The terrorism that dare not speak its name

Another jetliner goes down off New York. This time, the cable news networks didn't jump to conclusions. Much.

Published November 1, 1999 9:45AM (EST)

As the first reports of the disappearance of Egypt Air Flight 990 began to filter into the cable news networks Sunday morning, something was missing. Even as evidence grew that something horrible had happened -- as it was confirmed by radar records that the plane had fallen 23,200 feet per minute -- most of the anchors and reporters on CNN, MSNBC and Fox News were not invoking the specter of terrorism. At first.

Following the lead of the officials who were addressing the growing number of reporters on the story, bombs and missiles were mentioned only in passing -- and usually with the caveat that absolutely nothing was known for certain and that speculation was sort of un-American.

Contrast this with the coverage that followed the crash of TWA 800 in 1996, when the cable news stations became a cesspool of rumors and innuendo about a terrorist attack. Even the New York Times, within a few days of the crash, carried a front-page story that focused on a possible bomb or missile and downplayed the potential that some sort of mechanical failure might have caused the crash. (Some who worked on those stories came to regret the paper's haste.) While what exactly caused the downing has not yet been discovered, investigators found little evidence of terrorism and lean toward the explanation that a heating malfunction blew up the plane's middle fuel tank.

Burned by their wanton speculation over Flight 800 -- and not wanting to look like
Pierre Salinger -- the cable news networks were perhaps taking pains not to speculate on the cause of the Egypt Air crash.

New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, not always a voice of tempered reason, appealed to reporters at the JFK Ramada, where families of the flight's passengers were gathering. "People start to make up information when it's just not there," he said, nailing the danger inherent in any "all-news" network.

Even as the word emerged that the flight was thick with American tourists,
and attacks on Americans in Egypt were mentioned, CNN and MSNBC strained to make no connection. Fox tried to follow suit, but the temptation often proved too great. In his first question for the New York Port Authority's Robert Kelly, Fox's Eric Shawn asked of the plane's dip in altitude, "Does that indicate a catastrophic explosion or bomb?" (Not necessarily, said Kelly.) Back in the newsroom, the Fox anchors kept reminding viewers it was too early to speculate -- though among its "special reports" was one teased with the question, "Is Egypt too dangerous for tourists?"

By 9:45 p.m. on the East Coast, CNN (in conjunction with Time) was airing a special report by Jeff Greenfield about the dangers of jumping to conclusions. Greenfield pointed to the examples of both Flight 800 and the Oklahoma City bombing, which initially was widely ascribed to Middle Eastern terrorists, to remind viewers why they shouldn't rush to judgment. At the same exact moment, on the Fox News Channel, two retired military officers were still insisting that Flight 800 was downed by a shoulder-missile. "We have enough evidence on Flight 800 to go to court and win," said former U.S. Navy Cmdr. Bill Donaldson, an opinion seconded by retired Army Col. David Hackworth. (The network's own military expert, James Blackwell, disagreed.)

"But what does this have to do with the Egypt Air flight?" Fox anchor Neil Cavuto asked. The question he should have asked is: Why are you even on the air? For the real deal, even Pierre Salinger can tell you, you've got to go to the Internet.

By Sean Elder

Sean Elder is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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Cnn Fox News Msnbc Rudy Giuliani The New York Times