Isn’t there something strangely reassuring when your eyeballs are gripped by a “mystery” on the news that has no greater meaning and yet sweeps all else away? This, of course, is the essence of the ongoing tale of the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Except to the relatives of those on board, it never really mattered what happened in the cockpit that day. To the extent that the plane’s disappearance was solvable, the mystery could only end in one of two ways: it landed somewhere (somehow unnoticed, a deep unlikelihood) or it crashed somewhere, probably in an ocean. End of story. It was, however, a tale with thrilling upsides when it came to filling airtime, especially on cable news. The fact that there was no there there allowed for the raising of every possible disappearance trope—from Star Trekkian black holes to the Bermuda Triangle to Muslim terrorists—and it had the added benefit of instantly evoking a popular TV show. It was a formula too good to waste, and wasted it wasn’t.
The same has been true of the story that, in the US, came to vie with it for the top news spot: the devastating mudslide in Washington State. An act of nature, sweeping out of nowhere, buries part of a tiny community, leaving an unknown but possibly large number of people dead. Was anyone still alive under all that mud? (Such potential “miracles” are like manna from heaven for the TV news.) How many died? These questions mattered locally and to desperate relatives of those who had disappeared, but otherwise had little import. Yes, unbridled growth, lack of attention to expected disasters and even possibly climate change were topics that might have been attached to the mudslide horror. As a gruesome incident, it could have stood in for a lot, but in the end it stood in for nothing except itself and that was undoubtedly its abiding appeal.
Both stories had the added benefit (for TV) of an endless stream of distraught relatives: teary or weeping or stoic or angry faces in desperately tight close-ups making heartfelt pleas for more information. For the media, it was like the weather before climate change came along.
In response, just about anything else that could pass for news was swept aside. Given a media that normally rushes heedlessly from one potential 24/7 story to another, this was striking. In the case of Flight 370, for instance, on the twenty-first day after its disappearance, it still led NBC’s Nightly News with Brian Williams (with the mudslide, one week after it happened, the number two story).