With no certainty about missing Malaysian plane, airtime fills with speculation

On cable news this week, there weren’t many new revelations about that missing Malaysia Airlines jet. But there was plenty of speculation, theorizing and outright guessing about it.

No rumor was too small, no would-be scenario too outlandish to try it out: The plane had crashed. The plane had been hijacked. The plane had landed somewhere. Well, who really knew?

Certainly not CNN, which used its international reporting resources to go wall-to-wall with the story for much of the week. Among its competitors, it also was the network that went the most wild, as well.

On CNN on Friday, Richard Quest, the network’s bombastic business-news host, argued with aviation expert Tom Haueter about what had happened. Quest insisted it had something to do with equipment failure on the Boeing 777 jet.

But Haueter, a former official at the National Transportation Safety Board, offered a caution that CNN itself had more or less ignored all day. “I can put together a scenario to support any theory you want,” Haueter said. “Right now, everything is possible. We need more data.”

Undaunted, Quest pushed on. “My own theory . . .” he started before anchor Don Lemon interrupted him to cut to White House press secretary Jay Carney’s daily press briefing.

Carney, with inadvertently perfect timing, offered, “To the extent that you have questions about what happened to the plane, I can assure you I don’t have the answer,” he said. “I don’t think anyone does. I wouldn’t speculate about the scenarios being laid out in the media.”

Almost immediately thereafter, CNN sent out its weatherman, Chad Myers, to lay out another scenario. Myers stood in front of a route map of the plane and suggested a plot was afoot: “The plane had enough fuel to land someplace, somewhere, that was pre-planned,” reported the weatherman.

The wild stabs at the story reflected the vacuum surrounding it. A few new facts trickled in during the week, but nothing that solved the mystery that made the story so compelling in the first place. That left speculation — or changing the subject — as the primary option to fill hours and hours of airtime.

Over on Fox News, reporter Catherine Herridge zeroed in on what she called a “largely overlooked” possibility: that something was in the plane’s cargo hold. Herridge didn’t say what that might have been, or why this has been overlooked, or who beside her thinks this is significant. But, she added, “Here in the United States, when passenger jets carry cargo, it has to be screened. But those standards really vary pretty considerably, rather, in different countries, and I’m not clear tonight what Malaysia’s standards are.”

CNN did not return requests for comment; a Fox spokeswoman could not immediately be reached. But CNN host Chris Cuomo defended the network’s “scattershot” approach when he said the following on the air:

“Often in a situation like the mystery of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, the job is to have more questions than there are answers, because simply not enough is known. So if it seems like we’re nibbling around the edges, it’s because we are. If it seems like you’re trying to avoid the suggestion of speculation, it’s because you have to. Because the facts often will lead you in the right direction and until you have them, you can just be as scattershot as the theories and ideas that we’re hearing about where this plane may be. But the bottom line is the authorities and those who are supposed to know simply do not.”

In contrast to CNN, which televised a special, two-hour “Situation Room” special report on the missing flight on Friday, its competitors played the plane story in rotation with other topics, such as the crisis in Ukraine.

“We have done solid and careful reporting [on the missing jet], facts not speculation,” said Dawn Bridges, a spokeswoman for Al Jazeera America, the Qatari-funded network that began operating last year. “Facts as they’re reported by authorities.”

Still, the wall-to-wall treatment appears to have struck a chord with viewers. CNN’s ratings have gotten a modest bump this week during almost every part of the day, though it finished far behind Fox News.

Clarification: An earlier version of this article stated that Fox did not respond to a request for comment. In fact, a Fox spokeswoman acknowledged an email seeking comment, but it did not reach the reporter before deadline because of a technical glitch. The article has been updated to reflect this change.

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
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