Terrorist attack or terrible accident? With no official pronouncement, the news media could only spin its wheels yesterday after the morning crash of an American Airlines jet into a New York borough.
While broadcast networks had returned to normal programming by early afternoon, cable news channels were left to pad out minimal facts with maximal embellishment.
All offered the now-standard melange of speculation, eyewitness accounts, live shots, press conferences, expert opinion and often confusing graphics, aviation maps and computer animation of foundering airliners.
Flirting with sensationalism, CNN ran video footage of the flaming crash site and fleeing bystanders all day on their busy split screen, without a disclaimer indicating that the action had taken place beforehand. The Fox News Channel ran a clear graphic reading “earlier today” with the same footage, borrowed from New York stations WABC and Fox affiliate WNYW.
Anchors and correspondents adopted disaster-style patois, peppering their speech with acronyms and technical terms. Experts offered insight about baggage-handling techniques, jet fuel and bird strikes while witnesses compared the crash to sonic booms, bomb blasts and fireballs.
“No smoke was coming from it against the blue sky,” said one woman. “A huge silver plane going straight down.”
For better or worse, there was other visceral commentary.
“There is an enormous amount of human carnage on the ground,” Rep. Anthony Weiner, New York Democrat, told CNN from the scene. “If September 11 was an earthquake, then this is the aftershock.”
“Chunks” of airliner fell from the sky, said CNN’s Jason Carroll, who later was asked by anchorman Aaron Brown whether he could still “smell and taste” the aftermath of the crash.
Broadcast analysts also adopted a worst-case scenario method of logic in hopes of divining whether the crash was terrorism.
Since the national air travel system had not been shut down, they reasoned, then the situation was OK. Since the National Transportation Safety Board rather than the FBI was leading the investigation, then things were still OK. Since the National Guard had not been called out, then it was probably not a terrorist attack.
Still, there was a dust-up after the Associated Press which filed its first story just 14 minutes after the crash later reported “the FBI thinks there was an explosion aboard the plane.” White House and NTSB officials spent the afternoon urging the press to stay calm and wait for further analyses.
The event brought out the print wordsmiths as well. “A fresh wave of fear swept the United States, as a country still bleeding from the Sept. 11 attack wondered if terrorism had returned to its shores,” wrote Michael Conlon of Reuters.
Meanwhile, the Internet bustled with dark conspiracy theories. Visitors to such news discussion Web sites as www.plastic.com quickly connected the dots between yesterday’s incident and September 11: same airline, same place, same method, same time of day.
Some drew parallels to the unsolved questions of TWA Flight 800, which crashed into Long Island Sound in 1996, killing all aboard. Yesterday’s crash had been caused by land-based attackers wielding shoulder-held missile launchers, some theorized.
“I smell an F-16 intervention,” claimed another, while a third attributed the event to “simple metal fatigue” on the jet’s engine mount.
News coverage caused grumbling, too.
“I really wish that the media would stop repeating that the government doesn’t think it’s terrorism because there were no credible threats,” wrote one observer. “They may be right, but it makes our leaders sound incredibly pathetic and witless.”