To get to the point immediately, to avoid even a whiff of ambivalence and to allow those who might be offended in readership land to turn the page: kudos to “Here and Now” for its decision to air the tape of the final conversation between the pilots of Cougar Flight 491 and air traffic control. By the same token, a wave of shame towards any news agencies that decided not to broadcast an integral part of coverage of a major news story, and, in the process, censor themselves.
Because the tape, in the final analysis, was indeed journalism: damn good journalism at that.
It was the kind of journalism that will leave an indelible mark on the Newfoundland psyche and, more importantly, ensure that no one — especially those in authority who dictate the rules governing dangerous jobs in the unforgiving ocean, in the oil and fishing industry — will ever be allowed to forget the deadly price that has been paid, and will continue to be paid, by men and women earning a living offshore. A price like the tragedy that was — and that is — Cougar Flight 491.
Obviously, you’d need to function with a heart of ice not to feel immense sadness for the widow of pilot Matt Davis, who unsuspectingly heard her husband’s last words as she sat with her two children in front of a television set.
But that raw, emotional response by much of the public to Ms. Davis’ horrible experience, as understandable as that reaction was, also helped obscure the fact that the decision to play the recording was not an extraordinary move by “Here and Now.” It was the kind of routine, perfectly legitimate decision journalists make throughout the world on a regular basis on cockpit tapes (the 9/11 attacks, the Swiss Air crash, etc.).
And it was, of course, incredibly unfortunate that Ms. Davis was not informed that the tape was to be publicly aired, but unlike many who felt “Here and Now” was negligent there, I saw that responsibility lying square with the Transportation Safety Board, not the media.
Those who have an unflagging dislike for the media (they will argue reporters and their bosses have justly earned a despicable reputation) will simply dismiss any argument in support of airing the Cougar 491 tapes as an attempt to rationalize what they would conclude was just another insensitive example of sensationalism, of yellow journalists plying their trade.
And even many of those viewers of “Here and Now” not prone to that kind of general dismissal of the media would, as I’ve implied, allow their natural tendency to feel for Ms. Davis (and I’m trying not to be patronizing here) to cloud any chance of a realistic grasp on last Friday’s airing of the conversation between Capt. Davis, his first officer Tim Lanouette, and air traffic controllers.
I’m sure, as well, that are also people who’d prefer journalists clean up their act, as they would have it, lower the temperature on coverage of tragedy and sadness, of horrific acts committed against the innocent, of fires and accidents, of natural disasters, that we sanitize the news, that we turn into Polly-annas and, as a result, deliver an unrealistic portrait of the society in which we live.
Some have argued, for example, that publishing a transcript of the final minutes of Cougar 491 would have been sufficient, that there was no need to hear the conversation that occurred in that cockpit.
I would suggest that, aside from being part of the natural process of journalism, hearing those words will also ensure that the memory of the Cougar 491 crash never slackens, that the tape, as opposed to words on paper, will have the kind of lasting impact such a tragedy should have.
Often at this time of the year, as the anniversary of the Ocean Ranger disaster occurs, radio and television stations air the final communication between rig foreman Jack Jacobson and a Mobil Oil employee: “We’re listing badly and we need to get the people off the rig, and that’s about it.”
And I have no doubt Jacobson’s family members suffered greatly when they first heard that tape, and continue to do so whenever it’s been played in the years since.
There’s also the recording, aired many times, of the graphic testimony given by men from supply boats who came agonizingly close to rescuing Ocean Ranger crewmembers, close enough to see their faces, to hear them screaming.
And I’m sure the relatives of the Ocean Ranger victims bury their heads in their hands whenever that tape is played.
But much more than dry transcripts, those audiotapes hit a nerve and help to give the Ocean Ranger tragedy the unflinching profile it deserves.
For the same reason, I hope that, for years to come, the final words from the cockpit of Cougar 491 are aired to ensure we never forget that tragedy as well, and how those two pilots desperately and heroically tried to save themselves and their passengers.
Bob Wakeham has spent more than 30 years as a journalist in Newfoundland and Labrador. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.