Self-Censorship Gets In The Way Of Reporting The News


So, when it first popped up on one of the aviation networks that I frequent I decided not to bite on it. The crew of a United 737 MAX 8 misjudged a taxiway turn and collapsed the left main in the mud. Minor incidents like this are a tough call when it comes to news value. Nobody was hurt, the airplane will likely fly again (won’t be cheap, though) and relatively inconsequential mishaps like this happen frequently to the point of being mundane. But that’s not why I didn’t run it.

Newsrooms all over the world have Google Alerts set to “737 MAX” and “Boeing” and given the events of last few years, that’s to be expected. There’s lots of news to cover and none of us wants to miss anything. But when I saw all the breathless coverage that, by association at least, seemed to link a MAX in the weeds with the long list of Boeing’s recent transgressions I hit the pause button.

This kind of piling on is common in mainstream media but, dammit, this is an aviation news site and pandering to that kind of disingenous hysteria is beneath this audience. Right? Whatever happened on that taxiway in Houston had nothing to do with a door plug blowing out so jumping all over a nothing story just because it was a MAX and MAXes are big news right now seemed exploitive. Still, it did collapse the gear….

Anyhow, I made the call and nagging self doubt notwithstanding it I stuck to my guns. Then about the same time, the NTSB came out with a report about another United MAX whose crew couldn’t move the rudder pedals after landing in Chicago. The captain used the tiller to keep it between the lines on the rollout and other than the adrenaline shot to the heart the pilots suffered, no harm was done. Turns out a stiff servo on the pedal linkage was to blame.

Again, it was not remotely related to missing bolts and shoddy rivets so my noble stance against journalistic excess held and I walked away from the computer. Must have been scary when those rudder pedals froze though….

Then there was the United 737 that ingested some bubble wrap through an engine with predictable results–flames from the engine but a routine landing by the impeccably trained crew. No news there. Such a good video though….

A day or two later a 777, another United plane, dropped a tire just after taking off from San Francisco. I told myself it’s not even the same kind of plane and this kind of thing happens from time to time. A reader wondered why we hadn’t covered it and that’s when I began to shake myself out of my self indulgent stupor. I was dead wrong. That should have been written up immediately with the video of that great big tire dropping like a bomb and taking out a fence and two cars in the staff parking lot below.

Of course our readers wanted to read about that but this ethical conundrum that I’d been wrestling with got in the way of basic news judgment. In my honorable but misguided quest to maintain balance and objectivity I spiked a story that at any other time would have been a no-brainer.

Because they were all Boeings and all belonged to United, the more enterprising among mainstream outlets actually went looking for trouble and found a couple of diversions caused by garden variety hydraulics issues. That brought to five the number of United Boeings that came to some kind of grief in the past week. That’s a bad week by anyone’s measure and worthy of coverage in itself.

Clearly, that was my colleague Amelia Walsh’s opinion, too. While I was trying to figure out how to artfully craft a story that somehow buried the fact that I was days late with reporting these events, Amelia, our newest addition to the AVweb newsteam, saved me the trouble. She wrote a straightforward news story that succinctly described the events with no navel gazing or hand wringing.

There’s a lot of mistrust of media and after 40 years of doing this I’ve had a front row seat to the way the Internet has transformed the way we gather, present and ultimately think about the news. All of these Boeing stories just seemed like a case of the mainstream media looking for deep meaning that didn’t exist and linking them falsely to a whole set of other serious problems facing the company. So rather than join the mob that I perceived, I struck what I thought was a blow for responsible journalism.

But actually they were just interesting, if not terribly significant stories linked by remarkable coincidence that I should have served up earlier for our readers. They’re smart and I don’t think we would have confused anyone or sparked any conspiracy theories.

Sometimes it takes a fresh set of eyes, unclouded by the cynicism that can sometimes masquerade as the wisdom of experience, to see things for what they really are. So thanks, Amelia. Good story.

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.


  1. What has changed the most is that cameras are everywhere and people use them.
    I doubt very much if even the door blowing out story would have got international coverage, everywhere in the world, if there were not moving images of terrified passengers to go with it.
    Same with the tyre.
    Bet it makes the insurance claims for the smashed cars and fence easier too.
    Just my opinion, but the frozen pedals story would probably have resonated more with this website, than it did elsewhere. After all it does not happen everyday, does it?
    And what caused the “stiff server”? Someone spill coffee on it? Or has the price of grease gone up?

  2. I think your instincts were sound, Russ. Where you could provide a value-add, is to dig up and accurately ascribe those “Boeing” issues to the actual responsible parties. I doubt that the Boeing Company per se, is responsible for the lost wheel; that’s more likely the fault of the carrier or its maintenance contractor. That’s possibly also true for the hydraulics issues as well, and I have no idea what could be done to prevent bubblewrap ingestion. It does seem like Boeings are having a run of bad luck, but such statistical clusters are normal.

  3. You’re absolutely right, guys. Pinning everything on Boeing without dissecting the specifics can be misleading. A lost wheel on a United aircraft definitely points more towards maintenance than a design flaw by Boeing. Hydraulic issues in a United aircraft could also be due to various factors. And bubble wrap on the runway? That’s just a case of “Murphy’s Law” in action! Nobody could design a plane to avoid sucking up stray bubble wrap or running over a coyote if that had been the case.

  4. No, clearly Boeing is to blame for everything! I bet the crew on that Airbus in Indonesia were discussing about MAX and it got so boring that they fell asleep.

    Good luck to Amelia! It’s a great aviation name!

  5. Today United Airlines flight UAL830 – a 777-300 heading for SanFran – returned to Sydney two hours after departing after reports of an emergency – said to be a “hydraulics issue”. Landed safely.
    Soon after this came the Chilean Latam Airlines flight – a 787-9 – that was travelling from Sydney when it experienced a sudden drop in altitude and brief nose dive. Landed in Auckland where paramedics treated 24 people, eight of whom were in a moderate condition, and two people were taken to hospital.

  6. You should have reported all the incidents, (if newsworthy sanding alone), with the rider that they are unconnected to previous MAX incidents. That way you are being responsible AND not depriving your readership of newsworthy content. You made a BAD call!”

  7. ….”This kind of piling on is common in mainstream media but, dammit, this is an aviation news site and pandering to that kind of disengenous hysteria is beneath this audience. Right? “…….

    WRONG! I guess you should spend more time looking at the contemporary aviation forums, etc. NOTHING is beneath the current crop of social media “aviators” whose main goal is to out-snark the next guy even regarding fatal accidents (“it will buff right out” “they did not file a flight plan” “that’s gonna leave a mark”, etc ad nauseum).

    Thanks for the work you do.

  8. Maybe you should have reported the gaggle of incidents, or, for the reasons you state, maybe not. Maybe the thing for AvWeb to do, as the reliable news platform it is, would be to report the incident(s) plus related factors and leave out opining and speculation about the cause, the coincidental aspects, the blame, etc until the reports from investigating authorities are released which are then news items in themselves. Which is pretty much what AvWeb’s writing staff has been doing all along. MSM postures as “reliable” but almost always includes uninformed opinion in their purported “reporting”. Don’t beat yourself up for what may feel like a bad call, Russ. You, Amelia, and the rest of the staff have been doing great, and I believe most readers here deeply appreciate your work. Leave the breathless commentary to the nonparticipating millionaire talking heads, scandal rags operating under formerly respected names, and u-toob brainiacs. It’s all they know how to do, while you and AvWeb reflect a much more realistic view of events.

  9. Unfortunately, mainstream media knows little about aviation and will report any bad news to get clicks. That’s just how journalism works today. Thank you for your professionalism.
    Except for the frozen rudder pedals on rollout, that merits more investigation, especially if the servo was not properly qualified at low temp. I hope for Boeing’s sake it’s just a defective unit.

  10. Rus, I am glad you didn’t chime in. I have had non-aircraft friends ask about flying on Boeing AC after the two major accidents and loss of life. I have assured them Airbus has just as many issues including some mentioned in previous articles. An acquaintance of mine is a High School teacher and he is also one of these “experts” on any subject. Anytime I see him at a social event he has to try to enlighten me (I have over 15,000 hours) on aviation incidents.

    Please continue reporting serious mishaps but do not get wrapped up in the anti-Boeing saga. The Aviation community fully understands how things can go wrong no matter who built the Aircraft.

  11. I appreciate your care & consideration but I am going to keep looking hard at the Max no matter who is operating it. It looks like they were landing on 27 and that’s not where I’d expect this to happen.

    This is especially interesting in light of the Feb 6, 24 “incident’ in EWR. FSI reported :
    “A United Boeing 737-8 MAX, registration N47280 performing flight UA-1539 from Nassau (Bahamas) to Newark, NJ (USA) with 155 passengers and 6 crew, landed on Newark’s runway 04R when during roll out the rudder pedals were stuck in the neutral position. The captain maintained directional control via the steering tiller, rolled out without further incident and taxied the aircraft to the apron.

    The aircraft underwent a test flight the following day during which the anomaly was replicated.

    On Mar 7th 2024 the NTSB reported:
    In a post-incident statement, the captain reported that during the landing rollout, the rudder pedals did not move in response to the “normal” application of foot pressure while attempting to maintain the runway centerline. The pedals remained “stuck” in their neutral position. The captain used the nosewheel steering tiller to keep the airplane near the runway centerline while slowing to a safe taxi speed before exiting the runway onto a high-speed turn-off. While on the high-speed turnoff, the captain asked the first officer to check his rudder pedals and he reported the same problem. The captain reported, that shortly thereafter, the rudder pedals began to operate normally. After parking the aircraft, the flight crew notified UAL maintenance of the flight control malfunction. The airplane was removed from service for maintenance and troubleshooting.”

    Primary flight control failure on a practically new airplane. I am definitely a Boeing fan but I avoid the Max.

    • I agree with you. Of all of United”s recent events this is the most concerning one to me. Air interruptions make news headlines but if I was a Max operator I’d really like to know what caused this and what the fix is.

  12. The story is going to get told whether or not it is true or some made up horse manure. Do your own research and then tell the story. Self-censorship leads others to question what you’re trying to suppress. On another site I’m still waiting on the answer to what a Boeing engine is.

  13. Russ, I think your introspection is well served. Finding the right balance in today’s, news feeding frenzy is no easy task. It is commendable that you have a staff that is willing to help you. Good CRM.

  14. It doesn’t matter whether its a Boeing, or an Airbus, complete wheels dropping off an aircraft has to be a cause for concern and thus worth reporting, surely?

    • Newsworthy, sure – but a cause for concern? Only if it is the start of a trend.

      And in this case, the newsworthiness is based largely upon the fact that is such an anomaly.

  15. Friends and family see aviation news and invariably ask me about it. I then look here, and occasionally on Blancolirio channel for the more reasonable explanation, and usually find the news was wrong.

  16. Russ, I totally agree with you about not reporting some of those events. I am appalled at the way headlines are written these days. Boeing this, Boeing that, and yes, the Alaskan plug departure was an undetected defect that was missed at the factory. As an airline maintenance professional, I feel that you have to first look at the airline procedures when investigating any incident. As I see it, Alaska Airlines had a failure of their CAS, by not investigating a Repeat Write-up on a pressure leak.

  17. The mainstream press delights in widely distributing minor and “routine” events like the botched turnoff because they are useful to them for the ratings value of implicitly making lurid connections that don’t exist in reality. I like to think our crowd automatically understands this. Certainly, I won’t feel slighted if such are ignored or skimmed over in a forum like this.

  18. I’ve been watching the social media comments after the tragic crash of an Astra 1125 (G100) during an apparent emergency landing attempt at nearby KHSP yesterday. Typical comments, “Why are planes or parts of planes falling out of the sky so much all of a sudden?”, “Yet another plane crash?! What is going on?!?!?!”, “Another plane crash? It’s becoming a daily thing. Why?”, “Was it a Boeing?”.
    Out of hundreds of comments on X of this ilk, I saw only two that were actually informed and reasonable.
    I am reminded of my CAP SAR training when the instructor noted that when asking the general public if they saw an aircraft in flight, non-pilots would provide one of these two answers, “Piper Cub” or “747”.

  19. The rudder pedal issue has preliminarily been blamed on a deactivated but not DISCONNECTED autopilot servo that froze up when cold soaked.
    Reports on the Houston “incident” are that the touchdown was at 160 kts plus and they were still at 30 knots when they attempted to make the last turnoff. I guess that pilot flying never heard of a go around. Long runway. “You’re really high but don’t worry you’re really fast.”
    I believe there were six United incidents in less than a week. Too many for me to remember the details. One was an Airbus.

    • “The rudder pedal issue has preliminarily been blamed on a deactivated but not DISCONNECTED autopilot servo that froze up when cold soaked.”

      I once got a chance to fly a newish Citation jet around the pattern, and upon landing I found the rudder pedals were locked. It turned out that the yaw damper was still on, and once it was turned off, the pedals started working again. Does that make it a Cessna issue, or is it the manufacturer of the yaw damper?

      This is highlights why it’s important to understand the aircraft systems to a high degree, especially modern aircraft whose systems are so interconnected. (This isn’t to imply that this crew didn’t understand their systems; it’s more a general comment)

  20. Russ, great job and a good article. Being able to analyze and criticize ones self is refreshing and rare these days especially in the media.

    Peter Butt, was it really necessary to make the comment “You made a BAD call!” when Russ admitted in his article “I was dead wrong”.

    Radu C, great comment, had me laughing out load loudly! (that would be LOLL).

  21. The media’s new Artificial Intelligence (AI) toy. Everyone is looking for how to use this new AI tool and listening to EVERY SINGLE ATC communication is doing it’s job. Anytime a key-word is spoke in the communication like “return” the AI identifies the flight number looks up the aircraft and carrier and reports to the news room in seconds. So, if it’s beat-up on Boeing month then there is no way to hide anymore and Boeing will be headlines in less then an hour of every key-word communication.

  22. I’m sorry but it’s time to keep Boeing in the news daily until they clean up their act.
    Boeing killed a lot of people in the 737Max and hid why it was happening. No one at Boeing was punished for their incompetence. And again now with the door issue they appear to be skating through again with little punishment, production continues daily in a production line that is far from perfect.
    The “fix” for the uncontrolled trim is the pilot getting up out of the seat and going back to pull a breaker. Give me a break. How stupid. Some versions of the Max are in the air today because the USA government passed a law saying Boeing did not have to meet FAA standards.
    Yes Boeing needs to be in the news, everyday. Put the incompetent engineers and managers in jail. Stop their production line until they can prove it’s consistent with quality.
    I worked at aviation factory for years, flight test department, have flown for 50 years, university was aviation engineering, worked with Boeing staff, have a family member flying the Max.

    • And then why hasn’t Airbus been held accountable for the Air France 447? Mostly blamed on faulty software and the crews inability to recognize the problem? Once again, solved with software improvments. I could list a dozen episodes of Airbus software causing an issue some with fatalities but apparently it’s just Boeing who has a problem.

      Could all this be due to a little too much automation produced by our younger woke workforce? Could it be the industry constantly demands more and more flights to be flown with less experienced pilots and mechanics? Insufficent controllers? Airbus flaunts it’s record aircraft deliveries and Boeing is critisized for producing them too fast.

      Take a look on any day of the number of flights crossing the globe at one time. And the airlines are complaining they will have to curtail new routes due to the inability to acquire more new aircraft. The airports have been operated at over capacity for years and yet they continue to cram more into the gates every day.

      What could possibly go wrong?

      Put those incompetent engineers in jail? Really? The entire industry has gotten out of control.

      • In my opinion the Air France 447 accident was 90% caused by an incredibly incompetent first officer who kept back pressure on the stick, stalling the aircraft from 38,000 feet to the ocean, even after the caption at one point saw what he was doing and emphatically told him to stop. But he went right back to it killing all 228 on board. Even a private pilot knows continuous back pressure is going to cause a stall. Yes there were other factors, as there always is in aircraft crashes. One was the control sticks were completely independent from each other so movement in one was not duplicated in the other which could have alerted the other pilot sooner to what the first officer was doing. That was a change Airbus made. There was also an issue with the heated pitot tubes that Airbus & Air France were aware of but did not want to correct until scheduled maintenance. That started the incident which confused the crew. I agree that Airbus & Air France should have been held accountable for that.

        I agree with you Stephen, Boeing needs to be in the news, everyday. Their management has become incompetent and should be held accountable. The door plug incident is inexcusable not to mention the poorly engineered MCAS system that was also hidden from pilots. There is a very good 2022 video on Netflix on the cause of Boeing’s problems entitled “Downfall the case against Boeing”.

    • “The “fix” for the uncontrolled trim is the pilot getting up out of the seat and going back to pull a breaker.”

      No, the ‘fix’ is to disconnect power from the elevator trim motors by flipping a pair of switches on the center console. The second crew turned it off and then back on – all without getting up!

  23. Russ–possibly the best column you’ve ever written!
    All too often, pilots (and to a lesser extent, mechanics) view a report of a plane with a problem, and the first words out of their mouths are “what happened”? One wonders “why the preoccupation with accidents or incidents”–is it the “need to know”–or is it “voyeurism” so that the person can “give an informed opinion” at the local coffee shop?

    Some would-be “experts” give their “opinions” even before the actual investigators arrive. I pay no attention to these people–they are the same type that proudly opine at an auto crash–“I was there–I SEEN it!

    Has anyone ever noticed that PRO PILOTS rarely engage in uninformed speculation? Let the wreckage cool–let all the facts be gathered before rendering an opinion. Most of us realize that there is pressure in the news media to “get there fustest with the mostest” (in the words of Nathanial Bedford Forrest) when it comes to journalism. AvWeb takes the high road–saving speculation for when the facts are actually KNOWN.

    Maybe it’s journalism integrity–or maybe it’s the job of editor and commenter–but maybe a bit of Bertorelli’s cynicism (or Jack Webb’s “Just the facts”) (laugh) have rubbed off on you. In any case, I applaud you for being able to balance known facts and avoid speculation.

    • Wasn’t it pro pilots though who blamed the Max crashes on “poorly trained pilots” (underlying message ‘darkies can’t fly’)?
      Which Boeing pushed for all it could.
      I remember reading all sorts of pro pilots saying that all they needed to do while arrowing into the ground was find that switch, close it, then do something else, while helping fight the controls, and the same thing happened to Joe in the States and he did not crash…

      • But they DID find the switches, they DID shut it off, and they DID leave the throttles at takeoff power while arrowing into the ground.

        Maybe ‘Joe’ was better trained?

  24. I think that those of us who *are* involved in aviation and understand the lingo and are able to sort out what is routine and what is not need to understand that there actually are those who come to this website who don’t have that background. I think it would be a service to them to take a critical look at stories that the mainstream media are covering badly. I really think that those media need to have their feet held to the fire when they sensationalize or misrepresent the import of a relatively minor incident.

  25. Where do the tv networks and other MSM get their “aviation experts” ?? About 95 percent of the stories I see, hear or read have at least one, usually more, errors.

    Most of them are not pilots and an even larger number couldn’t tell a Cessna from a Piper from a Boeing or Airbus.

    Example, today a 787 hit some moderate to severe clear air turbulence. Some of the cattle in the passenger compartment got tossed around because they couldn’t be bothered to use their seatbelts.

    News story: Boeing Dreamliner went into a sudden dive, the aircraft shaking and lost altitude. NTSB is investigating what caused the shaking and why the altimeter wasn’t working.
    Also the story linked every little tick that Boeing has had happen for the last six months.

    How do turbulence, a wheel falling off, an engine fire and a plane sliding off the runway become Boeing problems?? I’m tired of the incomplete, incorrect and downright lies about aviation in the MSM.
    Imagine what the general public, who doesn’t have a clue, thinks after viewing all this nonsense.

  26. “disingenous hysteria is beneath this audience.” What have you been snorting? This and other media outlets troll for disingenuous hysteria. Just read the replies you attract. A whistleblower commits suicide and “YEP”! It’s automatically a conspiracy by Boeing to take the guy out. Missing bolts, it’s the CEOs fault! Beneath this audience my rear. One article and the AvWeb jury is in. Guilty!

  27. Russ, I appreciate the description of your internal deliberations about what stories to run. It is more important to me that you think hard about what to run than the final decision you make. Nobody makes every close call perfectly (and perfection is too high a standard for anyone). Thanks for explaining your approach.

  28. The 737 sliding off a 10,000′ runway is newsworthy irrespective of the other events. It could have been a fatal accident at a place such as LGA, etc.

  29. Thank for the “mea culpa”! You have brought forth a conundrum. What is “newsworthy” and what is not? I look to AV-Web to be an arbitrator of this kind of information in the GA and Aviation universe. As a pilot and an aerospace engineer of many years I rely upon you’all to be the first filter to make me aware of issues aviation related. This kind of self-reflection is refreshing and rare! Personally, I appreciate it. Keep up the good work!

  30. The Atlas 747-8 at MIA wouldn’t have even made the news if it weren’t for that “dramatic” video of sparks coming out of the engine if that had happened during the day. I would have been just another freighter leaving MIA going over the golf course.

  31. The average Airline pilot will go through an entire 30 plus year career without a major malfunction. On the other hand they also can earn their entire annual salary in a 15 to 30 minute period when something does go horribly wrong. I’ve shutdown six (6) engines in my USAF and Commercial career and all were precautionary and landed without incident. Lost some systems, no big deal because of redundancy and non-normal procedures. Hollywood and the media are aviation’s biggest fear mongers. An airplane doesn’t plunge out of control to the earth, overheads opening, passengers screaming and pilots in extreme terror when an engine fails or catches fire, but it makes thrilling movies.
    Retired B777 captain.

  32. The autopilot servo previously mentioned in the Newark incident its reported to be a Collins part. The limited information available indicates that it was not related to the yaw damper.
    The Houston accident(yes it is an accident) is strictly pilot error. They WERE NOT at taxi speed and attempted to make a 90 degree turn at the end of the runway. It is likely the airplane was sliding sideways when it departed the pavement.

  33. I don’t believe the 737 issues are unique. Boeing has a history dating to the early 707/KC135 era of rudder problems. Fatal 707 accidents at Ontario and JFK.
    The two 737 fatal loss of control accidents have never been fully explained. What most do not know is a very near miss with a third early 737. The airplane was falling out of the sky and was saved by the incredibly skilled copilot who was very experienced in aerobatics.
    Then there was the 727 that spiraled or spun from high altitude to around 10’000 ft.

  34. Mr Niles;

    Thank you very much for the explanation, but I believe your initial reaction was correct. At this point piling on only detracts from the company’s ability to deal with the actual problem by demanding the available bandwidth be used to assuage pointless outrage. Things that are normal everyday – or even not every day but commonly understandable – are only distractions from the actual issue(s). There are plenty enough things to incite indignation. Adding to it is counterproductive – unless what you’re trying to produce is outrage.

    I also agree with your assessment of Miss Walsh’s absolutely stunning degree of journalistic accomplishment. I’ve noticed since she started that she has an uncanny ability to report – without personal attitude input. It’s just remarkable that someone so apparently young (hey, it could be an old picture) could be so exceptional at what she does. The lack of attitude is especially impressive, since so many young folks seem to think everyone needs to know their thoughts. Journalistic slant is not ethical journalism, it’s lying. So nice to see someone who can put herself and her work above such foolish nonsense. I hope she continues to maintain her singularly high standard. She will succeed beyond comprehension if she does.

  35. On Apr 4, 1979, TWA 841, a Boeing 727, was cruising at 39’000 ft(FL390) north of Detroit. It departed controlled flight and rolled/spiraled out of control. The aircraft descended 24,000ft in 63 seconds. At around 10’000′ the landing gear was extended and control was regained at around 5’000′.
    The event started with the departure of one segment of leading edge slats while in cruise flight.
    The “story” at the time was that some 727 pilots routinely pulled the circuit breaker on the slats and extended the flaps to 2 degrees in cruise. This allowed operating at a higher altitude than standard for the weight. In this case the FE was believed to have reset the CB, which resulted in the loss of the slat segment and the airplane falling out of the sky. I think most would agree that a descent rate of near 24,000 ft/minute meets the definition of falling out of the sky.
    The reason for the outstanding accident rate over the last few years is that there has been ZERO TOLERANCE for such activity for decades.