Thursday, March 27, 2014

Culture Shock 03.27.14: Lack of facts keeps Flight 370 compelling

Planes similar to Flight 19, which disappeared in 1945 in the Bermuda
It is Sunday. It has been 17 days since Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, and CNN's Martin Savidge is still inside the flight simulator.

He always seems to be there. Night or day, CNN anchors throw to him so he can explain what might have happened to Flight 370, based on the latest theories and conjectures, fragments and wild guesses.

"It's official. I am now known on the street as 'The cockpit guy'," he tweets.

This is how reporters become minor celebrities. It's not exactly Bernard Shaw reporting by phone from beneath a table in his hotel room as the missiles rain down on Baghdad during the first Iraq War, but at least there's little risk of becoming collateral damage. That's a plus.

The fate of Flight 370 and its 239 passengers and crew is morbidly fascinating all out of proportion to its intrinsic newsworthiness. Is the coverage too much? Maybe. But it's not exactly as if a steady stream of cable news pundits war-gaming the Crimean War 2.0 on live TV is particularly enlightening either. If you want to know what's up with Crimea, you're better off reading a history book and drawing your own conclusions.

But if you want to know what's up with that missing airplane in the Indian Ocean, your guess is as good as anyone's, and almost everyone has a guess.

Terrorism experts suspect terrorism. Engineers suspect mechanical failure.

Before the plane's debris was found in the ocean, a retired general known for his off-the-wall views was sure the plane was hijacked and taken to Pakistan because something something al-Qaida.

Did you know UFO sightings in and around Malaysia surged right before Flight 370 disappeared? I read that on the Internet, which is great if you believe everything you read on the Internet.

Is it possible Flight 370 went through a wormhole caused by the Large Hadron Collider? I just made that up, but does that make it not true? You can't prove it isn't.

The Flight 370 story is ill-suited to continuous, 24/7 news coverage. We know almost nothing. Facts we think we know one day end up disproved the next. And as far as American viewers are concerned, it's all taking place a world away. When it's daytime here, it's nighttime there. Most of our speculation occurs during the dead period when the search has been scaled back for the night.

When it comes to Flight 370, most of our "breaking news" is neither.

But CNN's ratings spike doesn't lie. A lot of us are addicted to Flight 370 news, even when it isn't news. Maybe especially when it isn't news.

It's the mystery that captivates because it's so unlikely. A large passenger jet vanishes for 17 days with barely a trace? In 2014? The government has spy satellites that can read your mail from orbit. So, how does a Boeing 777 just disappear?

Mundane explanations, the sort that invoke the science of how things like satellites and GPS and cellphones really work, don't satisfy. Never mind if they're true. Psychologically speaking, big mysteries demand big answers. Missing airplanes are by definition big mysteries. That's how we get six seasons of "Lost" on TV and Stephen King's "The Langoliers."

That's how we get the Bermuda Triangle. In 1945, Flight 19, composed of five TBM Avenger torpedo bombers, disappeared in the triangle. The most likely explanation is the pilots, mostly trainees, got lost and ditched their plans in rough waters as they ran out of fuel. The pilots and their planes were never found, but they were last seen in Steven Spielberg's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."

You disappear into history, and you reappear as mythology.

Before there were airplanes, there were ships. The Mary Celeste was discovered adrift at sea, its crew missing. Books and movies followed, but few hard facts.

Hard facts would only get in the way. When there are facts, everyone gets to call it a day.

If only there were more facts, Martin Savidge might get to go home.

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