Everyone loves a good mystery. Who killed JFK? Who put the bomp in the bomp, ba-bomp, ba-bomp? What really happened to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370? Of these three puzzlements, maybe only the second has any real chance of being fully answered within our lifetimes.
But from its beginning March 8, media coverage of the missing airliner took conjecture to new heights – or new lows, depending on your viewpoint. There were, after all, only two possible outcomes to the story: the plane landed, or the plane crashed. Yet, media rehashed the story nearly 24/7 for more than two weeks, putting 370 in first class while relegating the Ukraine crisis and nearly all other news to coach.
Sure, there were valid theories about what might have caused the airliner to veer off course and disappear. Perhaps it was hijacked by passengers, or even by one of its pilots. Maybe there was an emergency – possibly a fire, since it was revealed that the plane was carrying lithium-ion batteries, which caused fires on other planes.
But in the rush to avoid being beaten to the correct conclusion by rival networks, CNN, Fox and other cable outlets proved themselves to be nothing more than electronic versions of the tabloid newspapers. An early theory: Two passengers who boarded with stolen passports may have been terrorists. Next up, the copilot may have been suicidal or a deranged activist who hijacked the plane as an act of political protest – someone unearthed a picture of him wearing a “Democracy is Dead” T-shirt. Then the battery fire idea jumped up, waving its hand and screaming “Ooh! Ooh!” for recognition.
No one was sure where the plane went, but everyone had an idea: The plane flew north; the plane flew west; the plane flew south. Somehow, east escaped suspicion.
Celebrities got involved in the guessing game. Rupert Murdoch speculated that the plane landed in Pakistan secretly, with its passengers as hostages. Even Courtney Love, widow of the late grunge rocker Kurt Cobain, thought she found the missing plane’s wreckage in satellite images. But whereas Love admitted in her tweets that “I’m no expert,” the “experts” did little better. Indeed, pundits floated just about every possible theory except that the airliner was beamed up by a UFO or brought down in protest of Obamacare.
Why do media outlets spend so much time on what one observer called “disaster porn” instead of on stories that bear far more coverage? Because so many people watch it.
Fox won the primetime news wars with its virtually nonstop coverage, while CNN was a distant second, pulling about one-third the viewers of Fox.
People, it seems, are desperate to be told virtually nothing new, all day, every day. Most depressing of all, CNN viewership, according to The Washington Post, grew 86 percent among those aged 25 to 54 after blanket coverage began.
Well, at least we’ve found a way to pull them away from Facebook.
But can anyone conceive of these networks drawing that kind of audience for multiple, celebrity-anchored daily programs featuring so-called experts talking about global warming, or why the cost of health care in America is so much higher than in other countries? Only if Miley Cyrus and Phil Robertson of “Duck Dynasty” are panelists.
There’s nothing wrong with being curious. On this planet for anywhere between 6,000 and 200,000 years – depending on whose set of “experts” you believe – mankind continues to wonder. It’s an innate human trait.
But it’s a shame that the resurrected “Cosmos,” a series based on speculation that has led to concrete facts, now has about half the viewers who tuned in for its splashy March 10 premiere.
Seek the truth if you must. But maybe we don’t like being too sure about anything.