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Reinvestigating the Crash of TWA 800: Lack of Media Skepticism in Original Investigation Leads to Questions Posed in Documentary

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Reinvestigating the Crash of TWA 800: Lack of Media Skepticism in Original Investigation Leads to Questions Posed in Documentary

Article excerpt

"Goddammit, when is somebody going to go on the record in this story? You guys are about to write a story that says the attorney general of the United States, the highest ranking law enforcement officer in the country, is a crook. Just be sure you are right.... And leave room for his denial."

Ben Bradlee, played by the late Jason Robards, is warning Bob Woodward, played by Robert Redford; and Carl Bernstein, played by Dustin Hoffman, in the film, "All the President's Men," that they are taking on the then powerful Richard Nixon White House. It's a cinema reflection of the real world.

But not all movies are documentaries, especially when they recreate real people. If you are going to produce a documentary that takes on the White House and its myriad entities like the FBI, the CIA or the National Transportation Safety Board, you better not make any mistakes. You have to get people to go on the record, put their reputations on the line, and then be prepared for the fallout.

Kristina Borjesson and Tom Stalcup's 90-minute documentary, "Flight TWA 800", did just that. It is an angry, compelling, solemn investigation of the July 17, 1996 flight that crashed into the Atlantic, 10 miles off the coast of Long Island, N.Y., killing 230 people. The plane took off at approximately 8:19 p.m. and was about 10 minutes out of JFK Airport en route to Paris when it went down.

Borjesson, a former producer with CBS News, NBC and ABC, wrote, directed and co-produced the film with Stalcup, a physicist and head of The Flight 800 Independent Researchers. They have tried for years to prove once and for all that the plane was victimized by a missile, domestic or foreign, and not from a faulty central fuel tank, as the National Transportation Safety Board has ruled. The evidence in the documentary: TWA was shot out of the sky. The documentary, was televised on July 17--the 17th anniversary of the TWA tragedy--on EPIX, a premium cable channel owned by Viacom.

Stalcup has filed a petition with the NTSB that it reopen its investigation into the TWA 800 explosion. The petition was signed by Stalcup, and several people involved in the original NTSB investigation, including Hank Hughes, a retired NTSB investigator; Bob Young, a retired analyst for TWA; Jim Spear, an accident investigator for the Airlines Pilot Association, and at least a dozen members of the surviving families.

NTSB has informally agreed to reexamine its original findings, an extremely rare move by the agency. It has already assigned one of its top investigators to head a complete review of the original findings, according to sources. It is a situation that has raw emotions, from those who lost loved ones and accept the NTSB decision, and those who feel the cause of the crash has been covered up these past 17 years.

The overwhelming national press reaction to the documentary muddied the debate even more. Television critics, for the most part, analyzed the documentary as a film, while straight news journalists quoted the debate between experts.

There were also 76 reporters who participated at a teleconference call held by the producers and their experts to support the missile theory of the documentary. Another press crowd attended a NTSB briefing held at its training center in Auburn, Va. to emphatically defend its original ruling that the plane crash resulted from a mechanical failure and not a missile. Media reports note that the experts quoted in the documentary were credible.

Verne Gay, a television reviewer for Newsday, which won a Pulitzer Prize for its spot coverage of the crash, was typical of the serious coverage the documentary received. "There is nothing flaky about "TWA Flight 800," Gay wrote. "There are no fruitcake conspiricists here or lunatic fringes ... At the very least this film builds a case --a surprisingly powerful one--for plausible uncertainty."

Still, he utters a word of caution: ". …

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