- Courtesy Ryan Smith
- Brandon Bostian
Nine years ago, I published a blog entry that casually referred to a lunch I’d had in New York City with a college friend of mine. It was the tiny bread crumb that led the national media to my virtual door one morning last month. I woke up to a barrage of online messages from producers of outlets ranging from NBC News to CCTV (the English-language news channel run by Chinese state broadcaster China Central Television), who targeted my e-mail, Twitter, Facebook—even my LinkedIn account. All of them asked if I could speak to them about this old pal.
Why did the media suddenly care about one of my lunch dates from 2006? Because of Amtrak 188.
A quick refresher: On May 12, a train carrying 243 passengers from Washington, D.C., to New York City barreled around a curve in Philadelphia at approximately 100 miles per hour—double the speed limit. When paired with the sharpness of the turn, the train’s dangerous momentum caused the entire thing to leap off the tracks and smash into the ground, killing eight people and injuring 200 others.
The smoke had barely cleared when the national media furiously seized on the wreck. It had all the ingredients of a story that would get a lot of clicks: death, destruction, and an unsolved mystery—why did the train suddenly speed up while going around a treacherous curve?
The death toll was tallied and the victims were identified, but the news well soon ran dry. With no indication of a mechanical failure or a terrorist attack, the media turned its gaze toward the train’s engineer—and my college friend—32-year-old Brandon Bostian. He’d been at the helm when the train mysteriously doubled in speed. He also provided no explanation for it (though he had sustained a concussion). Officials told the media they were going to interview Brandon and proceed with an investigation to discover the cause of the crash, but that would take some time. “This person has gone through a very traumatic event and we want to give him the opportunity to convalesce for a day or so before we interview him,” National Transportation Safety Board member Robert Sumwalt said.
But that’s way too much time when there’s a news thirst to quench.
And so the media staged a sort of public trial of their own, a trial based on hearsay and inference rather than evidence relevant to that tragic day in Philadelphia. “Questions surround Amtrak engineer” the headlines announced—ironic considering the questions were themselves posed by the media. A narrative of Brandon’s life was built by piecing together scattered digital clues found on the Internet. He was discovered to have participated in a rally for marriage equality, so he was defined as a “gay activist” in many reports. Conservative media in particular clung to this; some outlets went so far as to claim that his sexual orientation somehow factored into the incident.
Other outlets broadcast and published an unflattering picture of Brandon from his days as a Target employee. Never mind that it was a decade-old image from his long-defunct MySpace profile—if it was on the Internet, it was fair game. The media undermined his credibility. People who saw the photo likely wondered, “Hey, what’s a Target cashier doing behind the controls of a train in the first place?” Many news organizations also dwelled on the fact that Brandon had blacked out his Facebook profile picture the night after the crash. Would an innocent person log on to social media after such an incident? As it turns out, he was just trying to prevent the media from exploiting his tiny digital footprint—of course they did anyway.
Because of my old blog and the well wishes I’d posted to his Facebook page, I was a part of that footprint. So were a number of my other college friends. My friend Ed and his wife were each contacted separately by People magazine because Brandon had “liked” their church on Facebook. Others were contacted by the New York Times and Fox News. I had mixed feelings about responding to the media—neither Brandon nor his family or closest friends were going public with any information—but I felt like I needed to help counter the popular narrative that was being built against him. I felt a responsibility to act as a character witness.
And so I called an NBC producer who’d left his number and agreed to talk about Brandon. He took notes and passed me on to another producer, who said she wanted to send a camera crew to my apartment to film a segment for the next day’s edition of the Today show. When I noted that I was also a journalist, she remarked, “This should be good for your career, then!” Apparently, being on TV to talk about a friend who’d been involved in the deaths of eight people would raise my profile.
That night, a cameraman and reporter dropped by my apartment to film an interview. I told them I was shocked to hear about the Amtrak crash and that Brandon had been the engineer. He’s a ridiculously smart and meticulous guy who’d always had a passion for trains, I added. If I knew he was behind the controls of a train I was traveling on, I’d feel completely safe. It was a completely reasonable 15-minute interview that the Today show shaved down to a 15-second blurb. The entire segment about the Amtrak crash and Brandon’s life was done in less than three minutes, and was quickly followed by an update on Johnny Depp’s dogs being kicked out of Australia.
A couple hours after my interview aired, I was contacted on Twitter and by e-mail by a producer for CNN’s Erin Burnett show. We liked your performance on NBC, they said. Could I come to a studio that evening to speak live on air with Erin about Brandon? OK, I said. But a couple hours later, the Boston bomber had been sentenced to death and the media had a new obsession. Sorry, the producer said in an e-mail, we’re switching gears tonight, so we don’t need you to come in. But you know, let’s keep in touch. And with that, CNN’s and nearly every national outlet’s coverage of Amtrak 188 screeched to a halt.
Earlier this month, the NTSB refuted the charge that Brandon had been checking his cell phone at the time of the crash. Investigators had sifted through data and voice records and found no evidence of phone usage. It verified Brandon’s account that his phone had been tucked away in his bag. The story barely made a dent in the news.
Do you remember Amtrak 188? The mystery of the crash has yet to be solved and the nation’s infrastructure—including railways—keeps crumbling, but the media’s attention has effortlessly flitted to a host of other things: natural disasters, approximately 10,000 new presidential candidates, Dennis Hastert, Caitlyn Jenner, the Duggars, Rachel Dolezal, the Charleston shooting. Six weeks is an eternity in the ever-churning, unquenchable modern news cycle—are we really supposed to dwell on something that happened in mid-May?
I’d be lying if I said I’m innocent of this. As a journalist, I’m part of the feast-or-famine news cycle that latches on to people for a good story and then forgets them when the next big story breaks. Is there a more humane way to be part of this business? Maybe, but it’s probably too late for Brandon’s sake.