It mystifies us: What happened to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 with 239 people aboard?
It frightens us: What was it like for those on board?
It challenges us: In this age of the internet and advanced technology, how can something as big as a Boeing 777 seemingly just disappear and not be found for more than two weeks?
Questions, lots of questions.
And no answers.
The lack of information has not stopped the media, especially cable television networks, from endless coverage.
Endless coverage, and idle speculation. CNN, which made a name for itself covering wars, disasters, and major political stories and which has gone all out on the missing plane, has been host to all sorts of cockamamie discussions: The plane was sucked into a black hole, vanished into the Indian Ocean’s version of the Bermuda Triangle, or crash-landed on the island in “Lost.”
There is, of course, only one thing we know for sure about Flight 370: On March 8 it disappeared.
Anything other than that is conjecture. But the mystery is so compelling that many people are tuning into cable TV’s non-stop coverage. CNN’s ratings have boomed, growing 86 percent among viewers aged 25 to 54 — the segment coveted by advertisers — and 71 percent among all viewers. (Full disclosure: I worked for CNN in the 1980s and 1990s.)
When there is breaking news, such as yesterday's announcement by Malaysian authorities that the plane went down in the Indian Ocean and probably no one survived, then the media should be all over it. At all other times, all should be judicious: If there is nothing to report, don't report.
CNN built its reputation as the “go-to” network for breaking news, but in recent years its ratings have suffered as Fox News carved out a niche appealing to conservative viewers with its non-stop bashing of President Obama and MSNBC countered on the left, providing continuous coverage of stories like Chris Christie and the lane closings on the George Washington Bridge. CNN has made a number of on- and off-air changes in the last few years to try to bolster ratings, but with little success. Current head, Jeff Zucker, has failed so far to devise a sustainable strategy to challenge the network’s rivals.
That is, other than going wall-to-wall discussing the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, about which no one knows anything. As one anonymous CNN staffer said in an email: “Is it really news coverage, when there is no news to report?”
Of course, it isn’t. But the worst part of this non-stop coverage (and Fox and MSNBC have been guilty of it too, if only to a slightly lesser degree) is not that the network anchors engage in idle speculation discussing the lack of news.
No, the worse thing is that there really is news to cover, only it’s not getting covered.
For starters, there’s the unprecedented Russian aggression in annexing Crimea. The first forcible seizure of land by a European state since the end of World War II is news that affects everyone, but it has taken a back seat to the missing airliner. There is news virtually every day on this story and room galore for analysis and expert on-air discussion.
Crimea is not the only important story. There’s the coming mid-term elections, with control of Congress at stake, the ongoing saga of enrollments in the new health-care exchanges, a federal judge overturning Michigan’s ban on same-sex marriages, and many more.
But alas, none of these stories match the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370: It’s a story too good to check out.