It turns out the doctor dragged off a United plane at O’Hare has not only a past, but an inconvenient past. It’s a sleeping-dog past that journalists ought to let lie—at least that’s the contention made by David Uberti of the Columbia Journalism Review. And he’s far from the only person critical of the media that woke this particular dog. “Stories About United Passenger’s ‘Troubled’ Past Prompt Massive Backlash,” reads one headline on the Wrap. “United and the media are trying to justify . . . their racist anti-Asian male beating,” wrote an online commenter.
It’s a human and decent argument. But it’s wrong.
To back up for a minute, the United Express plane was already packed Sunday night when the airline decided to squeeze on four crew members who needed to deadhead to Louisville. Dr. David Dao—one of the passengers United decided to bump to a flight the next day in order to make room—pleaded that he had to stay aboard because he had patients to see in Louisville Monday morning. The doctor was unrelenting—but so was the airline. United called security and Dao was dragged off the plane, suffering—according a lawyer he’d soon retain—a concussion, a broken nose, and two lost teeth.
Uberti noted that the local paper, the Louisville Courier-Journal, was “all over the story.” But one of its angles made Uberti squirm. Scratching a perhaps irresistible itch, the Courier-Journal “seemed to resort to a familiar shade-the-victim reflex that many publications have been unable or unwilling to shake despite numerous instances of pushback in recent years.”
Here’s Uberti’s description of what, specifically, he objected to:
The piece goes on to detail how Dao “was arrested in 2003 and eventually convicted of drug-related offenses after an undercover investigation.” The Kentucky Board of Medical Licensure alleged that he was involved in fraudulent prescriptions and was sexually involved with a patient. He was convicted on multiple felony counts in 2004 and forced to give up his medical license, only gaining approval to resume practicing, under certain conditions, in 2015.
The Courier-Journal wrote that Dao’s name would be “familiar to many Kentuckians who recall his convictions.”
Uberti let the story’s reporter and the paper’s executive editor make their case, but he wasn’t buying it. “The breadth of the Courier-Journal’s coverage doesn’t absolve it from the fact that Dao’s criminal history is irrelevant to this bizarre episode,” he declared.
It is? If the subject of a sensational news story was newsworthy once before, his old newsworthiness isn’t invalidated by his new—even if the old newsworthiness and the new newsworthiness have nothing in common. And in the case of Dr. Dao, his plea that he needed to get back to his patients evokes his former notoriety as a physician. Should newspaper readers in Louisville who read about the doctor dragged off a United plane and think, “God, that name seems familiar! Haven’t we heard it before?” be expected to settle for the explanation, “You have, but we’ve decided that’s irrelevant”?
If Dao had been in the news once before because of some tragedy not of his making, this surely would have been recalled as evidence of the tough luck he’s endured in life. No one would question the touch of “human interest.” And I don’t see anyone having a problem with TMZ now reporting that Dao won more than $250,000 playing in the World Series of Poker. That’s human interest too.
But Dao was a name in the news once before because of a scandal that was of his making. What are we being asked to conclude? That the past must to be kept out of news stories whenever it threatens to introduce a note of moral ambiguity? Or, is it simply that the media need to cherry-pick those biographical details that reinforce the current narrative and bury all the others?
There’s actually a term for that—slanted news.
I suppose Uberti and others are worried that Dao’s past will wind up being manipulated to blame the victim and exonerate the airline. No doubt it will be; some publicists and lawyers are masters of that dark art. On the other hand, Dao now has himself one of Chicago’s highest-profile personal injury attorneys in the area, Tom Demetrio. Game on.
Journalists aren’t part of that game. It’s not the business of journalists to assign an image to every news maker and run off inconvenient details that might sully it. The world is messy. Let others pretend it’s not.