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Contrails: Confessions of an Expert Speculator

Television will never always get it right. But print gets it wrong also.


September 28, 2007
By David Carr

Topics

Wings is Canada’s leading aviation business magazine, so we are often
called upon to comment on industry events for the broader news media.
2005 has been a banner year, with the reveal of the Airbus A380,
bankruptcy of Jetsgo and American millionaire Steve Fossett’s
successful round the world voyage onboard the Virgin Atlantic Global
Flyer.

News
has always been a competitive business; 24-hour cable news and our
appetite for instant information have combined to accelerate the sense
of urgency.

A veteran CBC television correspondent once told the
classic tale of sitting in his hotel room in Tel Aviv, one ear pressed
against the radio listening to the BBC World Service, and relaying a
breaking story to a Radio Canada audience back home. (This was long
before CNN or the arrival of the cellular telephone.) There was nothing
dishonest about this. Both journalist and broadcaster were satisfying a
need for timely information, using whatever means at their disposal.

I
was reminded of that story following August’s Air France accident at
Pearson. There I was sitting in my mid-town Toronto office – CNN in the
background – providing analysis for CBC Newsworld almost as soon as the
A340 had rolled off the runway and ploughed into a neighbouring ravine.

Again,
there was nothing dishonest about what I did. It was real-time
commentary, off-site using all available resources. Besides, CNN was of
little use, having already identified the aircraft as a Lufthansa
Boeing 737, and speculating with a local news anchor that the A340 had
run out of fuel.

The first minutes or hours of a breaking story
will always be a problem for 24-hour news. The anchor, so easily
dismissed by my friend and colleague Rob Seaman in the last issue of
Wings, has an impossible job to do; a lot of air to fill, and not much
information or video to fill it. This is why anchors must recycle what
bits of information they have, and why some tend to latch onto industry
jargon to the point of embarrassment. How many times did we hear the
term ‘debris field’ after Space Shuttle Columbia broke up over Texas?

Thus,
the so-called ‘expert speculators’ ride to the rescue. Not really, and
never before our level of expertise has been test-driven by a producer,
which is why I consider it an honour every time a producer invites me
on air. In return, I make certain I don’t position myself as something
I am not, such as being a technical expert.

The practice serves
me well, although there will always be the occasional bump, such as
when the Global Flyer completed its voyage. Newsworld in Toronto handed
me over to Calgary without informing the host that I don’t answer
technical questions. Alberta readers may recall that embarrassment.
(It’s right up there with me telling an Ottawa radio station that Steve
Fossett circumvented rather circumnavigated the globe.)

Still,
errors are often the price of admission. The urgency of breaking news
means television is not always going to get it right. Then again, the
print media has more time, and often gets it wrong also. It’s not fair
to chalk it up to sensationalism. Given early footage of a burning Air
France Flight 358, for example, nobody could be blamed for believing
there would be a high casualty rate. It was only after getting another
view that you realized all could have survived, and did. The camera may
not lie, but camera angles sure as hell do.

Nor is it fair to
suggest, as some have, that the media lost interest in Air France 358
once the smoke had cleared and there were no casualties to report.
After natural disasters and the recent bombings in London, both
Canadian and American media seemed relieved to report on a potential
disaster where the death toll did not rise with the telling – although
‘miracle flight’ was well over the top. The Toronto Star must take top
marks for creativity after writing an obituary for F-GLZQ in its Sunday
edition, which included well-sourced photographs of the A340
globetrotting during ‘happier times.’

As I said at the
beginning, it has been a banner year for media interviews, and I
appreciate any news outlet that will offer me a platform to toss an
opinion into the mix. There is no danger of any of this going to my
head. After a segment on Newsworld earlier this year my mother called
to ask why they’d even want me, while a friend handed me a pot of Body
Shoppe face cream because I looked tired.