Silence is Golden, and Absent During Breaking News Broadcasts

September 22nd, 2005 6:25 PM
Last night I, along with many millions of others, was treated to the live broadcast of an emergency landing by JetBlue flight 292. The flight had departed from Burbank, CA bound for New York City and experienced an unusual problem with it's nose landing gear. The wheels were cocked 90 degrees to the right and wouldn't retract.

After circling near Catalina Island for nearly 3 hours to burn off fuel, the flight finally made its way in to Los Angeles International Airport and made what can only be described as a textbook emergency landing. The pilot greased the main gear on the runway, held the nose up as long as he could, and then eased the plane down onto the damaged nose gear. After some smoke and not just a little bit of flame, the plane came to stop with the damaged nose gear right smack in the middle of the runway's centerline.  Not bad with the nose steering gear ground off.  There was no fire, and after a few minutes, the relieved passengers departed the aircraft without a physical scratch on them. I'm sure some will be shook up a bit after the experience, but they walked away and that's always the best result.

I actually found myself live-blogging the event for the last 45 minutes or so. I write this piece not only to praise the JetBlue crew and the emergency responders who were ready to jump into the fire if necessary, but to join columnist James Lileks in wishing the anchors broadcasting these events would SHUT UP! James puts it quite nicely:
Everyone in TV: SHUT UP. Just SHUT UP. Let me put it this way: a huge flying machine stuffed with souls is heading in for an emergency landing. It drops from the sky, heavy and slow. Two hundred feet – one hundred, fifty, ten – doesn’t matter, really; an an inch might as well be a mile, since what counts is the moment when the broken wheel scrapes its face on the unforgiving earth. Here’s what the viewer desires at this moment:


I know it’s hard to imagine. I know it goes against every instinct. But nothing you can say can possibly compete with the drama of a plane landing with a broken wheel, unless you are Merlin and can spit out some Welsh spell that snaps the wheel into the proper position. Even if that’s the case, pot down your mike and do it into your shirt cuff. Because we just want to watch and see what happens. Yes, that’s right: we can see what happens. Years of watching television have schooled us thus, and we are able to string the pictures that flicker on the Magic Box into a coherent narrative. If the plane has touched down, we can see it, and do not require your verbal affirmation.
I don't know why it is that local TV anchors (and probably the network guys for that matter) think they have to be an expert on every little thing, and have to express every stupid opinion about what might or might not happen, what the pilot/passengers/firefighters/spectators/pigeons are thinking at this very moment, why the plane banked left instead of right during the last circle over Catalina, could it land on the San Diego Freeway, etc. It was incredibly annoying.

I was switching back and forth between the NBC and Fox affiliates in L.A., depending on who had the better camera shot, but the quality of the commentating never improved. Thankfully, both stations had real pilots on the phone who could give some intelligent commentary (and who refused to speculate on the stupid stuff), and that made the broadcast endurable. That, and of course, the riveting pictures.

Here in the greater Los Angeles area we are treated to frequent "breaking news" events, which usually involve car chases. Some of these have lasted as much as 2 or 3 hours, and the anchors feel they have to fill that entire time with the same dumb speculation and commentary as we heard yesterday. Why do we need to see these events in the first place? The obvious answer is that there may be some sort of carnage at the end of the event, and no station wants to say they missed that shot.  Many an evening newscast has been wasted following chases that ended with the pursuee meekly submitting to authority after his car ran out of gas..

Someone needs to sit down with these anchors and explain to them, as James Lileks suggests, that the viewers are interested in viewing, not listening. This is TV, not radio, and no play-by-play is necessary.  Shut-up and let the pictures do the talking.