A few days after Oakland television station KTVU-TV aired the alleged names of the pilots of Asiana Flight 214, the Korean airline is planning to sue the station for its racist broadcast. Interestingly, Asiana has decided to launch a civil suit only against KTVU, and not against the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), whose summer intern allegedly confirmed the names before the broadcast. The airline explained: "It was the TV station report, not the U.S. federal agency that damaged the airline's reputation."
But this suit is ill-advised. Why did Asiana decide to take the station to court? And why has the NTSB escaped the same fate? The cynical answer is that Asiana is trying to protect its bottom line as best as it can. Being the butt of a racist joke could easily compound the hit the airline's profits will almost certainly take in the aftermath of the July 6 crash, and its executives are in damage control mode. In addition, now definitely is not the time for Asiana to get on the NTSB's bad side, as the bureau still has to complete its investigation of the crash.
Now, it's hard to say that falling for a bad, racist joke is a crime for a private citizen. But, as a news station, KTVU has a journalistic obligation to report the truth and undergo even the most rudimentary of fact-checking procedures. Simply reading the names the NTSB had given the station should have sent up a massive red flag. If KTVU isn't guilty of defamation, it's at least guilty of mind-boggling stupidity. What's more, the NTSB shouldn't be giving summer interns access to the press in a case as sensitive as a plane crash that cost 3 people their lives. Both parties' actions were necessary for the broadcast to take place.
But focusing on the KTVU broadcast might be a mistake by Asiana. From initial reports, it looks like the NTSB's findings will end up doing more to sully Asiana's actually sterling record than any racist news report ever could. If Asiana does indeed want to focus on improving its image, as it must, the airline should instead highlight its decision Monday to "increase training" for its pilots. Asiana has received generally positive reviews for its response to the tragic crash, but a suit against KTVU could end up in fact prolonging the life of an ugly story that belongs on Saturday Night Live, not the evening news.