MSNBC, for instance, has devoted more time to Chris Christie and his New Jersey bridge scandal than any other single story that’s come along this year. In 2013, Fox News Channel ran so hard and fast with the Benghazi matter that viewers might have assumed it was the only thing happening on the planet.
Television has a long and annoying history of overdosing on ratings-building stories. ABC’s “Nightline” actually began in 1979 with the singular purpose of covering the Iran hostage crisis. The thread ran for a remarkable 440 days until the crisis ended, after which time “Nightline” stayed on but was forced to cover other things.
Back then the only meaningful competition for ABC was Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” on NBC. Today there are numerous cable news channels plus hundreds of online news sites, and the battle to grab and hold viewers with a dramatic running story is intense.
As for the public, nothing sells like a vast conspiracy theory, except maybe sex.
To hear late-night radio hosts tell it, the 777 is sitting on a deserted strip somewhere in Somalia, the passengers all held hostage while the plane is refitted with nuclear weapons for a massive attack on Israel. According to others, aliens commandeered the plane and are holding the passengers aboard a UFO.
With everyone shouting theories about, “the plane, the plane,” we should remember where the line was coined. Fantasy Island.