The Senior Senator from Alaska, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, sent outraged letters to the NTSB, the Smithsonian Institution and Showtime criticizing their joint cooperation to broadcast ALASKA AIRCRASH INVESTIGATIONS. Her letter to the NTSB labeled that independent federal agency’s participation as “going Hollywood” and her message addressed to both the Chairman of Showtime and the Secretary of the Smithsonian (a federally funded organization) in which she asserted that they caste Alaska’s aviation’s safety record in a “false light.” Her underlying critique is the serious economic impact this series will have on her state’s summer tourist season.
The letter to Chairman Hart includes 15 specific questions about the Board’s role in this production, its authority to do so, the funding of the NTSB personnel, the nature of this documentary/reality show/training film, agreements/reimbursement, supervision by the Board, editorial control by the NTSB, alternative states for the filming, the potential impact of the show on Alaska’s tourism and several other questions. A prompt answer to the Senator’s staff is requested.
The Senator does not sit on any Committee with direct jurisdiction over the substance of the NTSB’s work; so her staff may be excused for overlooking these important questions about the functioning of the Board under these unusual circumstances.
The Board rigorously shields the press from the inner workings of its accident site work.
All participants must sign a certification that all of the proceedings of the NTSB are under its control of the sharing of information to ANYONE outside of the team (including their companies). The release of the subject information must be done by a Board Member, the IIC or the Public Affairs. The rationale (link; at pp.16-20) is that this official statement will put the facts in the proper context, will assure that the words are correct and will reflect the focus of the Board thus limiting speculation.
1. Why would the NTSB grant a non-party to an accident direct access to all of the fact-gathering and analytical aspects of the field investigation FOR THE SPECIFIC PURPOSE OF DISSEMANATING THAT CONFIDENTIAL INFORMATION, when The NTSB imposes a very strict regulation (49 CFR §831.13):
“(a) Release of information during the field investigation, particularly at the accident scene, shall be limited to factual developments, and shall be made only through the Board Member present at the accident scene, the representative of the Board’s Office of Public Affairs, or the investigator-in-charge.”
2. Unlike the parties to the NTSB, where the sanction for violation is the immediate expulsion from the investigation, what could be done to Smithsonian/Spotlight?
3. The shooting of the film was during the summer of 2015, in most cases the Board will not have issued its findings of probable cause until after the showing of the series. Thus, the airing may include facts/opinions expressed during these investigations before the Board has made them public. Did such disclosure happen? How did the NTSB review the content of the six shows to assure that nothing inappropriate was released first during the show?
4. Much of the work and dialogue of the investigators is highly technical laced with abbreviations and technical jargon which would be absolutely meaningless without explanation. Did the staff “dumb down” their discussions or was additional time devoted to explaining the meanings to the producers?
5. Equally importantly, the typical trail of the investigators’ work involves multiple branches, return to options earlier discounted and periods of uncertainty. To really comprehend the logic and validity of the Board’s techniques requires a high level of engineering, human factors, meteorological, metallurgical and other forensic techniques. How were these critical steps explained to the audience without the devotion of an inordinate amount of the Board’s experts?
6. One of the reasons why the NTSB controls its process so carefully is that the public’s attention is properly focused. The final product, its finding of Probable Cause, is the result of hours and hours of deliberation by the staff and the Members. It is not unusual for the Board’s articulation of the accident to vary from the field’s immediate hypotheses. Without some inclusion of this careful iterative consideration, the raw footage of the ALASKA AIRCRASH INVESTIGATIONS is highly susceptible to misinterpretation.
The NTSB provides a critical function to the US and global aviation industry. Its historic investigative determinations have been predicates to many important safety advances. The sophistication of its experts and their forensic science sets a world standard. The public SHOULD know more about the inner workings of the Board and its staff—it would make the popular CSI programs seem dull and unresourceful. Seriously a carefully crafted, unsensational revelation of the way in which the Board does its work, would make for appropriate programming. Such a documentary would have to be (i) released well after the final Board report is complete (II) with the sort of expert, expensive voice-over explanation and (iii) reflective of all modes and geographical coverage of the Board’s scope. Public Broadcasting might be more inclined to limit the sensational aspects of these cases.
It appears that the SHOWTIME format focusing only on Alaska will inappropriately shine a light on the aviation within that state which relies on planes to reach much of its territory. Also, it is unfortunate that the narration appears not to include the excellent efforts being performed to improve Alaska’s record and its actual increase in its safety.
While it is recognized that the NTSB’s excellence in its work should be given greater public recognition, this show may not have been the best vehicle for telling its awesome investigatory story.