The day after a Soviet interceptor plane blew up a Korean passenger jet, the first sentence of a New York Times editorial (9/2/83) was unequivocal: "There is no conceivable excuse for any nation shooting down a harmless airliner." Headlined "Murder in the Air", the editorial asserted that "no circumstance whatever justifies attacking an innocent plane."
Confronted with the sudden reality of a similar action by the U.S. government, the New York Times inverted every standard invoked with righteous indignation five years earlier. Editorials condemning the KAL shoot down were filled with phrases like "wanton killing," "reckless aerial murder" and "no conceivable excuse." But when Iran Air's flight 655 was blown out of the sky on July 3, excuses were more than conceivable - they were profuse.
Two days after the Iranian passenger jet went down in flames killing 290 people, the Times (7/5/88) editorialized that "while horrifying, it was nonetheless an accident." The editorial concluded, "The onus for avoiding such accidents in the future rests on civilian aircraft: avoid combat zones, fly high, acknowledge warnings."
A similar pattern pervaded electronic media coverage. In the aftermath of the KAL incident, America's airwaves routinely carried journalistic denunciations. CBS anchor Dan Rather, for example, called it a "barbaric act." No such adjectives were heard from America's TV commentators when discussing the U.S. shoot down of a civilian jet.
As soon as the Iranian Airbus crashed into the Persian Gulf, the Reagan administration set out to discourage what should have been obvious comparisons between the Soviet Union's tragic mistake and our tragic mistake. The New York Times and other media uncritically quoted the President's July 4 resurrection of his administration's timeworn deceit: "Remember the KAL, a group of Soviet fighter planes went up, identified the plane for what it was and then proceeded to shoot it down. There's no comparison."
Virtually ignored was a key finding of Seymour Hersh's 1986 book The Target Is Destroyed -- that the Reagan administration knew within days of the KAL shootdown that the Soviets had believed it to be a military aircraft on a spy mission. Soviet commanders had no idea that they were tracking a plane with civilians on board. The Times had acknowledged this long after the fact in an editorial, "The Lie That Wasn't Shot Down" (1/18/88); yet when Reagan lied again, the failed again to shoot it down.
Instead, Times correspondent R.W. Apple, Jr. weighed in (7/5/88) with an analysis headlined, "Military Errors: The Snafu as History". In his lead, Apple observed that "the destruction of an Iranian airliner...came as a sharp reminder of the pervasive role of error in military history." The piece drew many parallels to the Iran jetliner's tragic end - citing examples from the American Revolution, World War II and Vietnam - while ignoring the most obvious analogy. About the KAL 007 shootdown, Apple said not a word.
If anything, the recent tragedy was less defensible than the KAL disaster. The Iran Air jet went down in broad daylight, well within its approved commercial airline course over international waters, without ever having strayed into any unauthorized air space. In contrast, the Korean plane flew way off course, deep into Soviet territory above sensitive military installations, in the dead of night.
But, as with Washington's policy-makers, the mass media was intent on debunking relevant comparisons rather than exploring them. The government's public relations spin quickly became the mass media's: A tragic mishap had occurred in the Persian Gulf, amid puzzling behavior of the passenger jet. Blaming the victim was standard fare, as reporters focused on the plight of U.S.S. Vincennes commander Capt. Will Rodgers III, whose picture appeared on tabloid covers (7/5/88) with bold headlines: "Captain's Anguish" (Newsday) and "Captain's Agony" (New York Post).
At the same time, U.S. journalists asserted that the Iranian government was eager to exploit its new propaganda advantage. Correspondent Tom Fenton informed viewers of the CBS Evening News (7/6/88) that Iran was intent on making sure the event would not slip from the world's front pages; colleague Bert Quint followed up minutes later with a similar theme.
Sorely lacking from the outset was any semblance of soul-searching about the holier-than-Moscow Soviet-bashing that followed the KAL accident. The last thing that White House officials wanted was any such national self-examination. But we might have hoped for more independence from the U.S. media, which allowed their proclaimed precepts to spin 180 degrees in an instant, while discarding basic insights like the one expressed in a New York Times editorial six days after KAL 007 exploded (9/7/83): "To proclaim a 'right' to shoot down suspicious planes does not make it right to do so."