The Media Today

Local reporter flagged Boeing safety issues days before Ethiopia crash

March 19, 2019

On October 29 last year, a Boeing 737 MAX airplane operated by Lion Air crashed shortly after takeoff in Indonesia, killing 189 passengers and crew. In the days after the incident, Dominic Gates, an aerospace reporter at The Seattle Times, learned from a source that Boeing, which has a huge presence around Seattle, was preparing to warn airlines of a possible instrument failure that could tip 737 MAXs into dangerous dives. Gates continued to report on potential problems with the model. What he found out was extraordinary. Managers at the Federal Aviation Administration let Boeing safety-test features of the 737 MAX itself. And current and former Boeing engineers familiar with the checks told Gates they had major flaws.

On March 6, Gates sent requests for comment to Boeing and the FAA outlining his findings about a flawed safety assessment. Boeing said it would work on providing answers. Then, on March 10, another 737 MAX, this time operated by Ethiopian Airlines, crashed six minutes after lifting off from Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital. Boeing quickly found itself at the center of a global media storm. Countries around the world grounded the planes; last Wednesday, the US, belatedly followed suit. Around the same time, Gates finished writing his piece about the flawed safety check—but Boeing and the FAA had still not commented, and the links between the Lion Air and Ethiopian crashes remained murky. On Thursday, Gates and three colleagues learned about, then reported, a potential similarity between the incidents based on evidence found at the Ethiopian crash site and relayed by an expert. On Friday, Gates finalized the safety-test story he’d been working on since last year, and it was published on Sunday.

ICYMI: A copyeditor was looking at early Charlottesville images Saturday. While doing so, he made a big realization.

Like many local news reporters in the US, Gates—a former math teacher who is now in his 16th year with The Seattle Times—works a beat dedicated to a dominant local company or industry. “To survive as a regional paper, The Seattle Times has to offer readers news it cannot get elsewhere,” Gates tells me in an email. “Since this is the home of Boeing, Microsoft, Amazon and Starbucks, it strives to own coverage of those mega corporations. Coverage of Boeing has historically been huge for The Seattle Times.”

There’s no shortage of national coverage of those companies—Bloomberg, The Wall Street Journal, and others have broken important stories on the Boeing beat. But Gates feels his local base offers him a distinct advantage. “I have sources aerospace reporters elsewhere can only dream about,” he says. “Not just inside Boeing but also its suppliers and its unions. And the FAA office responsible for certifying Boeing planes. And our readers include a very large, knowledgeable aerospace base.”

In a dire economic climate for local news, specialized beats and the reporters on them, are, logically, under threat. Reporters like Gates are reminders that America’s local newspapers can be crucial repositories of public-interest journalism. When they falter, national titles are sometimes able to pick up the slack. But we shouldn’t rely on that. The logical endpoint of America’s local-news crisis isn’t just less reporting on local courthouses and councils—it’s less scrutiny for major companies and arms of the federal government, too.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

ICYMI: WSJ reporter explains why he was fired

Below, more on local news:

  • Gitmo: In early February, The Miami Herald’s Carol Rosenberg, the only US reporter covering Guantanamo Bay on a full-time basis, was one of 450 employees to be offered a buyout by McClatchy, the Herald’s owner. Rosenberg, whose position at the Herald was being supported by the Pulitzer Center, subsequently left the paper for The New York Times.
  • Et tu, Facebook: A Facebook service aiming to serve local news to users has been hamstrung by a lack of available local news, the company said on Monday. Facebook found that 40 percent of Americans live in areas where the service cannot be supported; it pledged to share its data with academics researching the “news desert” phenomenon. As many observers were quick to point out, the local news crisis has been greatly exacerbated by Facebook’s ad monopoly and content policies.
  • Alt-alt-weeklies: Local alt-weeklies have been hit particularly hard by the dire local-news climate: last month, for example, the Seattle Weekly, for whom Gates used to write, announced it was going out of print. For CJR, Allison Braden looks at “alt-alt-weeklies”—publications that have grown from the ashes of shuttered alt-weeklies.

Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo banned the State Department press corps from a rare call with reporters, reserving access for “faith-based media only,” CNN’s Michelle Kosinski and Jennifer Hansler report. The State Department subsequently refused to provide a transcript of the call—which concerned religious freedom in the Middle East—or confirm which outlets were invited to participate.
  • William Barr, the attorney general, has asserted the state-secrets privilege in an old lawsuit brought by Twitter, which claims the government has violated its First Amendment rights by blocking it from publishing details of the government surveillance requests it receives. Yesterday, Twitter found itself on the receiving end of a very different lawsuit: Devin Nunes, the pro-Trump congressman, is suing the platform for allowing defamatory attacks against him. Nunes, who says Twitter has a “political agenda,” also sued three users, including @DevinNunesMom and @DevinCow.
  • Donna Brazile, the controversial former interim chair of the Democratic National Committee, is joining Fox News as a contributor. “I know I’m going to get criticized from my friends in the progressive movement for being on Fox News,” she said. “Will I agree with my fellow commentators at Fox News? Probably not. But I will listen.” In 2016, Brazile was working as a CNN contributor when she leaked information about an upcoming town hall broadcast on the network to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
  • American Media Inc., which publishes The National Enquirer, paid $200,000 to Michael Sanchez for the story of his sister’s affair with Jeff Bezos, the Journal’s Michael Rothfeld, Joe Palazzolo, and Alexandra Berzon report. (So much for Bezos’s dark musings about the US and Saudi governments.) Bloomberg, meanwhile, looks at odd goings-on at Chatham Asset Management, the hedge-fund owner of AMI and the Enquirer.
  • Last month, Goodloe Sutton, the white editor of Alabama’s weekly Democrat-Reporter newspaper, drew condemnation over an editorial calling on the Ku Klux Klan to “ride again.” Amid growing national clamor, Sutton agreed to be replaced as editor by Elecia Dexter, a black office clerk at the paper who did not have prior journalism experience. Now, after only a few weeks in post, Dexter is stepping down, citing continued interference from Sutton, who still owns the paper. “It’s sad—so much good could have come out of this,” she tells the Times’s Sarah Mervosh.
  • For CJR, Matthew Kassel asked 18 journalists how they record their interviews. “How journalists memorialize their interviews seems to be divided, in many ways, along generational lines, with older reporters relying more on their notebooks and younger reporters clinging to their recording devices,” Kassel writes.
  • Earlier this month, The Hollywood Reporter’s Tatiana Siegel and Kim Masters reported that Kevin Tsujihara, the chairman and CEO of Warner Bros., promised to promote the career of Charlotte Kirk, a British actress with whom he had had a sexual relationship. Yesterday, Tsujihara, who had been set to take on more responsibility following Warner Media’s merger with AT&T, stepped down from the studio.
  • Over the weekend, Hamas security officials detained and “brutally beat” seven Palestinian journalists over their coverage of cost-of-living protests in Gaza, sources from the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate tell The Times of Israel and AFP. The protests’ organizers reportedly called the demonstrations non-political, but they have nonetheless been interpreted as a challenge to Hamas’s rule in Gaza.
  • For CJR, Nithin Coca writes that the rare change of government in Malaysia last year has had profound, positive consequences for the media. “The country has since seen a blossoming of press freedom—an exception in a region where greater censorship and state control is becoming the norm,” Coca reports. “Parliament repealed a broadly criticized law imposing criminal penalties for ‘fake news.’ Mainstream media outlets… are now free to cover increasingly controversial topics.”
  • And Solidaritet, a newly launched socialist news website in Denmark, will charge members different rates based on their income, Nieman Lab’s Christine Schmidt reports.

ICYMI: Why the left can’t stand The New York Times

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.