Asiana reportedly to sue KTVU in San Francisco for fake pilot names

Last week, an anchor for KTVU in San Francisco mistakenly read fabricated names on live television for the pilots of the Asiana Airlines Boeing 777 that crashed there 10 days ago. The names had apparently been given to the station as part of an offensive prank. Here is a partial transcript:

We have new information also on the plane crash. KTVU has just learned the names of the four pilots who were on board the flight. They are captain Sum Ting Wong, Wi Tu Lo, [redacted] and Bang Ding Ow. The NTSB has confirmed these are the names of the pilots on board flight 214 when it crashed. We are working to determine exactly what roles each of them played during the landing on Saturday.

The National Transportation Safety Board has dismissed an intern who, for some reason, told the station that the names were accurate:

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?

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 flight-crew members in crashes that are under investigation.

Paul Farhi

Asiana Airlines intends to file suit against the station, according to news reports. Erik Wemple argues that the suit would lack merit:

There’s little question that the KTVU report disparaged Asians and conveyed false information. That’s unfortunate. It doesn’t, however, give Asiana Airlines a cause of action against KTVU.

To win a judgment against the television station, the airline must prove that the false report so injured its reputation that it resulted in the loss of business. That, it will never be able to do.

If Asiana Airlines suffers a loss of business these days, what will have been the cause? We’ll throw out two options:

1) A crash after an Asiana aircraft approached San Francisco International Airport too slowly, leaving three people dead.

2) A roughly 30-second report on a local TV station using fake pilot names for the flight.

Tough call there.

Consider, too, that the KTVU report in question made no allegations about how the airline operated; it merely read off four names — wrong names, to be sure, but names! What’s defamatory about names? The racial insensitivity in the broadcast, too, is fully protected under U.S. law, notes attorney Jeffrey Pyle, a partner in the Boston-based firm Prince Lobel Tye LLP. “There’s no legal claim that you have against somebody for being unintentionally racist or intentionally racist,” says Pyle.

Erik Wemple

Three people died in the crash: Liu Yipeng, 15, Wang Linjia, 16, and Ye Mengyuan, 16, all from China. They were classmates. For past coverage of the crash, continue reading here.

Max Ehrenfreund is a blogger on the Financial desk and writes for Know More and Wonkblog.
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