The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Sean O'Keefe
NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe has been at the center of the media coverage surrounding the Columbia investigation. (credit: NASA)

Columbia and the media: a one-month report card

<< page 1: hit-and-run journalism

Controversy, real and imagined

Controversy and dissent, like it or not, is vital to the media: if everyone agreed on everything, then there would be very little to report, and little incentive for the public to read or watch. This is likely one of the main reasons why Columbia remains in the news even today, as evidence of possible disagreement or miscommunication among engineers and flight controllers during the mission surfaces through exchanges of emails that NASA has been releasing. This is also why there have been a number of articles attempting to reignite the debate about manned vs. unmanned spaceflight, even though there is scant evidence that the Bush Administration, the vast majority of members of Congress, and the majority of the American people, have any interest in abandoning manned flight for robotic missions.

A case in point is a poll conducted shortly after the accident by ABC News and the Washington Post. The poll results showed that four out of five Americans believed that NASA should continue the shuttle program and two out of three thought that the space program; in other words, there was no evidence of a conflict between the American people and the shuttle program. ABC dutifully reported on the poll results with an article on its web site. However, the Washington Post, one of the cosponsors of the poll, relegated the poll results to the last three paragraphs of a column that discussed the results of two other unrelated polls.

Without controversy there would be very little to report, and little incentive for the public to read or watch.

The media has also proven to be susceptible to a little grandstanding. In last week’s House Science Committee hearings, ostensibly about NASA’s proposed budget but primarily focusing on the Columbia investigation, most of the Congressmen, both Republicans and Democrats, engaged NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe in spirited but generally cordial questioning. The major exception, though, was Anthony Weiner, a Democrat who represents portions of Brooklyn and Queens, New York, who launched into a diatribe wondering why emails that suggested the possibility of serious problems with the shuttle did not reach O’Keefe, in one case comparing the Columbia accident with Challenger. When O’Keefe attempted to answer, Weiner cut him off on more than one occasion.

Guess who got a lot of coverage in news articles about the hearing?

It’s one thing if Weiner had a long record of interest in NASA, from either a critical or supportive standpoint. However, that’s not the case: even though he serves on the space and aeronautics subcommittee of the House Science Committee, space has taken a low priority over aeronautics and other issues. Weiner, now in his third term in Congress, has only one press release on his web site about space; that one was published last month just before the joint House-Senate hearing about the accident. Weiner has issued more press releases about a plan to film a movie about former New York City major Rudy Giuliani in Montreal.

Rep. Weiner has issued more press releases about plans to film a Giuliani bio-pic in Montreal than about space.

What also didn’t make it into the media was the subtle but clear rebuke that the chairman of the committee, Sherwood Boehlert, delivered shortly after Weiner’s remarks. (Boehlert was not in the hearing room when Weiner spoke, as he attended a homeland security briefing, but was apparently brought up to date shortly after he returned.) “I understand, Mr. Administrator, than in my absence there was a little bit of excitement generated in an exchange with Mr. Weiner,” Boehlert said. “I understand that in his enthusiasm that he went a little far in comparing this with the Challenger situation… I think it’s a little bit premature to do any finger-pointing at this stage.” Such comments are not commonly heard in Congressional hearings, particularly on topics, like NASA, where there is typically broad bipartisan support and little partisan rancor. Yet Boehlert’s comments weren’t deemed newsworthy, while Weiner’s commentary was widely reported. (A few did note that Weiner apologized for getting “a little hot under the collar” but still failed to pick up on Boehlert’s comments.)

Remaining vigilant

Coverage of the investigation continues, but until the Accident Investigation Board releases its reports—or other major revelations are made—the accident will not get anywhere near the press it received in February. This will be especially true if war does start in Iraq in the coming weeks. This trend may be a beneficial development, since those reporters left to continue on the shuttle beat are more likely to be knowledgeable and experienced than those drafted to cover the story in its initial phases. It will also help even the playing field between the mass media outlets and the niche space-specific media. Nonetheless, keep an eye on what the media are doing, because what you see or read is often not the whole story.