It was a mixed blessing for cable news yesterday when a corporate jet in Oregon developed landing gear troubles soon after takeoff. The upside: dramatic live coverage sure to draw viewers — almost like a police chase in the sky! The downside: lots of airtime to fill.
And no matter how many talking heads news producers call on — pilots, former employees of the National Transportation Safety Board, airport officials in Oregon, even a Gulf Stream 5 expert, all of whom Fox News interviewed yesterday afternoon — chances are they will still be grappling for ways to fill the air (not to mention the screen, as the caption must be constantly refreshed to convey ongoing urgency).
What to do? Here is what Fox News did.
First, reassure viewers that the people on board the plane aren’t that important. Juliet Huddy of “Dayside” reported that passengers included “senior executives, but, you know, it’s not like the president and vice president.” Huddy later summarized the situation this way: “[S]even people onboard, four senior Nike executives, three crew people. Phil Knight, the chairman of Nike is not onboard. There are no athletes or anything like that onboard” — or, as noted in the on-screen caption, “FAA Spokesman: There are no sports stars aboard plane.”
Second, have your talking heads address questions emailed in by viewers, such as: Why doesn’t the plane land on the grass instead of the runway — wouldn’t it be softer?
Then, bring in yet another talking head — although one potential drawback to having several different talking heads on the air in one afternoon is that they may contradict one another or otherwise take the wind out of the story’s sails. For example, here is how one of Fox’s experts, Charles Slepian— identified as a “former pilot and NTSB official” — summed it up for viewers: “We need to be taking a look at what has become an epidemic of landing gear problems, not only with these jets but with commercial jets as well.” An epidemic? You mean, like bird flu, maybe, but of the aviation — not avian — variety?
But when Fox’s Martha MacCallum later asked another expert whether landing gear-related incidents are “happening more now,” the expert replied cagily that “there’s been a tremendous growth in business aviation over the past five to seven years” and “the whole advent of 24-hour news is going to cover these events much more intensely.” He continued: “The truth is these kinds of landing gear problems happen. They don’t happen regularly, but they happen occasionally. And it’s not something that you say oh, my goodness! This has never happened before! But in the overwhelming number of cases, the outcome is just fine. You might have a damaged aircraft. But folks walk away from it.” Or, to put it another way: The only epidemic is the epidemic of television news coverage — of situations that make for rather dull TV.
Later in the day, “Dayside“‘s Mike Jerrick quantified the “epidemic” for viewers. “We’re getting new information in here,” Jerrick reported. “There are 100 gear-up landing incidents each year. In fact, the last five years it’s been right around 100.” Very epidemic-like, that. Jerrick continued, “And I don’t remember any of them resulting in injuries or deaths, certainly that we covered here on the channel. Many pilots will say this almost always turns out well.” Translation: turns out poorly for cable news.
And what’s dull TV for viewers is also tedious for anchors. Witness how Shepard Smith greeted news of the plane’s imminent landing: “They are saying that the jet will land now in the next couple of minutes. So our wait through from ‘Fox News Live’ and into ‘Dayside’ and on into Martha MacCallum and now into ‘Studio B’ of a plane flying around in circles, may mercifully come to an end.”
Why cover the story so closely, then? Viewers got the answer, apropos of nothing, from Fox’s “resident pilot” Jon Scott: “The reason we’re covering this is because it is so unusual. .. And, you know, the fact of the matter is in the 100 years since the Wright brothers flew, we made incredible strides in aviation. And a situation like this is extremely unusual.” So much for that epidemic.
The final reason to cover this story is that, as Scott confessed, it’s “highly dramatic.” Except, of course, when it’s anti-climactic. After all of that, when the plane touches down without so much as a spark — as your talking heads told you it probably would — what’s a news anchor to say? What is an appropriate way to move on? Here’s how Shepard Smith “threw” it to weather forecaster Janice Dean moments after the plane landed: “They had a beautiful day for an emergency jet landing, didn’t they?”
Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.
It was only the coverage that crashed.