Flight 370 Story is the New Anti-Journalism - All Data, No Real Facts, Endless Theories

Well, the plane is somewhere. Although there exists the eerie possibility that it will remain as if nowhere – forever lost.


And that’s just about the best situation that exists for journalism: “missing” stories trump all others for their intensity and stickiness, fueling the imagination of journalists and audiences alike.

Journalism exists to provide information. But what’s really compelling is a lack of information – or what is more particularly being called “an absence of empirical data”.

“It doesn’t mean anything; all it is a theory.” That was the key quote, from an appropriately unnamed “senior American official,” in the New York Times’ front-page story Sunday about the Malaysian government’s sudden conversion to the idea that their plane was snatched. “Find the plane, find the black boxes and then we can figure out what happened. It has to be based on something, and until they have something more to go on it’s all just theories.”

Precisely!

And everyone is entitled to his or her own their own theory – it’s more democratization of journalism – including, but not limited to:

a) Terrorism; b) mechanical failure; c) hijacking; d) mad or rogue pilot; e) meteor; d) aliens; e) reality show promotion (in this, the 239 passengers and crew would have been in on it – each paid for their performance).

The Tweetdeck column flutters like a deranged stock ticker, as furious as it did for the Woody Allen imbroglio, that other recent spike of obsessive interest in the unknowable.

In a way, it’s anti-journalism.

I am hardly the only stick-in-the-mud to observe that the impending takeover of Crimea, a precise piece of geopolitical logistics and confrontation with a full menu of international implications – journalistic red meat – has been blown away by a story with no evident meaning, other than the likely bleak fate of most onboard.

It is, of course, an ideal story for the current journalism era because it costs nothing. Nobody has to go anywhere. Nobody has to cover the wreckage and the recovery. Not only is the story pretty much all just theories – but theories are cheap.

There is, too, a gotcha element.

Mainstream journalism has tried to be cautious about its claims. It has tried to deny or at least hold the line against the unproven – even when the unproven is obvious.

“…as investigators have examined the flight manifest and looked into the two Iranian men who were on the plane traveling with stolen passports, they have become convinced that there is no clear connection to terrorism,” said the Times on Friday night, even as it became more clear by the end of the weekend that somebody had disabled the plane’s identifying signal mechanisms and diverted it from its route and had flown it somewhere!

Such cautious – or absurd – restraint actually propels the story. That the mainstream media is trying not to deviate from mainstream sources (the recalcitrant, in-denial, shell-shock Malaysian government, and the in-the-dark US authorities) maintains something illogical, which in turn agitates or inspires the counter-media (the conspiracists), which was once marginal, but which is now mainstream itself. After 10 days and counting, mainstream outlets along with the Malaysian government catch up with the story that everybody else was onto anyway.

The plane’s been taken! Grabbed. Stolen. Commandeered.

It was only yesterday that the Times acknowledged the “increasing likelihood that Flight 370 was purposefully diverted and flown possibly thousands of miles from its planned route”.

Part of the problem in the story is language itself. “Terrorism” is implicitly connected to al-Qaida and suggests clear cause and effect and tends to trigger a spasm of maximum responses. So don’t go there until you are sure about going there. Hijacking suggests precise demands and an evident aircraft. Mechanical failure needs a crash site.

What words are left, then? Just: diverted. And vanished.

This may be the first wholly data-driven story. There are no first-hand facts. There are only secondary data implications. And so far it has demonstrated not the strength of data – that new religion – but its weakness.

“What investigators are left with is an hourly electronic ‘handshake’ or digital communication, between the airplane and a satellite orbiting 22,250 miles above the Indian Ocean,” says the Times with some poetry. “But the handshake is mostly devoid of data, and cannot be used to pinpoint the plane’s last known location. It is the electronic equivalent of catching someone’s eye in the crowd.”

The data, in other words, merely reinforces the existential.

Indeed, the most telling data point may be that the plane so artfully slipped through the data filters leaving so few data points.

But the plane is somewhere – that’s the only certain data point.

It is at the bottom of the ocean, sunk without a trace, or in a jungle or rainforest with remarkable discrete pattern or wreckage. Or, it is on the ground somewhere – indeed, may have been on the ground somewhere, re-fueled, and gone somewhere else to land again, whereabouts of 239 passengers and crew unknown. It is a new kind of hijacking in which the plane can’t be stormed or hijackers targeted by sharpshooters because plane and hijackers are invisible. Or, a new kind of terrorism, wherein we wait for the plan to be inserted, undetected, back into the air lanes for what terrible purpose we can only guess.

Just when we start to believe that we know all, that systems track us mercilessly, we find we know nothing, and the plot thickens.

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