He just wanted to get to Kentucky.
So there sat the kindly, 69-year-old physician near the back of a Louisville-bound United Airlines plane at Chicago’s O’Hare airport last Sunday. Dr. David Dao was simply minding his own business when, for no reason at all, a horde of “United goons” (in the words of one journalist opining on Twitter) pulled him out of his seat, bloodied his face against an armrest, and dragged him through the aisle and off the plane.
By now you’ve seen the video of this incident, which has led to a rabid outpouring of herd-like social media outrage, a $1.4 billion drop in United’s market cap, and angry calls for the company’s CEO to resign. This being 2017, not even the most insignificant aspect of the controversy—in this case, the passenger’s Vietnamese ethnicity— could escape the ravenous eyes of our Millennial churnalists, constantly on the lookout for the subject of their next, epically stupid think-piece. “Why it Matters that the United Dragging Victim is Asian,” blared the headline of an article posted onto the website of the increasingly identity politics-obsessed New Republic, which has officially finished its transformation from journal of highbrow opinion and literary criticism into the Reader’s Digest version of Salon. “This particular incident is complicated by the fact that the cops appear to be African-American,” mentioned the author in passing, a tidbit of information that did nothing to mitigate her disquisition on “the nexus of corporate greed and state violence” the likes of which Chicago apparently hasn’t seen since Mayor Daley’s pigs brought their Gestapo tactics to Grant Park in 1968.
Here, I should disclose that I am a frequent flier on United (Platinum Status, baby) so my experience might not jibe with Dr. Dao’s. Judging from the loudest voices in the Twitterverse, he might as well have been incarcerated in Manzanar. But facts are stubborn things, and waiting five minutes to process them before venting your spleen on Twitter is generally a good idea.
According to news reports, the airline asked four passengers to leave the flight to make room for crewmembers whose presence was required in Louisville to operate a waiting plane. United is certainly to blame for having put itself into this situation, but it’s also true that as a passenger, you legally sign away your right to complain about such things each time you purchase a ticket and agree to the conditions of carriage. Passengers were initially offered $800 and a hotel room in addition to a seat on the next available flight to Louisville. When none accepted the offer, four were selected by a computer at random. Three of the chosen willingly obliged. Dr. Dao did not.
Refusing the polite entreaties of several flight attendants, Dao became— in the words of United’s CEO— “disruptive and belligerent,” an observation confirmed by the videos posted online and by first-hand witness accounts. It was at this point that offivers of the Chicago Aviation Department (not “United goons”) entered the plane and forcibly removed Dao.
Did they go too far? Sure, and the cop who pulled Dao from his seat is appropriately being suspended. But Dao put the officers, and the entire planeload of passengers and crew, in an impossible position. Drawing the short end of the stick always sucks, and Dao had every right to chafe at his inconvenience, but unless you think he also had a right to keep the plane grounded on the tarmac indefinitely and inconvenience everyone else, I would like to hear your idea for a resolution to this problem.
Like any aviation-related dust-up, Sunday’s incident has provided us with yet another opportunity to vent our frustrations about airline travel. Hardly any consideration has been given to the flight attendants, pilots, and other airport employees who are some of the most put-upon people in the service industry. When confronted with inevitable travel snafus, many if not most of us immediately lose any basic sense of propriety or common humanity and take out our frustration on the hapless gate attendant or stewardess. (Despite my best efforts, I count myself as an occasional offender in this regard.) We do this because it’s easy, because these frontline employees are the immediate face of the corporation that has screwed us. But the truth is they are merely cogs in a giant, complex logistical apparatus, and thus the least responsible for our predicament. Oscar Munoz, United’s CEO, is being made out to be some sort of Montgomery Burns-like figure for doing precisely what would usually be celebrated in the quarters now scorning him: standing by his hardworking employees rather than throwing them overboard for PR reasons.
My initial reaction upon first hearing about this controversy was skepticism, as I’ve long learned to be suspicious of our perennial, social media-led descents into Salem-like mass hysteria. As more facts about the case emerged, I surmised, the story of Dr. Dao would begin to sound like that of Adam Saleh, the 23-year-old YouTube prankster whose claim that he was kicked off a Delta flight for speaking Arabic was credulously gobbled up by millions before being proven utterly false. My reservations were partly substantiated when the Louisville Courier-Journal reported on Dao’s startling criminal record, namely, his contribution to the nationwide opioid epidemic in the form of falsely prescribing Oxycontin in exchange for sexual favors with a reluctant male patient. (In addition to losing his medical license for ten years, the married father of five was ordered to undergo extensive anger-management treatment.) These revelations quickly brought the paper a tidal wave of opprobrium from journalists on Twitter (do these people actually do any reporting?) who accused it of ruining the doctor’s good name. “‘He’s No Angel’ Story on United Passenger Enrages Everyone Again,” declared Vocativ.
Well, not everyone. To begin with, the paper didn’t simply dig up dirt on Dao to discredit him in the eyes of the world, or to take advantage of a viral, international story by providing their own, salacious local angle. In fact, he was a familiar character in the Courier- Journal’s newsroom, having had his medical license revoked for a decade after a high-profile case of criminal malpractice. “Broadcast and print coverage of Dao’s arrest, conviction and sentencing made his name familiar to Kentuckians,” the paper reported. When one reads what the Kentucky Board of Medical Licensure wrote about him after a psychological examination, it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that it would have been journalistic negligence not to report on his rather insalubrious past. Dao, the board found, “lacked the foundation to navigate difficult situations, both interpersonally and in a complex profession.” The doctor who examined Dao noted that he “appeared to have difficulties with information processing…in reviewing records, it was noted that Dr. Dao tends to have poor decision-making despite his overall level of ability.”
You don’t say.
Journalists are supposed to care about information, the full record of the facts. That Dr. Dao was a pill-popping, narcotics distributing closet case with anger management problems seems relevant to understanding what happened on that plane Sunday. It helps explain why he, alone among the four passengers requested to disembark, acted like such a jerk, screamed like a banshee, threatened to hold the plane on the ground indefinitely, and then, after having been forcibly removed, ran back onto the plane dramatically muttering “Kill Me.” Yet here we have a bunch of big-league journalists, political correspondents for national cable networks and papers of international renown, deigning to take time off from their busy day as unofficial members of the #resistance tweeting about Donald Trump to lecture the staff of a local newspaper about how it should report a story. And they wonder why so few Americans trust the media.
James Kirchick is a journalist and foreign correspondent currently based in Washington, D.C. His writing has appeared in publications such as The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Newsweek, and Time. He is a fellow with the Foreign Policy Initiative in Washington, D.C., a correspondent for The Daily Beast and is a columnist for Tablet. His first book, The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues and the Coming Dark Age, was just published by Yale University Press.