News-reporting atrocities are bound to pop up anytime a cable-news outlet decides to devote nearly all of its energies to covering a single story, as CNN did last week vis-a-vis missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. As an unnamed CNN executive told the New York Times, “It is a tremendous story that is completely in our wheelhouse.”
Out of that wheelhouse have popped some real low points. Many critics are latching on CNN anchor Don Lemon’s invocation of the “the supernatural power of God” in framing the disappearance of the jetliner. In one silly moment last week, Lemon asked a guest something he couldn’t possibly know:
On @CNN, Don Lemon asks experienced pilot where he thinks the plane is.
— ErikWemple (@ErikWemple) March 13, 2014
All the sniping — on this blog and elsewhere — overshadows the predominant strain of CNN’s coverage, which has been primarily explanatory journalism, a televised, interminable version of an aviation-obsessed Ezra Klein. Take it from the Erik Wemple Blog, who has watched at least 50 hours of CNN’s work.
Or just dive into the muck on CNN.com’s transcript module. There you’ll find the presentation that CNN correspondent Tom Foreman pulled off on the network’s massive Asia map. Foreman has owned the mapping dimension of this story going back several days. Here’s how he broke down the latest during today’s “Legal View” program hosted by Ashleigh Banfield:
We started off with this plane taking off, flying less than an hour, coming up here and disappearing. We’ve talked about it many times, and steadily, it has spread out from there. You mentioned the nautical miles. Let me put it in land miles. This is around 3 million square land miles when you talk about all the space involved, including these big arcs that were described in these satellite readings, one of which you’ll notice goes off the coast of Australia, so that’s one of the reasons they’re searching there.
Meanwhile, other parts of it, which are considered less likely, head up into Asia, past Thailand, where today we had reports of their radar apparently saw the plane turning, heading towards the Straits of Malacca, and then on up to Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, other places that seem a little bit less likely.
Earlier today, on “CNN Newsroom” with host Carol Costello, correspondent Martin Savidge reported from his Flight 370 redoubt — a Boeing 777 simulator up in Canada somewhere (OK, Mississauga, Ontario). The scenes from the simulator have a campy feel, but they’re undeniably cool and informative. Today, Savidge’s charge has been to demonstrate how someone would have programmed Flight 370’s computer to take a left turn, as ABC News and the New York Times have reported. Here’s how he and pilot trainer Mitchell Casado cast the latest turn of events:
MARTIN SAVIDGE: Essentially this does a number of things for the aircraft. It really assists the pilot and co-pilot in flying this jumbo jet airliner. But the primary thing it does is navigate. Think about it like the GPS system for your car. Before taking off, you would program in where you were going and where you left from and a lot of other information.
We programmed in, of course, we left from Kuala Lumpur and we would be headed to Beijing as they were at 370. What Mitchell can demonstrate is that once in the air, you actually can change things if you want and you know what to do.
MITCHELL CASADO, PILOT TRAINER, 777 COCKPIT SIMULATOR: Our flight plan right now, to demonstrate, we are following this magenta line. There is the airplane. Here is my flight plan. What I’m going to do is enter waypoint I’m already familiar with. WMPA. A couple of key strokes. I enter it into the flight plan. It asks me if I’m sure I want to do that. Yes, I do. The airplane is automatically deviated. You can see we are turning to the left here. It is just a simple few keystrokes and the airplane deviates from its flight path.
More explanatory journalism. And in CNN’s 11:00 a.m. hour today, co-hosts John Berman and Michaela Pereira welcomed journalist and pilot Jeff Wise to discuss why there were no cell phone calls from Flight 370. Wise held forth, in part:
I think people get a false idea or misconception of what cell phones can do. In fact, if you are at altitude, you can’t make a cell phone call. The signal is too weak. Cell phone towers mostly aim their signal down, because that’s where most cell phones are, on the ground. They don’t want you to use them in airplanes. At 30,000 feet, you can’t use a cell phone.
Wise went on to contextualize the scene in the cabin on an international red-eye flight:
So it’s over night and most passengers are asleep. They have been told to turn their phones off. You can’t tell what direction you are heading just by the motion of your body. It is very disoriented. People might expect they can tell what direction they are headed in, but you really can’t. When this plane took its gentle turn to the left — it might have bumped up to 45,000 feet. It is not clear. But at any rate, they wouldn’t know that they had deviated. So the first thing they would know that something was unusual about this flight, potentially, unless there was a fire or some other thing happened, just from the fact of the flight itself, they wouldn’t know that they had deviated until they were maybe six hours into the flight, they are expecting to land in Beijing, they are not. It is still dark outside. It’s still dark outside. Why? Because they have traveled to a different part of the world and are in a different time zone.
CNN has a great deal of time to do news. All day and night, that is. This means there’s plenty of time for the frivolous, senseless moments that captivate media critics — like this one — but also plenty of time to do meaningful, sober discussion of the very technical dimensions of a multilayered mystery.