Thursday, May 14, 2009

Who's killing general aviation?

Apparently there was a godawful story on KTLA in Los Angeles the other day about a plane crash. It seems experimental airplanes were described as "death planes," and the reporter was sitting in an RV. Nice.

I have nothing but contempt for lousy reporting such as that turned in by Jaime Chambers and the editors and producers at KTLA. But I reserve some residual bile for people who then jump on bulletin boards, like Van's Air Force, and make unfounded assertions because of the one story:

"This is what worries me about the media is this is how they report on all issues not just Aviation."


"The majority of the general aviation news stories that are reported that I have seen are just plain wrong. Facts and terms used to be checked by reporters. Now it just seems that they read from a teleprompter and spew whatever is in front of them or copy things from a computer and it's fact. And stock photo's of an airplane are good enough."

.. and ...

"I have yet to see a single report on general aircraft and especially homebuilts that are reported with no significant errors and/or obvious bias."

Not one? Here's one. Here's another. Here's another. And another. And another (from way back).

As a matter of fact, just tonight I was reading this story, about how students are overcoming disabilities to become pilots. Yet not a single member of a single aviation bulletin board posted a single mention of that story or any of the others. Why? Because there's an old joke in the newsroom, "Don't check your facts, you'll ruin a good story."

Here's my post this evening on Van's Air Force. I realize it's a waste of time.

I don't defend my profession because it's my profession. I defend -- in this case -- my profession because in my profession I have a naked hatred for inaccuracy and overgeneralization.

You're mad at the KTLA story. I get that. So am I. But phrases like "every GA story is written with inaccuracies or a bias" are simply ignorant and, of course, inaccurate.

The idea that reporters are "out" to get general aviation or that journalists are just so stupid that it's a good day when they remember to zip their pants are insulting.

Here's a story I read just tonight. Students are overcoming disabilities through aviation. But you know what? I looked all over Van's Air Force tonight for someone posting this story, and maybe a comment that this reporter did a good job of portraying general aviation in a good light.

At least four or five times a month, I stick general aviation stories in the Hotline that I think are well done, and I rarely find them by reading VAF, or any other aviation bulletin board for that matter.

When we've already reached a conclusion, we tend to be only interested in data that supports it while ignoring data that might -- if considered -- lead us to question our own conclusions. We don't do that in our country anymore and we're the more ignorant because we don't.

Look, I get the extent to which reporting can stink. Believe me, it can. But I also know there's darned good reporting being done and -- more important -- more positive GA stories than negative GA stories being done. (Matthew Wald of the New York Times is not ignorant on the subject of aviation and neither is James Fallows of The Atlantic)

I realize I'm beating a dead horse here and even with my long-standing passion to try to get many of you involved with the media in your community, I have to admit it's a lost cause. People get their heels dug in against the media, and it makes it tougher for people like me to feel welcomed at the local airport.

So who else besides bad reporters are actively participating in the death of general aviation in this country? General aviators.

General aviation right now is the long goodbye.

Predictably, and understandably I guess, the thread (which I've rewritten slightly) got closed after I posted that. It's not really a productive conversation. People are going to believe what they want to believe.

If we truly value the freedom to fly, approaching our relationships with the media shouldn't be such a chore.

Feel free to discuss this below.


  1. Hi Bob,
    I HATE typing (two fingers) but you deserve my reply because I see every day the reporting you describe and we wholeheartedly agree with what you have written.
    Heck, I have been a member of AOPA since 1968 expecting them to be the NRA of aviation for my flying rights and they don't even do my membership justice, (you should have been standing next to me in the AOPA tent at Oshkosh when I ripped the president as being a "toothless dog" for not saving Meigs Field or at the very least causing Mayor Daily to be jailed for what he did.
    I feel your frustration and don't have much to offer.
    We live on an airpark near you (36WI)and we have a free picnic every year for the residents living in homes surrounding our field.
    I am thinking we should expand this to include the media, maybe that might get them a little more engaged in asking us about aviation related issues.

    I don't know what profile to select? Just another pilot sharing your concerns.

  2. Thanks. If you decide to have a picnic for the media, let me know; I'll try to round some of 'em up. I have quite a few who ask me for rides and such. I always thought an "Old Eagles" program would work.

    Re: AOPA. Don't get me started. I'd written to Boyer many times about my concerns that he was using an us-against-them to solidify support for AOPA and that it was counterproductive to what he publicly insisted he was trying to achieve. He never responded.

    The AOPA guide to dealing with reporters is a huge of piece of crap. I don't know who put it together but if you want to start out with two strikes against you, use that checklist.

  3. Bob, you've given us five examples of good aviation journalism from one source -- Minnesota Public Radio. You mentioned another one from a different source. Plus a few names of journalists who really try hard to get it right. And, of course, yourself. You're an excellent representative of GA in the world of media. I appreciate you all.

    But it'll be a tough job to convince most pilots that the media (in general) are our friends. We see too many examples of slipshod and even harmful reporting on a DAILY basis, from every source -- even the huge, supposedly reputable ones, that eventually we just give up and make huge generalizations about "the media." Not saying it's right, just true.

    Pilots, being as passionate and involved as we are about our flying, hate to see reporters be willfully imprecise about a topic in which we spend much our time being so deeply involved and precise. We react so strongly because we care so much.

    For many pilots, one botched report on the six o'clock news can strain a relationship for a long time. Back in the 1990s, I used to send friendly, well-written letters correcting many of the aviation stories that were broadcast on my local TV network affilicates in Texas. After over a year of doing it, the station mangager at the local NBC station actually called me. I'll never forget what he said.

    "I appreciate your efforts to correct our stories, but you have to understand -- we don't have the time to check each and every fact. We have a half-hour newscast to get on the air, every day."

    That's when I not only stopped correcting their stories, but stopped watching any network television news. I realized that they were involved in "entertainment" far more than "news gathering and disseminating."

    I would love to hear your ideas on how the average airplane owner/pilot could "get involved with the media in their local community." I might take another stab at my efforts to educate and enlighten the media, but not if I get the inkling that my efforts are just going to be dismissed as irrelevant.

    I mean it. If you write a good "Media Interaction for Pilots" article, I'll read it, and maybe I'll try again. Despite my currently jaded attitude, I do belive that the media and the pilot community have things to learn from each other.

  4. Hi Bob,
    I have to be honest that I don't always have a very high opinion of most TV reporters. Many seem to be hired based on sex apeal more than anything else. It was a shock to hear a couple Fox News reporters talking about going to law school! Educated news readers?!? Who whould have thought. . . . ;) Just kidding!

    Here in Santa Rosa, CA we are lucky to have a very good aviation reporter at our local paper, The Press Democrat. Steve Hart always does a great job. I try to read his aviation articles when they are available online. It's funny how simple he makes it look. Short, to the point and never any snarky editorial comments or uninformed speculation (unlike the papers political and environmental reporting). A recent example,

    It's my opinion that reporters like you and Mr. Hart illustrate the problem with the media in general and newspaper circulation in particular. That is, you both seem to be rare reporters that the reader can trust. I think lack of trust is the real issue here. All it takes is one time for a reporter’s bias or desire to “make a difference” interfere with honest reporting to destroy that trust. Once destroyed, it’s probably gone forever. Often, neither the reader nor the “reportee” trusts the reporter to tell the story fairly. On the other hand, reporters sometimes seem to have an unhealthy degree of trust in their sources. This is particularly true when the reporter agrees with the sources point of view on an issue. As President Reagan said, “Trust, but verify.” Cheerleading is cute on the football side line, but it doesn’t help credibility in the news room.

    As a personal example, I canceled my subscription to the Press Democrat during the first Persian Gulf War because of their anti-military reporting. I had recently gotten out of the Army and knew some of the people they were reporting about. It was clear that they had no idea what, or who, they were reporting about and made no effort to educate themselves about the evil warmongers. I’ve been considering restarting my subscription for the last couple of years, but it is a hard decision to make. Being owned by the NY Times doesn’t make the decision any easier.