Jan
01
1997

Media Bomb on TWA Crash

Despite Oklahoma City, Journalists Still Played Guessing Game

TWA 800 reconstructed

Wreckage of TWA 800: Putting the pieces together (photo: Jan Staller/NTSB)

Two days after the crash of TWA Flight 800, the New York Times (7/19/96) ran a story headlined “Newspapers Were Wary This Time, and Didn’t Jump to Conclusions." The Times argued that the memory of how much of the media rushed to blame Arabs after the Oklahoma City bombing (Extra!, 7-8/95) prevented any jumping to conclusions in the TWA case.

That same issue of the New York Times featured a column by its former Mideast correspondent, Clyde Haberman, which led:

This may seem to be jumping the gun.... But it is probably time for Americans to accept terrorism as a fact of life requiring certain impositions, like personal searches in public places. to preserve communal safety.

After the obligatory warnings of not lumping to conclusions, reporters seemed to forget about the possibility that it was an accident. On ABC World News Tonight (7/18/96), John McWethy reported, “Whether it was a missile or a bomb, investigators say they are still not certain.”

From the moment the media began covering the 747 crash near the media capital of New York City, terrorism was clearly the preferred scenario. This view was disseminated by investigators hiding behind anonymous quotes and reporters hiding behind anonymous sources. Here’s how Dan Rather introduced the CBS Evening News (7/19/96): “They don't say it publicly yet, but crash investigators now believe it was a bomb that brought down TWA 800.” With such reporting, theories could he forward with no evidence—and no one to hold responsible if the theories turned out to be guesses.

‘Tide of Terror’

While investigators were publicly saying that there was no specific evidence of a bomb, CNN & Company (7/25/96) brought on former Reagan administration official Victoria Toensing, who claimed that “every bit of evidence that we have so far points to some kind of explosion, either a bomb inside or the missile theory.” (She cited her “friends in law enforcement” as a source.) The next minute, Melinda Liu from Newsweek was lauding the “extreme restraint” everyone was showing.

Current Events (9/2/96), a magazine distributed to schools by the Weekly Reader Corp., featured a story on TWA headlined “Tide of Terror.” Current Events informed its young readers that government “experts say planes simply clout explode in the air—unless they have been deliberately blown up.” Presumably Current Events thinks that the 1996 ValuJet crash was caused by some terrorist group, too.

For some, lack of evidence of a bomb was just a reason for more speculation. The fact that no plausible claims of responsibility came in after the TWA crash led USA Today’s Steve Komarow (8/5/96) to spot

a new trend in terror: anonymity.... Today’s terrorists don’t claim credit. Ties to known groups often are weak. And, chillingly, they make no demands. Their goal is to shake their enemies with horror, pure and simple.

Eventually, the assumption that TWA 800 went down because of a terrorist attack didn’t even need to be stated, as in this chain of associations (Orange County Register, 7/28/96): “Over the past decade, there have been the jihad attack on the World Trade Center, the Unabomber, Oklahoma City, TWA Flight 800 and now the Olympic blast.”

Discussions of ways to prevent a recurrence of the TWA 800 disaster were almost always limited to discussions of security improvements. On This Week With David Brinkley (7/21/96), Cokie Roberts asked: “Was it sabotage? Was it terrorism? If so, who’s responsible and what can be done to prevent it in the future?” Few on television asked: “Was it a mechanical failure? If so, who’s responsible and what can done to prevent it in the future?”

The uncertainty over the cause of the TWA 800 disaster did not stop some from not only speculating as to the cause and culprits, but prescribing bloody-minded remedies: “It’s a war!” Charles Grodin declared on CNBC (7/22/96), vowing that “people will pay a price if they want to come after us.” Nor should we waste time investigating the matter: “Unless we move quickly on these people, we let them think they can get away with this and move mo quickly on us.”

New York Times columnist Abe Rosenthal (7/30/96), finding that TWA 800 was ”apparently” the victim of a bombing, called on the Clinton administration to “retaliate militarily against the sponsors of terrorism.”

‘Scientific Evidence’

Daily News, New York Post headlines on TWA 800When minute traces of chemicals associated with explosives were found in the wreckage, a front-page New York Post headline (8/23/96) proclaimed: “It Was No Accident: Explosive Traces Found in Cabin.” It’s hard to see why the Post thought this was such big news, since a month earlier, it had run the headline “Divers Find Proof It Was a Bomb.”

In fact, the traces of chemicals were not proof of an explosion: The plane, it turned out, had been used by law enforcement agents to test the abilities of bomb-sniffing dogs. Explosive substances had been hidden on the plane for the dogs to sniff out, and investigators concluded that they had detected the lingering remains of these exercises.

But the residues caused the last traces of restraint at some news outlets to evaporate. The New York Times (8/23/96) ran a heading: ‘‘Proof of Explosive Device on Jet.” The Times reported that "investigators have found scientific evidence that an explosive device was detonated inside the passenger cabin of TWA Flight 800, officials said.” Reporters assumptions that a bomb was the most likely scenario seem to have led them to read the ambiguous traces as “scientific evidence” that confirmed their preconceptions.

‘A Single Country’

The next day (8/24/96), the Times, using yet more anonymous sources, homed in on the possible culprits, writing that

in June, a few weeks before the crash of TWA Flight 800 off Long Island, leaders of several Middle Eastern terrorist organizations backed by the Iranian government met in Teheran to plan terrorist acts, intelligence officials said yesterday.

Such use of anonymous sources is not meant to protect a whistleblower, but to allow a government official to plant a story without having to provide evidence or take responsibility.

Some insinuations required no sources at all. The following day, a New York Times news article (8/25/ 96) reported that “TWA’s connection to one of the world's most turbulent regions, the Mideast, has been long and prominent.”

As these examples show, the urge to blame Arabs for any explosive event was not buried by the media's anti-Muslim hysteria after the Oklahoma City bombing.  The day after the crash (7/18/96), John McWethy—a journalist with a history of transmitting inaccurate leaks (Extra!, 10-11/89)--was telling viewers about a “piece of evidence [that] seems to point towards terrorists from the Middle East. ABC News has learned that a written warning was sent by a group calling itself the Movement for Islamic Change.” Officials—speaking on the record—later dismissed the vague message as the routine posturing of a domestic Saudi guerrilla group, but not before McWethy got away with another baseless “scoop.”

A CNN anchor (7/22/96) offered this disingenuous (and ungrammatical) speculation: “There’s a trial underway in New York right now—and we’re not trying to infer any connection, but three radical Muslims accused of plotting to bomb US airlines are on trial.”

Washington Times columnist Jeffrey Hart (7/25/96) argued for an “immediate and devastating” response to terrorism. He acknowledged that it was “often difficult to trace a given act of terrorism to a particular dictator,” but no matter: “For strategic purposes, there is no reason not to treat Iran, Iraq, Syria and Libya as a single country.”

‘Bad News’

An NPR report (7/19/96) claimed that “no one wants to believe that terrorists could blow up a US airliner.” Of course, plenty of people at TWA and Boeing were hardly anxious for a mechanical failure—and the terrorism consultants wouldn't mind the additional work. But why did CBS News (8/2/96) report that it was “bad news” that investigators had not found any chemical residue indicating foul play?

The Pan Am 103 Lockerbie disaster was the universal paradigm, despite the fact that the two disasters were physically very different. (Pan Am 103 did not explode into a fireball, as TWA 800 did.) And other airline disasters were all but forgotten: for example, the El Al 747 cargo plane that crashed in Amsterdam in October 1992 because of faulty bolts, killing 80 people. The day of the TWA 800 crash, the Washington Post (7/17/96) ran an item about a defective Delta engine that flew apart on July 7, killing two. The Post noted that “the anomaly was noticed during inspections of the engines, but was deemed acceptable by the manufacturer at the time, the FAA said.”

But critics of the FAA were generally brushed off. For example, Wesley Smith, co-author with Ralph Nader of Collision Course: The Truth About Airline Safety, was dismissed by the MSNBC anchor (7/18/96) when he complained of the close relationship between the FAA and the airline industry—since Smith had never worked for either.

In contrast to all the theory-mongering about various terrorism explanations for the downing, there’s been extremely limited reporting about theories of mechanical failure. While most reporters were chasing the terrorism angle, Seattle Times aerospace reporter Byron Acohido had a scoop (7/24/96):

Since the TWA crash, many commentators, from retired investigators to academic safety experts, have publicly said there was no precedent for a 747 exploding into flames in flight. That has led to speculation of a terrorist bomb in the TWA case. But 20 years ago, in a crash that drew little public attention, a former TWA 747-100, converted into a freighter for the Iranian air force, exploded in flight near Madrid, Spain.

In a follow up article (8/9/96), Acohido noted that the two doomed planes were “sister ships,” both bought by the Shah of Iran’s air force at the same time. After the 1976 crash, the FAA ordered a fix of all civilian 747s, but the plane that would become TWA 800 was exempt. “TWA will not say whether the jet underwent the leak inspection after ownership reverted to the airline,” noted Acohido.

‘Guessing Wrong’

Perhaps most troubling is that after Oklahoma City, there was some recognition on the part of journalists that they had done something wrong. But in the TWA case, there was virtually no self-examination. Rather, much of the media spent their time beating up on former ABC correspondent Pierre Salinger (and the Internet) for jumping to conclusions different from those virtually every one of his former colleagues jumped to. “I’ll never cease to he amazed how a rumor takes off like mildew in a damp basement,” Dan Rather told the New York Times (11/9/96). Rather, of course, was quite comfortable spreading rumors about bomb plots on the evening news.

The New York Times (11/24/96) headlined a story about conspiracy theories ‘‘Pierre, Is That a Masonic Flag on the Moon?”—as if it were totally impossible that the US military could shoot down a civilian craft. (While there’s no evidence that any US craft was even in a position to shoot down TWA 800, the US Navy did recklessly shoot down an Iranian jetliner in 1989, killing all 290 on board--see San Diego Union Tribune, 9/10/89—and an Italian passenger plane flying over its home territory was apparently downed by an air-to-air missile in 1980 under still-mysterious circumstances—Reuters, 3/28/89.)

An adjoining Times piece was full of excuses for “the public and other interested parties” who assumed the cause of the TWA disaster was terrorism. “I don’t think we should beat ourselves up for guessing wrong,” one terrorism pundit was quoted, because the guess “was a good one.” Why the media was in the guessing game to begin with is anybody's guess.

Sam Husseini, FAIR's activist co-ordinator, is media research consultant for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.