That Intern Meme

The National Transportation Safety Board was quick to find and punish the person responsible for that oh-so-embarrassing incident in which a Bay Area TV station aired names that were purported to be the pilots in the deadly Asiana Airlines crash.

The names were crude, pun-filled Asian stereotypes.

As the Internet collectively snickered, there were red faces all around. In its defense, the TV station said the information had been okayed by the NTSB.

The real culprit? An intern, the NTSB insisted, one that they promptly fired.

Good strategy! Blaming the intern for cringe-inducing faux pas is a time-honored tradition. Interns, after all, make the perfect fall guys, with their reputation for cluelessness and laziness, and their status somewhere underneath the lowest rung on the Washington ladder. There’s little respect for a group whose patron saint and most infamous alum is Monica Lewinsky.

But is it fair to turn eager young public servants into the equivalent of the dog who ate Washington’s homework? Joe Starrs, director of U.S. Summer Programs at the Fund for American Studies, which places Washington interns, says it’s an employer’s job to provide those young, inexperienced (and often unpaid) workers with guidance and a supervisor. “To throw the intern under the bus is the ultimate in abdicating responsibility,” he says.

The NTSB was trying to have it both ways, by blaming a clueless intern, but then (sort of) ’fessing up. “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.” NTSB spokeswoman Kelly Nantel told our colleague Paul Farhi.

But the agency was just following a script that’s reliably gotten politicians out of awkward jams. Here are some previous examples of pinning it on the intern:

● An intern for the 2008 presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) took the fall for “Farfalle-gate,” the scandal that ensued when recipes billed as Cindy McCain’s own culinary creations turned out to have been lifted from the Food Network. “The intern has been dealt with,” campaign spokesman Tucker Bounds told reporters. “We took away his zero pay.”


● Former Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) in 2011 told the Boston Globe that a wayward “summer intern” had put together his new Senate Web site, and was thus responsible for passages that had been lifted verbatim from a speech given by former Sen. Elizabeth Dole.

● When the official Twitter account for former representative Allan West retweeted a message from the band the Scissor Sisters defending gay people, the Florida Republican cried “unauthorized RT ... an intern made an error.” The offending intern was sacked.

Perhaps it’s only a matter of time before clever pols figure out how to blame the real crises of our time on unpaid kids. Global warming? Partisan gridlock? Blame the intern.