The Campaign Spot

TWA Flight 800 & the Media’s Coverage of Conspiracy Theories

After some fairly credulous coverage yesterday, the new documentary that suggests that the official investigation into the 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800 was a cover-up is getting some more skeptical looks over at CNN and ABC News. As I wrote in today’s Jolt, most news organizations greeted this new documentary with a tone they rarely use when someone alleges a; massive cover-up of the true cause of the death of several hundred people.

Why Is a New Documentary About TWA Flight 800 Getting Strangely Credulous Coverage?

In my 2006 book Voting to Kill — now available at fine remainder bins everywhere — I wrote a chapter about the history of terrorist attacks against Americans since the end of the Vietnam War, and I did some research into TWA Flight 800.

While the National Transportation Safety Board definitively attributed the crash of TWA flight 800 to an explosion of flammable fuel/air vapors in a fuel tank, most likely triggered by an electrical short circuit, many folks have speculated that the plane was shot down. George Stephanopoulos and John Kerry, speaking off the cuff, referred to TWA Flight 800 as a terror attack, sparking a thousand cover-up theories.

Now a new documentary is likely to fuel more speculation that the official explanation of the crash covered up something sinister:

A documentary on the 1996 explosion that brought down TWA Flight 800 offers “solid proof that there was an external detonation,” its co-producer said Wednesday.

“Of course, everyone knows about the eyewitness statements, but we also have corroborating information from the radar data, and the radar data shows a(n) asymmetric explosion coming out of that plane — something that didn’t happen in the official theory,” Tom Stalcup told CNN’s “New Day.”

All 230 people aboard TWA 800 died when the plane, headed for Paris, exploded and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean shortly after takeoff from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. Scores of witnesses observed a streak of light and a fireball, giving early rise to suspicions that the terrorists had struck the plane with a rocket.

That’s from CNN; this documentary garnered fairly credulous coverage from the Los Angeles Times, Slate, ABC News, Fox News, Yahoo, the Bergen Record, and a slew of others. An awful lot of coverage for a group most people would dismiss as cranks. Then again, some folks who weren’t previously thought of as crank-y became true believers over Flight 800 shoot-down theories, including JFK’s press secretary Pierre Salinger and novelist Nelson DeMille.

Here’s the argument for the official explanation:

John Goglia, a member of the five-person NTSB during the investigation, said he “took offense” at the filmmakers’ suggestion that board members ignored evidence. “I would never be part of any cover up — period,” he told CNN.

“This accident, this report, over 50,000 pages, if you take and just look at certain pieces of it, you can move the cause of this accident any way you want. You can take just the radar; you can say it was a missile. You have to take all of the pieces and look at them as a whole.

“The sequencing report that told how the airplane fell apart, none of it supports a missile — none of it. When you look at the physical evidence inside the tank, it’s clear that there was an explosion inside the tank. If the top of the tank goes up and the bottom of the tank goes down, and the forward side goes forward and the back of the tank goes back, that tells you that the blast was inside the tank — not outside.”

He added that no holes in the tank were found that would indicate something penetrated it.

I wouldn’t suggest that the NTSB is infallible; you can almost always find experts who will disagree with the analysis and conclusion of other experts. We’ve seen groupthink take hold in many government operations. But the problem is that if you reject the short-circuit-sparking-fuel-vapors-in-the-fuel-tank theory, what theory do you prefer?

I looked at the terrorism angle for a long time in my book research, and ultimately concluded that if there had been a terrorist involved, A) the perpetrators would have bragged about it or B) at some point, some sort of corroborating intelligence would have been found pointing in this direction — some reference to it in communications, some captured guy would have spilled about this in exchange for leniency, etc. If terrorists did manage to shoot down a U.S. airliner, it also would raise the question of why this terror group never perpetrated the same attack again.

The other big theory is that the U.S. Navy accidentally shot it down during a missile test, and I’m even more skeptical of that. I just don’t believe that everyone up and down the chain of command involved in such a colossal, deadly mistake would keep their mouths shut for 17 years; I don’t believe that the U.S. military is full of men and women who can shrug off the responsibility of accidentally killing several hundred American citizens, and I’m even more skeptical that the entire four-year, 50,000-page investigation of the accident could miss the evidence of a missile strike.

Ed Morrissey writes:

The NTSB, for its part, says that if presented with enough evidence it will reopen the probe, but that they stand by the results of their four-year investigation. But with whistleblowers suddenly popping up all over the place in more recent contexts, it seems like open season on government efforts these days. Expect to see a lot more about TWA 800 aired all over again, especially given the number and expertise of the whistleblowers.

Still, I think a healthy skepticism is the order of the day here. A cover-up of the scale suggested by the whistleblowers would be, as the two ABC reporters note, one of the largest in American history, involving several agencies and scores of people.

Now, if I were conspiratorial, I would wonder if the coverage of some whistleblowers who sound a bit like the Lone Gunmen from the X-Files television series was designed to make all whistleblowers sound a bit nutty and unreliable.

Elsewhere, Jonathan Tobin talks about the importance of distinguishing between legitimate government scandals and unsubstantiated conspiracy theories.


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