NEW YORK – The missing Malaysian plane is a made-for-TV mystery where the public’s hunger for the story seems inversely proportional to the amount of solid leads for solving the case.
The story led ABC’s “Good Morning America” again Tuesday, when Bob Woodruff reported from a Malaysian fishing village, interviewing a man who said he saw a jet flying low over the water around the time Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 went missing March 8 with 239 people aboard. Anchor George Stephanopoulos immediately brought in aviation expert Stephen Ganyard, who dismissed the eyewitness account as essentially worthless.
The circular passage typifies a story where clues and theories come to light and are passed over or debunked — the stolen passports, the oil slick on the water, the seismic event, lithium batteries — leaving people still searching for both a jetliner and the truth.
“The information coming in from the Malaysian authorities has been, literally, all over the map,” a frustrated Anderson Cooper said on CNN.
Yet long-struggling CNN, Cooper’s nightly newscast in particular, has been among the biggest beneficiaries of public interest in the story. Since the plane went missing while flying from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Beijing, and CNN began nearly wall-to-wall coverage, its prime-time ratings have jumped 68 percent over the year’s average, even more among younger viewers that advertisers are keen to reach, the Nielsen company said. Twice last week, Cooper’s show more than doubled its typical audience.
Seventeen of the 20 most popular articles on the BBC’s website last week were about the plane, bringing in more traffic to the British news agency’s site than any story since the Japanese tsunami in 2011.
“Where are you?” was the top headline in Germany’s top-selling tabloid Bild on Monday. The story appears on nearly every hourly bulletin on CCTV in China, where most of the plane’s passengers were from, with a heavy emphasis on Chinese navy ships and aircraft involved in the search. Hong Kong’s Phoenix TV was covering the story around-the-clock, often citing reports by overseas media.
The number of Twitter messages about the plane peaked at nearly 1 million per day shortly after it went missing, with daily tweets in the 200,000 to 400,000 range much of last week, the social media site said.
Rock star Courtney Love even joined the discussion on Facebook, posting a satellite ocean picture with the suggestion that it revealed an oil slick. More than 10,000 people had “liked” it by midday Tuesday.
“It’s a macabre story but still fascinating,” said former NBC News aviation correspondent Robert Hager, who retired in 2004 yet was called in by the network to help when he was vacationing in Alaska. Hager said he can’t remember an aviation story where a jetliner went missing and left so few clues. He’s beginning to think that it will take years — if ever — to truly learn the plane’s fate and said he feels for the families of the missing passengers, who must be hoping for good news that isn’t realistic.
In France, the story has drawn frequent comparisons to the 2009 crash of Air France Flight 447 in an Atlantic Ocean storm. Investigators of that crash and family members of victims have been interviewed on French television to share their theories of what happened in Asia.
That’s too painful for some. “I avoid looking at the media as that reminds me of the days after the accident,” said Jean-Baptiste Audousset, who once led a group of families of Air France crash victims.
The idea that Air France victims’ relatives are looked toward as experts illustrates the challenge faced by TV networks in filling time when information is scarce. CNN’s Martin Savidge has logged hours in a Canadian flight simulator over the past week. The network’s Don Lemon conducted one segment while holding what appeared to be a model airplane. Lemon also cited supernatural forces in asking a panel of experts whether “something odd happened to this plane, something beyond our understanding.”
Rival Fox News Channel, which is also covering the story and topped all cable networks in prime-time ratings last week, found time to discuss whether CNN is covering it too much.
Ben Rayner, a London-based executive producer for Al-Jazeera English, said his network has decided not to air as much coverage as he sees on the BBC and CNN International. There’s a news vacuum now that’s being filled more with speculation than information, he said.
“What we don’t want to do is just be led by the ratings,” Rayner said.
The story has also been a boon to websites that focus on aviation issues, even as Chris Sloan, who runs the airchive.com website, confesses to some mixed feelings.
“There’s no question this is the biggest thing we’ve ever covered,” said Sloan, whose site gained some 1,500 Twitter followers in the past week. “But this is not the way we wanted to gain traffic.”
Airchive posts a running timeline of events, gleaned from reporting from several sources. Sloan is based in Miami, but he has colleagues in Houston, New York, Seattle and Chicago, and has set up a schedule where someone is monitoring news on the plane 24 hours a day.
Sloan said his site tries to avoid speculation and is geared more toward knowledgeable people in the industry. Airchive did post a provocative piece Monday by pilot Mark L. Berry, detailing his theory that the plane was commandeered by people who killed all the passengers and plan to use the plane as a terrorist weapon.
John DiScala, who runs the johnnyjet.com travel deals website, has also set aside room for missing plane coverage. The website has seen at least a 50 percent increase in traffic.
Hollywood executives couldn’t have made up a story so wild, said DiScala, who had no prediction for when people would tire of it.
“I hope it’s not long for the families,” he said. “It’s possible that we may never know what happened and that is the craziest thing of all.”