March 16th, 2014

The mystery of Malaysia Air 370

Today on CNN’s Reliable Sources hosted by Brian Stelter, aviation journalist, Robert Hager, spoke with Stelter about what he thinks about the missing Malaysian Air Flight 370.  Frank Sesno, director of the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs, discussed CNN’s coverage of the Malaysian flight. Stelter also spoke with Dr. Gail Saltz, psychiatrist at the New York Presbyterian Hospital, about why America is so obsessed with the case of the missing airplane.

Additionally, CNN Chief U.S. Security correspondent Jim Sciutto, spoke with CNN correspondent Atika Shubert  in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia about what the Malaysian officials are saying about the disaster.  

A transcript of  discussions and videos from the show are available after the jump.


Malaysia Air 370: facts vs. speculation

WEB EXTRA: A timeline of flight 370

Coverage of MH370: The demand for news

Why we are glued to plane coverage



BRIAN STELTER: But up first, one of the finest aviation journalists ever speaking for the first time on what he thinks about this missing plane.  Bob Hagar spent decades covering these kind of baffling mysteries for NBC News, TWA Flight 800 case, Pan Am 103, he saw them all, saw every detail and he knows firsthand how obsessed reporters can get as they struggle to figure out seemingly unsolvable tragedies.

Bob, thank you for joining me.

ROBERT HAGER, AVIATION JOURNALIST:  Sure enough.  Glad to be with you.

STELTER:  You’ve been traveling this week so we haven’t seen you on television the way people are used to seeing you during previous plane mysteries like this one. 

From everything you’ve seen, from everything you’ve heard, what do you think happened?

HAGER:  Can’t tell so much.  There’s such a paucity of information.  I’m going to agree with authorities based on what we know so far that it sure looks like something deliberate in the cockpit, deranged member of the crew, deranged pilot, just gone off unreasonably flying on and on or deranged passenger coming forward and forcing the crew in the cockpit to do this, cutting the communications.  But that’s all theory.

I mean, again, we’re operating without a whole lot of information on this.  Could still be some mechanical problem where the plane decompressed and everybody died on the plane and it just goes on flying although it goes up and down, turns and things like that, which you wouldn’t think of with a decompression.  Anyway, you can’t say for sure, got to go so far with deranged passenger or hijacking, murder/suicide, something like that.

STELTER:  Of course here I am, asking you to speculate as we’ve seen on television so much this week.  Is that just part of what aviation reporting is, speculation?

HAGER:  Yes, I think in the absence of information, you’ve got two things working.  Investigators are trained to leave open every single possibility and only rule out one thing at a time to try to narrow in on the cause.  Reporters meanwhile, reflecting the appetite of viewers and readers and so forth, are anxious to try to give the public some information to work off or even some theories or speculation.

And I think in this case, speculation is OK, it’s natural, as long as it’s labeled that way.  Because none of us really knows — I mean, we’re really operating without any strong facts.  And by the way, forensic investigation is the very best in these kinds of things.  I mean, you need black boxes or you need some pieces of wreckage.  That’s what you really need to get at what must have gone on here.

STELTER:  What kind of sources would you be calling on a story like this?  Are the United States investigators that are assisting the Malaysian officials, really, really tight lipped usually or are they hard to get to, or would they secretly be helping reporters out in a case like this?

HAGER:  Well, this is technically, it’s a Malaysian investigation.  So, the U.S. people involved are reluctant to be public.  However, they are the best informed in the business probably.

So, you’ve got out there people from the FAA, Federal Aviation Administration, people from the National Transportation Safety Board, people from Boeing, the manufacturer of the 777, very knowledgeable people, and they’re apt to be in touch with their counterparts in the investigation from the Malaysian transportation ministry.

So they’re going to learn little things.  Yes, the reporters who have worked the beat for quite a while, experienced reporters, have a relationship with these people.  They’ve seen them on other crashes and dealt with them.

So, you know, if I were out there, I would want to be near the seen and working the hotel corridors somewhere near that investigation, wherever investigators are or American counterparts more important, and trying to be learned — learning things off the record.  The U.S. people would be reluctant to be on the record.

And I think there’s a little information to be gotten off the record too from the American Pentagon is my hunch.

STELTER:  So, in this case, that’s real shoe leather reporting, in the hotel corridors, maybe at the hotel bar too?

HAGER:  Well, you know, bars, difficult for a television reporter because nowadays the satellite reporting and 24/7 cable operations eat you up.  So, you don’t have time — I used to be jealous of my newspaper counterparts because I couldn’t go to the bar where you would get some investigators relaxing.

There’s occasionally information to be picked up there.  When you have to be on the tube every 15 minutes or something, when you’re the reporter on the scene, you’ve got no time to go to the bar.

But you do hope to get off the record information from people that you know really well and if you’re rubbing elbows with them at the hotel you’re going to bump into them in the hallway or sometimes they’re organized off the record briefing.  So, every little bit of scrap of information helps because they’re learning things from the foreign people.

By the way, very difficult to operate in a foreign country.  I remember when the supersonic airliner crashed in Paris and I’m trying to get information from the French officials of the transportation ministry, really hard when you’re operating in a foreign language to develop a kind of a buddy relationship with them like you can with the Americans from as I say the government agencies or the company Boeing, et cetera.

STELTER:  I’d like to hear about some of the other plane crashes and disappearances you’ve covered over the years.  Let me play a clip from “NBC Nightly News” when Pan Am 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland.


HAGER:  Most accidents happened on take off or landing.  And here we have one that happened as you said at 31,000 feet.  That’s near cruising altitude.  So, that to start makes it very unusual.

Furthermore as Pan American says no communication from the pilots ahead of time, that indicates whatever happened must have happened suddenly.  There are reports that pilots in the area saw the plane in flames in the night sky as it was on its way down.  So, that would indicate an explosion of some kind in flight.


STELTER:  What’s striking about that clip is that viewers and investigators knew a lot more early on about that plane crash than they do in this case, whether it crashed or not.  So, is there a past disappearance of a flight, a past plane mystery that this one reminds you of in any way?

HAGER:  Well, I think the most recent mystery has been five years ago, the disappearance of the Air France flight that left Rio, was flying to Paris and disappeared over the Atlantic.  And they couldn’t find the wreckage of that for a long time either.  They found a little bit a few days later, few bodies and small pieces of wreckage.  But really, two years went by before they found the black boxes from that crash.

And until they found those black boxes, that’s informative, until they found the black boxes it was all theory.  When they found the black boxes, they reaffirmed some original information that the flight systems were operating incorrectly, giving incorrect air speed indication.  But more importantly, they found out that the crew may have mishandled the plane based on what information they had.  Only to say that these things can take a lot of time and eventually you got to have some hard evidence before you really can examine up with a conclusive finding on what went wrong.

STELTER:  And do you think there’s such a thing as too much of this coverage?  Are you critical of channels like CNN that go wall-to-wall on a story like this?

HAGER:  Well, I think not.  I think they’re responding to the hunger for the viewing public for information about what went on.  So, in this day of 27 — of 24/7 coverage, I can’t blame people for putting the spotlight on this because this is very much in the public mind.  It’s clear that people are very interested in this and somewhat apprehensive understandably.

So, I don’t blame news organizations for doing all they can even although the facts are not very liberally available at the moment.

STELTER:  Well, Bob Hager, a dean of aviation reporting, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us today.

HAGER:  Surely, Brian.  Thank you very much for having me.

STELTER:  Let’s take a quick break here but stick around because when we come back, I want to talk about that dirty word in journalism, speculation.  Journalists are trained to stick to the facts.  But the story of Flight 370 is full of speculation as we just discussed.  It’s been informed speculation given by experts.  Maybe just maybe, speculating is the only way to finally get at the answers to this mystery.

We’ll be back in two minutes.



Let me show a satirical headline from “The New Yorker” this week.  Here’s what it said.  “Total absence of information about Malaysia flight not hindering 24 hour coverage, cable networks say.”  That was Andy Borowitz’s “New Yorker” column.

Again, a satirical headline but he’s getting at something there that’s important.  Speculation informed speculation, has been a big party of this story.  In fact, I asked Bob Hager to engage in it in the last segment, for a good reason I think.  Bob Hager knows more than just about anyone how to cover major air disasters.

But speculation tends to be a very dirty word in journalism.  We’re taught not to speculate, we’re taught to stick to the facts as we know them.

And I know CNN has come under criticism this week for engaging in that kind of speculation.

But let’s be honest here, there are times when informed speculation moves a story forward.  You take the few facts that you do have and you ask the real experts like former NTSB officials or people who understand the complex equipment involved here.  And these people explain what these few clues we have might mean.

If that’s speculation, well, it’s also a form of journal, maybe not the kind everybody wants to see all the time on television, but a form of journalism nonetheless.  So, is this a situation that calls for speculation?  Is this a situation that demands this kind of speculation?

Joining me now, an expert in journalism and a man who has sat in the anchor chair here at CNN when news breaks, Frank Sesno, now the director of the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs.

Frank, thanks for joining me.

I wonder if there’s a tension here between what journalism schools would teach and what journalism practitioners would say, you know, because in journalism school, we would be taught never to report a rumor, that rumors are off limits and yet, in this case, there have been rumors broadcast and I for one have been glad they have been brought up.

For example, on Friday night of the first day of all of this, Piers Morgan mentioned rumors that the plane had landed in Vietnam, but he made very clear those rumors were unconfirmed.  So, he was sharing what was on the Internet, share what was being talked about, but trying to tamp down that speculation saying it was unconfirmed.

Is that an example of the tension here between, you know, practice and reality? 

FRANK SESNO, DIRECTOR, G.W. UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF MEDIA & PUBLIC AFFAIRS:  Yes.  I mean, in the not so old days, old days, we would have said never report a rumor.  In the old days, when we were never reporting a rumor, there weren’t social media rumors being reported all the time.

STELTER:  Right, right.

SESNO:  So this merger of old media and new media and old ethics and new ethics in journalism is a collision.  I remember when I was working for this network and John F. Kennedy Jr.’s plane went down.  I was at home minding my own business, I got a call, “Come into the bureau,” they said, “Go on.”

It was a record for me.  I think I went 4 1/2 hours without getting up to go to the bathroom.  We had no information.  But we were wall-to-wall with this.

And we had to do that.  The audience wanted it.  The audience expected it of CNN.  We had to be very careful, what I call the language of live, when you are live on the air with very limited information but you have to deal with it.

Well, now, you have to deal with the information, the rumor, the speculation that’s coming, literally from around the world in real time.

STELTER:  Right.  This parallel universe of information that’s going to be online whether we like it or not.  I feel like on television we can at least try to separate facts from what might be fiction.

SESNO:  That’s right.  But here’s what you have to do when you’re on television doing that.  You have to say, I’m now separating fact from fiction.

You have to say, here’s what we know.  These are the three facts we know.  Here are the 15 speculative theories we don’t know but we’re going to investigate them and we’re going to discuss them because this what is investigators are looking at, this is what people are asking us, this what is we’re hearing in social media because we know wonder about this and this is — 

STELTER:  Almost like a warning label on the coverage.

SESNO:  That’s exactly — yes, right.  Surgeon general, right?

So, yes.  It’s difficult but it’s important and it’s happening.

STELTER:  Take me back to those times when you were in that anchor chair on breaking news stories.  Seems like breaking news coverage is more raw.  It’s more honest, because the anchor is experiencing it with the viewer in real time.

What’s that pressure like?  You talk about the language of live?

SESNO:  It’s really very difficult and you have to know this and you have to understand your responsibility obviously to the audience but also the nature of the story itself.  I think the most important thing when you’re sitting in that chair and it’s tough, is to keep in your head what you know, what you don’t know, what’s a legitimate question and what’s a wild out there question, and how you bring the audience into that process so that you’re sorting through that.

All right.  So, in the case of this jet, was it terrorism, a lithium ion battery that blew it out, was the oxygen down so everybody lost consciousness?  How long did it fly.  Did it crash in the ocean?  Did it land on an island some place?  Is it still out there?

Some of these questions are way out there, and I think what you have to do when you’re sitting in that chair, when you’re bringing the audience along with you, is be very transparent about it.  And bring them into that questioning process, really directly so they’re part of it.

STELTER:  People have been talking ability the type of coverage in this case a lot of speculation, but also the amount of coverage.  CNN has been basically wall to wall with this story for over a week now.  The ratings have been significantly higher than they usually are for CNN, which tells me viewers do care about this story.

But is there such a thing as too much coverage about a story like this?

SESNO:  Yes.  Yes, there is.

STELTER:  Are we there yet?

SESNO:  Maybe.  This is where the — this is the rub.  This is the tension, the conflict.  It’s what you say, it’s how you say it, it’s how much you say it, and it’s how loud you say it.  We call that proportionality.

And the big danger in cable television and big danger always confronting CNN and it’s confronted CNN since CNN went on the air and started doing 24-hour news is how loud to shout, how much to do this, how much breaking news is really breaking news and how you convey to your audience this is a huge story, everybody is really interested, we’re going to live on this.  We’re going to go 24/7 wall to wall with this.

I remember, again, I’m dating myself I guess, but when we had the O.J. Simpson trial, and we went wall to wall with that.  That is the first time CNN really discovered in a powerful way that the audience wants wall-to-wall coverage and rewards that with huge numbers.  When you know your audience wants that, that’s a balance then you have to walk.

STELTER:  Of course, the O.J. Simpson trial was a mystery but of a different kind.  Court cases are a mystery just like this is a mystery right now unfolding before our eyes.

SESNO:  That’s — I think, Brian, that’s so important for us to realize that what we’ve got here in and why this story is so compelling, there is unbelievable human interest and human concern, tragedy, 239s souls, somewhere, lost, we don’t know.

There is the aviation story.  There is the national security story.  There is the terrorism story if there’s that.  There’s the aviation story.  We all fly.

Everybody, I sat down yesterday for breakfast here in New York City, and I’m talking to a guy who has nothing to do with the news business and he starts telling me what he thinks happened because he’s got some interest in aviation and he flies.

STELTER:  Right.

SESNO:  So that’s story, that mystery connects on all these very compelling levels.

STELTER:  Going back to our original point about speculation.  There are times where it can be damaging, where it can hurt the credibility of the news business?  Because that’s ultimately what this comes back to.

SESNO:  Speculation is very dangerous because if you speculate wildly, you appear to be irresponsible, you can be irresponsible.  You can fuel undo concerns, undo panic.  You can fuel misinformation.

And then in the journalistic world, you will be and you should be accountable for that.  But speculation can also be smart speculation and informed speculation.  You’re an investigator.

I’m the show host.  And I’m asking you take me into this investigation.  You’ve been in similar things like this or not.  What’s likely to be happening?  That’s a question that everyone is asking.

By definition that’s a speculative question, but someone can provide some informed guidance, speculation, as to what’s taking place, the questions that are being asked and answered.  I think that’s really important and that’s what an audience wants to know.

Again, you’re in this dangerous time, right, between when something has happened and when you know what actually happened.  And, you know, the investigation is going on during that time.  Investigators are speculating.  That’s what investigation is.

STELTER:  Well, Frank, thank you so much for joining me and talking through this with you.

SESNO:  It’s my pleasure.

STELTER:  In just a moment, the very latest information we have on the search for the plane.  Don’t go away.


JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR:  Hello.  I’m Jim Sciutto.  RELIABLE SOURCES is back right after this check of our top stories.

The hunt for Flight 370 — a top military official in India says that his country has temporarily ended its search for the plane while Malaysia reviews the massive deployments from 25 countries.  The search area now covers large areas of land, including extremely remote regions.  Crews are looking along two corridors, one to the south, the other to the north, reaching all the way up to Kazakhstan in Central Asia.

Authorities are now examining as well a flight simulator taken from the home of the captain of that flight, the U.S. official tells CNN U.S. intelligence is leaning towards the theory that the pilots are responsible for the loss of that airplane.

Satellite data indicates Flight 370 was up and running for seven hours after the last contact with the pilots and Malaysian officials announced today it is possible that last contact could have come from the plane on the ground.

Our Atika Shubert joins us live from Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia.

Atika, tell us how significant that is, Malaysian officials saying that the last contact of the plane could have been on the ground rather than up in the air.

ATIKA SHUBERT, CNN CORRESPONDENT:  It could be quite significant, but we simply do not know yet because we don’t know exactly where the plane was located, and this is part of why Indian vessels have temporarily suspended their search, because it’s such a huge area now. 

And Malaysia now, which is coordinating the effort, is saying, look, let’s conserve our resources, figure out the best plan of action to cover this huge amount of area. 

Remember we’ve now got 25 countries involved.  So that’s a lot of coordinating to do.  In the meantime, however, what it means is that, in addition to finding the location of the plane, they’re also focusing on who might have taken this plane on this path.

And that’s why they’re now looking at the pilots, the crew, but also the ground crew, anybody who helped to get that plane up in the air.


DATUK SERI HISHAMMUDDIN HUSSEIN, ACTING MINISTER OF TRANSPORT, MALAYSIA:  Yesterday, officers from the Royal Malaysian Police visited the home of the pilot.  They spoke to family members of the pilot and experts are examining the pilot’s flight simulator. 

The police also visited the home of the co-pilot.  According to Malaysian Airlines, the pilot and co-pilot did not ask to fly together on MA370.


SHUBERT:  You heard there the police removed a homemade flight simulator from Zaharie Ahmad Shah.  Now this is a now experienced pilot; he was known as an aviation junkie.  He created his own flight simulators. 

So not that unusual that he would have it, but police say they are looking at it as a precaution to see if there are any clues as to why or how the plane might have taken this wrong turn off of its flight path. 


JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF U.S. SECURITY CORRESPONDENT:  So what specifically, Atika, will they look for on that simulator?  Air experts have told us that a lot of pilots do this kind of thing. 

So what particular data will they look for on this pilot’s simulator? 

SHUBERT:  Well, they’re firstly probably just going to look at what kind of a simulation did he run, was it a particular route, for example? 

Does it match the route that this Flight 370 took? 

So that’s the information that they’ll be looking for from the flight simulator. 

But there’s also other kinds of clues.  Remember, when they say that they believe that somebody on that plane might have deliberately flown this flight path, they said it could be hijacking, could be sabotage, could be they’re looking into any personal problems that the pilots may have had. 

They’re not ruling anything out.  And there’s nothing to indicate one specific reason at the moment, which is why they’re saying they’re looking at all the options.

SCIUTTO:  And you make a good point, Atika, because if investigators have also said that they’re looking at all the passengers on the plane as well, it’s not just the pilots they’re looking at, although we know U.S. officials have said that’s becoming increasingly the theory they’re leaning towards. 

I want to ask you just about the frustration, if I can.  You have India canceling their search today. 

As you remember, we remember, the search area used to be to the east in the Malaysia Peninsula.  Turns out that was a useless search, in effect, and that Malaysian authorities knew that they had radar data indicating the plane went to the west. 

I mean, is there frustration now among the countries, the many countries taking part in this search, that they were misled initially? 

SHUBERT:  There’s a great deal of frustration, but especially China, which, of course, had so many of their countrymen on that flight.  And at a briefing for Chinese families today in Beijing, tempers were running very high, a lot of shouting and yelling at Malaysian Air officials there. 

But even in the press briefing that we had here today, which was mostly press, that there were a lot of tough questions, at one point one local journalist asking if the Malaysian authorities were, quote, “sleeping on the job” because they failed to notify people sooner. 

So a lot of tough questions being asked.  But of course, it’s hardest on the families.  I actually spoke to the father of one Malaysian man here, whose son was on that flight, and he said, I just want to know what happened.  And that he — he says he doesn’t get any sleep; doesn’t turn off his phone for fear that that one — he doesn’t want to miss that one phone call that tells him what happened to Flight 370.

SCIUTTO:  Well, and it also raises the question, had they reacted earlier, given us information earlier, we don’t know what happened to the plane, but could they have saved some lives, you know, at least that possibility there?  And I know that some of the families have raised that question as well. 

Thanks very much to our Atika Shubert in KL, Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia. 

“RELIABLE SOURCES” with Brian Stelter will continue with more on the disappearance of Flight 370. 




The story of Malaysia Air 370 is incredible.  It’s a mystery, it’s one of the biggest mysteries any of us has ever seen.  It’s also incomprehensible, a plane full of people simply vanishing in a world where we’re used to instant information and we’re used to constant connectivity.

So millions of people have been glued to it; at times this week, CNN’s ratings have been about double what they usually are.  And Web traffic for a wide variety of news sites has been way up.

Many people are watching for hours at a time, including me.  I found myself mesmerized by the coverage, despite the fact that we still have no answers or maybe because we have no answers.

But what does it mean when we’re watching television like this for hours on end?  And what accounts for the heavy levels of interest in this story right now?  Let’s ask my next guest, psychiatrist Gail Saltz, with New York Presbyterian Hospital.  She’s a columnist and a regular on the “Today” show.

Gail, thank you for joining me.


STELTER:  What is the number one reason why so many people are focused on this, almost obsessed with this case?

SALTZ:  It’s terrifying, the idea of a plane going down.  And if it’s a mechanical failure or if it was sort of a natural disaster, then we have no control over that. 

But if there’s somebody that, A, we can blame and which makes us more comfortable and, B, we could control, i.e., terrorists, you know, somebody actually doing something that you can stop from happening again, well, that makes us also relieved because otherwise it’s a random event and that’s terribly frightening.

STELTER:  Is it that people, once they’ve tuned into a story like this and start to pay attention, is it that people need to hear an ending? 

They need some sort of resolution to it? 

And until there is one, they’re very focused on it?

SALTZ:  Yes.  Certainly when it comes to the idea of why someone died, people do want closure, for one. 

And for two, as I said, they want someone to hold accountable.  It’s a very disturbing thought. 

And that, right now, we can’t figure out, quote, “who’s to blame?” 

And when you think about someone dying needlessly, you know, it’s sort of like who am I going to point the finger at? 

And I think this nebulousness keeps us riveted until we have someone to hold accountable, even though, as you pointed out at the beginning, there’s never been anything like this.  It’s unbelievably rare. 

But when you watch it over and over again, it doesn’t feel that way.  We — as I said, we tend to identify with these kinds of disasters and so the fear of flying may go up for many people.

STELTER:  Yes, at the first bump of turbulence this morning on my flight, I had that look out the window to see where I was, even though I knew it was irrational.  And I’m sure that’s a common feeling after coverage of a plane crash.

SALTZ:  Just like conspiracies aren’t necessarily rational.  In fact, interestingly, Brian, what happens with conspiracies is that there’s something called motivated skepticism, which means you already have a belief.  And any evidence that comes in, you make fit your belief.

So even though we may continue to get some evidence, whatever comes in, people filter it through their own prism and they might make it fit whatever story is more comfortable for them.

So for instance, if they’re invested in these people being alive, then they may make the evidence fit sort of a — you know, the television show, “Lost,” scenario, like they’re somewhere on our island.  They’re OK.  And that’s understandable because it makes us less anxious.

STELTER:  Is there anything positive about this kind of coverage? 

We’ve been describing the risks or the dangers from it. 

But one of the positive attributes, is there something to be said for the fact that we are all sort of sharing our fears and anxieties together through this kind of sustained media coverage?

SALTZ:  The only positive I might say is that there are probably some people and they’re the people who, for instance, like to watch horror movies, et cetera, where they get an excitement from watching something that’s actually quite terrifying, and yet it’s not happening to them. 

So it’s safe for them; they’re just a viewer.  But they get the thrill. 

STELTER:  What happens if there’s never an answer in this particular case? 

How would people deal with something like that?

SALTZ:  I think it’s very difficult.  The idea that people can vanish is, in a way, maybe even more terrifying than death.  You know, it leaves you open to whatever your worst fantasies about that might be. 

So I hope for, really, the families of the people on this plane that that’s not the case, that they are able to get some closure.  It’s hard to grieve and in some way accept and then find a way to move on with your life if you don’t have an answer. 

Obviously, that’s happened to people in the past before; depending on their individual psychological makeup, they’ll be able to deal with that, you know, in a better way or in a worse way, depending on how resilient they are, how much trauma they’ve had in their past. 

But I really would hope for everyone’s sake that there ultimately is an answer.

STELTER:  Some sort of resolution to the story.

SALTZ:  Exactly.

STELTER:  Dr. Gail Saltz, thank you so much for joining me today.

SALTZ:  My pleasure.


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