Austin: It's a Test, Really
As Thursday's bizarre events in Austin were unfolding, we had a slightly urgent discussion around the office about how to spin our second-day coverage to minimize the impact on general aviation.
About 10 minutes into that rumination, I asked myself: why? Our audience of pilots and aviation savvy readers knows exactly what and how to think about Andrew Joseph Stack's apparent decision to fly his Dakota into an office building. This was simply the act of a single, unhinged individual who happened to be a pilot and who happened to have access to an airplane. If he had owned a bulldozer, presumably, he would have used that instead.
What we don't know is what it means outside the context of the general aviation community. In that sense, the Austin attack will serve as an interesting test of whether the public has become more resilient and dismissive of the incessant and paranoid obsession with terrorism. I'm not a reflexive basher of mainstream news outlets, because I understand the job they have to do. Nonetheless, how reporters and editors play such stories can shape public opinions and in an era where feedback on stories is practically instantaneous, what readers think reflects back and shapes how evolving stories are covered.
It's the second-day stories that can be the most damaging and, in some cases, revealing. In the case of the Amy Bishop shooting story in Alabama, the follow-ups are delving into her violent criminal past, not gun control as a fix-it-all panacea. For the Austin second days, the worst we would expect to see are dead-end stories about small airport security or, gasp, proposals for psychiatric evaluations of pilots. What I think we're actually going to see is coverage that tilts toward violent anti-government and anti-tax crimes, of which this is just the latest of many.
This morning, for example, the cable sites are still playing the story as a top-of-the-page lead, with video and photos. But both the New York Times and Washington Post are leading with Olympic coverage, playing the Austin story at the bottom of the page. I could hardly find it, actually. Tiger Woods, bless his dark little heart, is getting the leads on the network morning shows.
Maybe I'm delusional, but I take this as a realization by editors that this story just isn't significant. Maybe readers have grown weary of being infantilized by the lunatic fringe—left and right, but mostly right—treating every crime major or minor as a terrorist plot that threatens the Republic. Maybe readers have been exposed to enough of such tripe to finally, as a means of self-preservation, tune it out. If that comes twittering back to editors, they'll get the message. In engineering, that's called a closed loop system and it's possible that it's working to our advantage.
Reduced to the basics then, what we have here is anti-government hysteria run amok. But only inside the head of one disturbed individual. If you listen much to the blaring megaphone of cable news and talk radio—it's hard to avoid--you might worry that we'll see more of this sort of thing and that this incident represents the leading edge of some sort of violent revolution. Some of the cable talking heads actually spew this stuff. But wild-eyed anti-government paranoia has always been a permanent fixture of American life. This time, it happened to manifest itself in an airplane used as a weapon. In 1995, it was a truck full of fertilizer and diesel fuel. Next time, it will something else.