When a big story breaks, my news digestion knows no satiety. Earthquake, assassination, invasion, bank run, political campaign, celebrity court case, sport scandal or a drunk stubs his toe on the Lower East Side — I can handle anything the press swarm sends at me.
So unlike Fox News press reporter Howard Kurtz (“It’s too much with too few facts,” he said last week of the saturation reporting by his former network, CNN, about Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370), I can handle any “over”-coverage the news machine chooses to throw my way. By handle, I usually mean avoid, but on a story like MH370, I desire the sort of coverage that could fill the Indian Ocean, which I did not know until last week had an average depth of 2.5 miles.
That fact was only one of the scores of news nuggets I’ve chewed and swallowed since the airliner was reported missing on March 8. While I’m aware that the flight’s fate, its back story, and repercussions will have no impact on my life, and that there aren’t enough degrees of Kevin Bacon to connect me to 95 percent of the missing passengers, I have clawed my way through stories and even stayed up at night to learn about transponders, the different kinds of radars, the stolen passport business, the number of air strips within MH370′s flight range that could have accommodated a landing, general Malaysian political incompetence, Southeast Asian geography, satellite telemetry, international relations, black boxes, the workings of the Malaysian criminal justice system, the Andaman Islands, life raft locator radios, search technologies, air navigation and more. One measure of my devotion to this story is that I even watched an oceanographer talk on Charlie Rose about the missing aircraft.
None of my newly acquired knowledge will serve me in any tangible way. It won’t improve democracy or raise productivity. I doubt that it will even make me a better journalist, although it might make me a better conversationalist. But the story has wedged its way into my consciousness and will persist until somebody locates the Boeing 777 and solves the mystery.
Much has been made about how provisional some of the findings of journalists have been in their coverage of MH370 — inaccuracies about the origin of the flight data and what time the flight disappeared, the provenance of the debris spotted by a satellite and the number of no-shows for the flight. As my colleague Erik Wemple of the Washington Post explained last week, fast-moving stories routinely produce conflicting reports; as was the case with the Boston Marathon bombing, the Washington Navy Yard shootings and the Newtown slaughter. Dozens of conflicting reports emerged from the Mumbai terrorist attack in 2008, the 9/11 attacks, the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal and even Watergate reporting. I’m not making excuses for anybody, but those who expect perfect reporting from the scene of breaking news haven’t been paying close attention to what they have been consuming over the years.