NTSB cans intern who ‘confirmed’ names of Asiana pilots

July 15, 2013

Somewhere in Washington, a summer intern apparently didn’t get the joke.

The unidentified intern at the National Transportation Safety Board allegedly seized the initiative, just as up-and-coming go-getters are supposed to do. Called by a Bay Area TV station on Friday, he “confirmed” the names of the crew members of an Asiana Airlines jet that crashed in San Francisco on July 6. The station, KTVU in Oakland, then read the names on the air and posted them in an on-screen graphic.

Only those weren’t actual names but the kind of racially insensitive names you used to make up in grade-school when you learned about puns (anyone remember the author of “Under the Grandstand,” for example?). In this case, the station reported that the crew included “Captain Sum Ting Wong” and “Wi Tu Low” and two others.

Result: A video of the news report became one of the more widely snickered-about TV-news screw-ups in years.

But hold on. Let’s go back to the tape on this tale.

A few questions: How, for instance, could anyone, let alone an intern, “confirm”  a list of names he’d never seen nor heard in the first place? And why didn’t the “joke” occur to him as he read or heard the names?


The wreckage of the Asiana Airlines Flight 214 is moved off site to a secure area away from the runway at San Francisco International Airport in San Francisco, Calif. (EPA/JOHN G. MABANGLO )

Further, wouldn’t the absurdity of those names be obvious at some point to one or several journalists at KTVU, a respected station with a 120-person newsroom?

The NTSB on Monday wasn’t shedding much light on this one. It stuck to a statement it issued on Friday, in which it blamed the intern and apologized for the “inaccurate and offensive names.” It wouldn’t identify the intern or answer questions about the circumstances of his behavior.

“As we said in the statement, he acted outside the scope of his authority,” said Kelly Nantel, a spokeswoman for the agency, in an interview. “He should not have even been addressing the [station’s] question in the first place, but he did. He made a very bad mistake and a bad judgment call, but it wasn’t a malicious thing. The news station read off a list of names to him [that] they said sounded right. And they shouldn’t have done that. And he shouldn’t have done that, but he did, and we’ve taken responsibility for it, and we’ve taken action to keep it from happening again.”

That is, the NTSB intern is now an ex-NTSB intern. He was dismissed by the agency on Monday.

As for the intern’s inability to discern a gag: “He did not know they were fake names,” Nantel said. “You’d have to ask the station where they got the names from. I don’t know.”

Well, that’s another mystery. One person familiar with the sequence of events at the station said the initial tip about the pilot names came from “a trusted source” who has provided accurate information in the past. Only this time, the “trusted source” appears to have been kidding. Or trying to put one over on some credulous reporters.

In any case, the station hurriedly sought NTSB confirmation of the tip, unaware that the agency never confirms the names of of flight-crew members in crashes that are under investigation.

At that point, “we made several mistakes when we received this information,” KTVU said in an on-air apology on Friday. “First, we never read the names out loud, phonetically sounding them out. Then, during our phone call to the NTSB where the person confirmed the spellings of the names, we never asked that person to give us their position with the agency. We heard this person verify the information without questioning who they were and then rushed the names on our noon newscast.”

So, a joke that spiraled out of control? “That’s a reasonable guess,” said the person familiar with the station’s actions who requested anonymity because the airline has said it is considering suing KTVU for defamation.  ”There were a lot of hands in this. It was truly a comedy of errors.”

Staff writer Ashley Halsey contributed to this report.

Update: An earlier version of this post originally referenced “Under the Grandstand” as “Under the Boardwalk.”

 

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
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