Why CNN Had Malaysia Flight 370 All to Itself

Imagine when CNN wasn’t there to cover a world-class breaking news story.

Apr 2, 2014 at 12:25 am

Imagine when CNN wasn’t there to cover a world-class breaking news story. 

It happened. Long ago in a far away land. 

Or not so long ago.

It was 1979 and young, angry and humiliated Iranians occupied the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. 

There was no CNN. Most of us watched the “hostage crisis” play out over dinner on CBS, ABC and NBC: soundbites on still-authoritative network news. 

In short, B.C.: Before Cable. 

There was, however, an honorable exception.  

Ted Koppel, already ABC’s chief foreign correspondent, agreed to anchor the new late-night show, America Held Hostage. No one suspected it would take 444 days to win the hostages’ release. 

Meanwhile, America Held Hostage matured into Nightline with Koppel as chief presenter. Koppel was up against Johnny Carson and other 11:35 p.m. talk/comedy shows. ABC gave up $100 million a year in advertising to keep Nightline in that time slot, according to a New York Times story published when Koppel left the show in 2005.

It was a different news media world in 1979. Daily papers suggested what to think about, if not what to think. Fox News didn’t exist. CNN didn’t exist. The World Wide Web didn’t exist. Google didn’t exist. 

NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered were available, but Americans no longer turned to radio as a first choice for news. 

In its way, America Held Hostage and the rebranded Nightline grabbed news junkies by the throat. 

Now, we just turn to CNN. 

That’s what happened when we bombed suspected terrorist weapons sites in Sudan, invaded Iraq in Desert Storm and Desert Shield, or suffered the limits of power when Russians took back Crimea. 

Not long after Malaysia Flight 370 went missing, CNN made the story its own. Anything less would have been shocking. CNN reported its numbers doubled during key hours among prime audiences.  

The March 24 announcement that everyone died when the jet crashed in the Indian Ocean left a lot unresolved. “We really don’t know” is a familiar mantra again as cautious CNN experts wondered how anyone knew. 

It’ll be interesting to see how CNN holds viewers now. Maybe the mystery will continue. Even as many of us return to older viewing habits, CNN demonstrated again what it can do. 

Fox News and MSNBC weren’t in the chase. This isn’t their kind of story; reality trumps their blame games and partisan fantasies and malice.  

CBS, NBC and ABC have reduced their foreign bureaus and staffs so far for so long that they really couldn’t do much on a story like Flight 370 because it means going beyond the studio parking lot. 

The flip side to CNN’s success is less obvious: Flight 370 is a cable-driven story. It’s become a CNN property. After a few days, Flight 370 faded to briefs in daily papers and occasional mention on broadcast TV and public radio. 

So-called sightings of something in the Indian Ocean off the west coast of Australia aroused only CNN. The absence of anything tangible didn’t make it a big story for other news media, regardless of the international effort invested in finding whatever was seen by satellites. 

Monday’s announcement that the plane and all aboard were lost boosted network and print news media attention briefly. Then it was back to a genuinely important story: Russian aggression in Crimea and its implications for other post-Soviet statelets in the region. 

CNN experts responded to the assertion of the loss with the same “no one knows” that characterized their comments for the previous two weeks. 

They — and we — had seen too many “breaking news” stories that within a couple news cycles proved to be unfounded or debunked. 

I’ll keep watching. It’s fascinating to watch a story develop. First it was the missing plane. Now it’s still the missing plane. Only the assurance that everyone’s dead is new. 

Initially, this daily diet of known unknowns took the edge off CNN’s ability to hold me. No news medium fared better: Flight 370 might have been an airborne Mary Celeste, but that’s all. 

A real channel-changer was interviews with friends and relatives of Flight 370 passengers and crew. This did nothing to advance my understanding of what happened to the Boeing 777 and I’m no fan of agony interviews.

I’m sorry for the victims and their families but I’m more interested in what we can learn about the cause of the loss of the plane. That’s the news I want along with close, informed and adversarial reporting of how Boeing and government regulators respond now. 

And if we never learn, that’ll be a story, too. 

Even a news junkie can be sated. So it wasn’t long before my CNN watching was reduced to maybe an hour during what used to be Piers Morgan’s show. His “guest host,” Bill Weir performed like a traditional reporter seeking the best information possible from his guests. 

Unlike Morgan, who’s been canceled by CNN, Weir did not preen. While treating his guests as stars for their expertise, he challenged uncertainties and contradictions and pressed experts to explain themselves in the least technical terms possible. 

I’m sympathetic to Weir, who kept this conversation going and who must be wondering if The Mystery of Flight 370 will wander on for 444 days.

CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: [email protected]