Media's obsession with the missing Malaysian plane
Crisis in Ukraine. Sectarian slaughter in Central Africa. Civil war in Syria. CIA torture and lies. A major UN report on climate change. Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations. The minimum wage movement. Electoral campaigns and the superrich. Race-based mass incarceration and capital punishment. A mysterious missing airplane.
If you were the CEO of a 24-hour cable news corporation, how would you prioritize coverage of topics in the news? What’s most important?
The inexplicable disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 on March 8 provided a golden opportunity for commercial news outlets to score eyeballs and raise profit margins. For a story-on-a-platter such as this, idle speculation can be easily dressed up as serious analysis—at very little cost—and people will tune in.
Anxieties about death and dying, largely unconscious, go a long way towards explaining why people can get so engrossed in flimsy conjecture about a missing plane on the other side of the world. (They also explain why people regularly experience flashbacks after witnessing life-threatening events, and why drivers slow down to look when there’s a big accident on the side of the highway.)
In the face of an ambiguous and possibly lethal threat to others, humans—like our animal cousins—will instinctually focus attention on trying to understand and master the frightening situation. Also, the greater the number of people that are perceived to be paying attention, the more likely others will join in.
These psychological realities are well understood by industry decision-makers. So television viewers stayed riveted as days turned into weeks and the on-air straw-grabbing continued into April, even though new facts shedding light on the fate of Flight MH370 were scarce. Or, rather, because new facts were scarce. Cable news executives did not want to stop “reporting” on what was essentially an empty story. After all, why should a lack of facts get in the way of professional journalism?
To be fair, when you’re a cable news CEO, journalism cannot be your priority. Your job is to maximize the size of your audience—especially those of a certain demographic—by creating captivating programming at the lowest possible cost, regardless of how informative and helpful that content is for democratic society. Higher audience numbers translate into more advertising revenue, the primary source of your corporation’s value. And competition for advertising sales is fierce.
If the exploitation of death anxiety is good for profits, why fixate programming on Flight MH370 and not, say, on ethnic cleansing in the Central African Republic, or on the UN climate change report predicting massive social and economic devastation? Don’t those topics also pivot between life and death? And aren’t they even more consequential?
Cable execs dealing with intense commercial pressures know that the average 25–54-year-old American will identify more readily with airplane passengers and their families than they will with people’s lives in Sub-Saharan Africa. The missing plane story is also more visceral than intangible scientific evidence of ongoing climate catastrophe.
Maybe most importantly, the mystery of the plane holds more potential entertainment value than those other options; it can make for better gossip and water cooler conversation, like a hot TV drama series. The artificial storyline engages people by keeping them guessing and buzzing. Finally, there’s no serious threat to business in pushing this story, something that cannot be said for educating the public about climate change.
Neil Postman, in his classic critique Amusing Ourselves to Death, likened the practice of journalism on television to doing philosophy with smoke signals. Contextualization and deep thinking have never been very abundant on the boob tube, he argued, because the form excludes certain content. The imperative of advertising means that “drama is to be preferred over exposition,” while vaudevillian discourse trumps reason and relevance.
In this context, the three big cable news networks approached the mystery of the vanished plane differently. The coverage on CNN and MSNBC shared a notable characteristic, emblematic of most US corporate media: They essentially accepted the official assessment of the White House, which in this case was that the plane’s disappearance did not appear to have the markings of terrorism.
Fox News, which opposes everything a Democratic president says and does as a general rule—much like adolescents who impulsively oppose their parents—went in a different, and significantly more paranoid, direction.
And all three, desperate to get a leg up, berated each other for incompetence, cleverly turning their industry’s lamentable coverage into even more “news.” While good for the bottom line, the entire sad spectacle was only loosely related to reality outside the TV studios.
CNN’s programming entered tabloid territory years ago, but the originator of 24-hour news reached a new level of idiocy with its Flight MH370 coverage. Not because the people who work there are unintelligent—they were just doing their jobs, following the boss’ strategy for non-stop total fixation (New York Times, 3/17/14). All the silly speculation, misleading “breaking news” alerts, scary music, slick digital animation, and questions about supernatural interventions or a possible black hole in Southeast Asia (Gawker, 3/20/14) had a business purpose: grabbing viewers’ attention and, with it, more advertising dollars.
The strategy worked: CNN‘s slumping ratings enjoyed a major surge while the channel did virtually nothing else for two-and-a-half weeks but focus on the possible fate of the plane—a big victory for the head of CNN, Jeff Zucker (Huffington Post, 4/10/14). And almost two months after the plane vanished, the New York Times (4/28/14) reported that the channel continued to “update” viewers on the story hourly, with some programs still spending literally half their time discussing it.
At MSNBC, there was significantly less of this nonsense on view, and there was also a refreshingly rational attempt to explain the madness (Salon, 3/21/14)—along with lower ratings. But host Chris Hayes, in his “inside secret” analysis (All In With Chris Hayes, 3/20/14) of what happens behind the scenes in such cases, ignored the economic piece of the puzzle, the reason why Flight MH370 stayed a top story for so long in the first place, as did Jon Stewart (Daily Show, 3/24/14).
But we shouldn’t expect much structural critique of corporate media’s subservience to advertisers inside of corporate media’s own content. Such critiques would be working against the purpose of that content by drawing attention to the corrupting influence of advertising. If you’ve been successful enough in the business to earn your own TV show, you know the game and its limits. You understand at some level that harping on advertisers on the air is probably going to invite conflict with corporate bosses, and so, consciously or unconsciously, you learn to ignore the issue.
While News Corporation owner Rupert Murdoch spouted rinky-dink conspiracy theories on Twitter (Guardian, 3/16/14), reminding his followers of the “Muslim extremist threat” (in Murdoch’s fantasy, the plane, “like bin Laden,” was probably hidden somewhere in northern Pakistan), his most profitable asset, Fox News, elaborated on why the missing plane means we should be afraid of an early death. Islamophobia, Al-Qaeda and East Asian Muslim terrorists formed the basis for much of the farcical hypothesizing and declarations.
Fox News’ approach to the story can best be summed up by Brian Kilmeade’s multiple-choice question (Newshounds, 3/18/14) to one of his guests, a former Al-Qaeda analyst: “How would you characterize this operation from the terror mind: a success because there’s so many questions, a success because we don’t know how to adjust our security, [or] a success because they’re back in the news?” Of course, it’s less “the terror mind” than the Fox News executive’s that sees success in unanswerable questioning.
Despite the rise of the Internet and stagnating viewership, television remains the media industry’s most important medium: Ad spending on TV continues to show consistent growth, bringing in over $63 billion in 2013 (Marketing Charts, 12/23/13).
The production of exemplary journalism that’s not only compelling but also relevant and informative, such as in-depth and hard-hitting investigative documentaries that expose abuses of power, might also attract advertising revenue—provided those reports are not economically or politically displeasing to corporate advertisers. This major constraint aside, producing top-notch investigative content costs money and is relatively unprofitable compared to speculation and opinion. (In a sign of the times, CNN eliminated its entire investigative journalism department in 2012—Daily Show, 1/14/13.)
Also, because mindless consumerism is the raison d’être of the advertising industry, it is not in the economic interest of corporate media to work to empower ordinary citizens in this way. Mass consumerism is driven by materialism, and psychology research has consistently shown that materialistic values are associated with feelings of insecurity and anxiety (High Price of Materialism, Tim Kasser; Psychology and Consumer Culture, Kasser and Kanner, eds.). The 99 percent are better kept diverted and treated as passive observers of unnerving situations out of their control.
In other democratic countries, taxpayers have decided to build strong public media institutions as a counterweight to corporate, market-driven news. According to a 2011 study by NYU researchers Rodney Benson and Matthew Powers (Free Press, 2/11), Norway spends $133 per person on public media, the most among the 14 leading democracies they studied. Germany spends $131 per capita, the UK spends $90, Japan $54, France $51 and Canada $30. In contrast, US taxpayers contribute less than $4 per capita to nonprofit news media, by far the smallest amount.
Having an almost fully privatized media environment means that keeping advertisers happy will usually outweigh making helpful contributions to an informed democracy. In such a system, death anxiety and other primitive human impulses are sources of profit, baseless speculation about world events is highly valued, urgent topics are treated superficially or ignored, and society and culture get dumbed down when they could be wising up.
Norway, not incidentally, consistently ranks at the top of the annual World Press Freedom Index. The US finds itself dropping 14 slots this year, down to No. 46, nestled in between Romania and Haiti.
Yosef Brody is president-elect of Psychologists for Social Responsibility (PsySR). He teaches “Media, Culture and Society” at the Institut des Hautes Études Économiques et Commer-ciales in Paris.