Richard Branson, the press, and the space in between

It’s space, Richard—at least as NASA knows it. Yesterday, the British billionaire Richard Branson, two pilots, and three other people rode a rocket plane operated by Virgin Galactic, an arm of Branson’s business empire, fifty three and a half miles into the air—a test run for the sort of private space flight that may soon be available to normal people (or, at least, normal people with a few hundred thousand dollars to spare). The flight generated a lot of hype, though there was also some debate, including in the media coverage, as to whether Branson was really going to space at all: while a variety of US agencies define space as beginning fifty miles above the earth’s surface, other bodies—including the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, which is the global authority on such matters—say the marker is twelve miles higher than that, and thus eight and a half miles higher than Branson traveled. Some pundits were unimpressed. “I’m sorry, but if you’re not orbiting the earth you’re not a Space Billionaire,” Matthew Yglesias tweeted, contrarily. “We’ve all been in airplanes.” Even the New York Times, as Yglesias noted, caveated the weightlessness that Branson and his fellow riders experienced as “apparent.”

“Apparent weightlessness” might also be a good way to characterize much of the TV coverage of the flight. Reporters threw around adjectives like “exciting” and “spectacular,” and revelled in Branson’s showmanship (Khalid debuted a song at the event; Stephen Colbert narrated a livestream of the launch) as well as the dream-come-true nature of his achievement. “On multiple levels,” Mark Strassmann said, on CBS, “I have to think that Richard Branson right now is floating on air.” Rachel Crane, CNN’s innovation and space correspondent, told her colleague Brian Stelter that the event had given her “goosebumps”: “As a reporter, we all have those moments that we put in the memory book forever, that we know we’re never going to forget,” she said. “I gotta tell you, this is one of those for me.” During the same broadcast, Kristin Fisher, CNN’s space and defense correspondent (who was making her debut on the network after joining recently from Fox News, where she covered the White House), said that the flight was “a publicity stunt,” but also “inspiring,” and that there’s no contradiction there. “This is commercial spaceflight, the privatization and democratization—hopefully—of spaceflight,” Fisher added. “A lot of people maybe aren’t so thrilled that they’re all these billionaires in space… a lot of folks aren’t thrilled that there’s going to be a lot of branding in space,” she acknowledged. But “this is a critical part of this new era of space travel, because in order to make spaceflight more accessible and more affordable, you have to have things like this happen.”

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Again, some viewers were unimpressed with the hype; CNN’s coverage, in particular, came in for some criticism online. Alex Heard, editorial director of Outside magazine, argued that “almost everything” Crane said “sounds like Virgin Galactic wrote it for her. It’s genuinely strange.” Steven Waldman, the president of Report for America, took issue with the network’s assertions that rich people are necessary drivers of technological innovation. (“NASA, the Internet, mapping the human genome?”) David J. Lynch, who covers economics for the Washington Post, felt that some of the CNN coverage “seems a little credulous.” Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at NYU, had a broader criticism. “None of the networks that broadcast live today the ‘Virgin Galactic Launches Richard Branson Into Space’ story persuaded me that this was break-into-regular-programming news,” he wrote. “The event remained at infomercial level.”

As fate—and a ninety-minute, weather-enforced delay in liftoff—would have it, Branson reached space (or not, if you’re the FAI) while Stelter was anchoring Reliable Sources, his CNN Sunday show focused on the news business; as a result, Crane and Fisher’s dispatches from the launch site slotted around some thoughtful meta-conversations about coverage of the flight, and billionaires more broadly. With Branson still ascending, Teddy Schleifer, who covers the influence of big money (and will soon help launch The Stratosphere, a new media company focused on the subject) told Stelter that, in his view, the billionaire beat shouldn’t be “a luxury beat about the rich and famous doing crazy stuff” but rather “a beat about power, about inequality, about democracy.” Schleifer brought up a recent investigation by ProPublica on the tax-avoiding practices of the super rich—“It’s impossible to talk about the billionaire’s success without talking about the system that creates this in the first place,” he said—and made the case that newsrooms should expand their coverage in this area. Stelter, for his part, brought up the climate crisis, at one point asking Miles O’Brien, CNN’s aerospace analyst, whether it’s ethical to burn fuel on private space flights amid news, for example, about heat records tumbling in the American West. “I don’t think it’s mutually exclusive,” O’Brien replied. “I think we can afford to continue to push our frontier. But we still have to fix our own spaceship here first.”

Taken together, there are some interesting lessons for the media here. Schleifer is right that newsrooms should scrutinize the billionaire class—and wealth in general—more carefully; big money is already a reliable driver of media attention, but that attention isn’t always sufficiently critical. (Some of the coverage of the recent “summer camp for billionaires” in Sun Valley, Idaho, was a case in point.) O’Brien is right, too, that humans—and, by logical extension, journalists—are capable of focusing on multiple things at once. (On CBS’s Face the Nation yesterday, Strassmann covered both the extreme heat and Branson’s flight.) The problem, often, is that we don’t. The privatization of the space race is an important story, whatever your views on it. It’s also a story that lends itself much more naturally to cable TV—big characters with big money, awe-inspiring imagery, a frisson of danger—than, say, poverty, which is a grinding everyday reality, and sometimes invisible. As Schleifer noted, it’s irresponsible to talk up billionaires’ achievements without also noting the many victims of the system that benefits them. Private capital can develop technology that shoots people toward the stars. Its incentive structures can also trap people on earth in cycles of neglect, technological and otherwise.

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We might be about to do all this again—a week from tomorrow, Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, plans to launch himself into space aboard a rocket built by his company Blue Origin. Should everything go to plan, there will be no semantic disagreement about Bezos’s achievement—Blue Origin’s rocket plans to fly above the boundary recognized by the FAI, “so none of our astronauts have an asterisk next to their name.” (Astronauts with asterisks; try saying that quickly at six times the force of gravity.) There may now be less media hype around the Bezos flight, given Branson effectively beating him to the billionaire first. Then again, when you’re a billionaire, there are always other firsts within your grasp. (Unlike Branson, for instance, Bezos will be the first Washington Post owner in space.) And it’s easier than it is for the rest of us to make your dreams come true.

Below, more on Branson and space:

  • The public interest: Over the weekend, Sara Fischer, Miriam Kramer, and Neal Rothschild reported, for Axios, that the billionaire space race has caused public and media interest in space to “explode” of late. “Not even halfway through July, mentions of the term ‘space race’ in US articles have ballooned, according to new data from Signal AI provided to Axios—more than tripling the amount of mentions last July,” they write. “The space giants are acutely aware of how much the attention wars around this month’s space race could impact their businesses. On Friday, Blue Origin tweeted an in-depth infographic explaining why its rockets are better than Virgin Galactic’s.”
  • Hayhoe? Oh, no—it’s off the air we go: Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist, was scheduled to discuss the extreme heat on Fareed Zakaria’s CNN show yesterday, but the timing of Branson’s flight meant that the segment was canceled. “Bumped, due to billionaire going to space,” Hayhoe tweeted. “That’s one of the big problems with climate communication, that its impacts accumulate over days, years, and decades. So there is always ‘breaking news’ to displace it in our day to day conversations and media coverage both.” Other climate scientists were outraged on Hayhoe’s behalf. “We don’t say this enough,” one, Jonathan Foley, tweeted, “but for-profit media is one of the worst things in the world, and it’s contributing to nearly all of our major problems.”
  • Cheer squad?: Watching yesterday, Paul Farhi, a media reporter at the Post, compared “the breathless, excited TV coverage of Richard Branson’s sub-space flight to *every* NASA moon launch fifty years ago,” and observed that reporters appear to have “become cheerleaders over the decades.” Mark Potts replied that “there was plenty of cheerleading back in the day”; Walter Cronkite, he noted, shed tears after Apollo 11 landed on the moon. “Yes—for a once-in-humankind achievement,” Farhi shot back, “not a brief trip outside earth’s atmosphere.”
  • Paging all copy editors: Stelter tweeted yesterday that he and his colleagues were debating whether “space plane” ought to be two words or one. The AP and the Times seem to have gone for two; then again, “spaceship” is one word. Guidance welcome.


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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.