MIAMI — Earlier this week, Al Jazeera English released an investigative report entitled: Al Jazeera Investigates – Broken Dreams: The Boeing 787. The report is a 48-minute news documentary on the divisive Boeing 787 Dreamliner program, blending isolated anecdotal evidence with a recap of the troubled history of the airplane to heavily imply that the 787 may be unsafe. However, despite its hype, Al-Jazeera’s report falls substantially short on substance, too often falling into a slanted and biased presentation that leaves the piece wanting for objectivity and substance.
The report has several moments of lucidity, especially when recapping the 787’s challenges. The cultural issues generated by Boeing’s merger with McDonnell Douglas, as well as its shift in management philosophy towards generating shareholder value are well known, though one may disagree on whether these changes were beneficial for the company. The 787’s volatile path to entry-into-service (EIS), battery troubles, and quality control issues at Charleston are also well known. In particular, the quality control of Charleston 787s is well known within the industry to be less than the standard of Everett, and Charleston 787s are frequently flown to Everett for finishing and eliminating QC issues. But what part of that is news? Each of those issues has been reported, analyzed, dissected, and re-packaged ad-nauseum in almost every medium fathomable over the past seven years. The 16-minute stretch discussing these challenges is the most accurate portion of the program, but it breaks no new ground.
Perhaps the only substantive portion of Al Jazeera’s program that is new or novel is the allegations of drug use at Boeing’s plant in Charleston. Boeing can be expected to investigate these allegations seriously, but it is hardly surprising. In fact, one would be hard pressed to find any major industrial plant of that size where drug use is not present; including Boeing’s Everett plant.
What then of the anonymous conversations with former employees, which appear to be the foundation of Al Jazeera’s unsafe implication (while journalists Jon Ostrower and Dominic Gates, as well as analyst Richard Aboulafia do appear in the program, they do so during the factual 16-minute stretch referenced above)? To reject their claims out of hand because they are “disgruntled” former employees would be improper, but Al-Jazeera’s presentation and packaging does no favors to the apparent credibility of their claims. The (mis)use of the former employee in Mississippi is, as Scott Hamilton put it, gratuitous, while the reading of memos out of context, anonymous interviews, and tales of impending doom as a result of changing engineering policies fall several degrees short of providing conclusive proof.
Indeed what is Boeing’s incentive to deliver an unsafe airplane to consumers? Or an airline’s incentive to take delivery of an aircraft that it thinks or knows is unsafe? In Boeing’s case, the potential liability expenses are massive, let alone the fact that the 787-product line, and Boeing as a company would likely be decimated if the safety issues came to light. The McDonnell Douglas DC-10, and (arguably) McDonnell Douglas itself, were irrevocably harmed by several high profile crashes in the 1970s and 1980s. If the 787 program goes down because of safety problems, then Boeing goes down with it. And on the airline side, the case of Malaysia Airlines after flights 370 and 17 provides ample evidence as to the consequences of accepting an unsafe aircraft. None of this to say that the Boeing 787 is a perfect aircraft (it isn’t), or that the battery problem wasn’t a safety issue (it was). But poor dispatch reliability and an already fixed problem with lithium-ion batteries do not make the 787 unsafe at present.
But beyond the un-satisfying nature of the safety “concerns,” there are numerous instances of bias in the program that call into question its veracity as an “investigative report.” To highlight just a few
- The documentary calls profits “Wall Street Returns” – in an aim to characterize profitability as morally suspect
- Jim McNerney’s pension is juxtaposed against the fight to trim machinist (union) pensions. However, no mention is made of the fact that just a few months later, Boeing froze pensions for non-union employees including management.
- The piece implies that workers in Charleston are less qualified and skillful than those at Everett, demonizes said workers for not belonging to a union, further attempts to imply their unsuitability by making allegations of drug use (which is almost certainly present in Everett), and characterizes Boeing’s search for a viable hedge against work stoppages (the second production line) as “auctioning off” a production line to “the highest bidder.”
Whether or not there is merit to some of these claims, they are presented in a slanted manner that severely calls into question the supposed objectivity of Al Jazeera’s report. Adding to the program’s questionable veracity is the sensationalistic manner in which several aspects of its production were handled. The Showtime movie–esque background music has no place in objective news documentaries, and the juxtaposition of Boeing’s quarterly earnings call against ominous sounds of thunder and lightning was almost laughable in its demagoguery. Moreover, it is clear that current 787 program head Larry Loftis was blindsided by his “interview” with Al Jazeera, and given no advance notice of its topic. Boeing was not given a chance to comment on the specific allegations made by several program participants, and while the shock value of springing the program’s focus on Mr. Loftis in the moment might have played well with the narrative that Al Jazeera aimed to craft, it is also indicative of the poor journalistic practices Al Jazeera resorted to in preparing its otherwise mediocre program. Ultimately, Al Jazeera’s “investigative report” is anything but… It tells us nothing new about the Boeing 787, and fails to provide compelling evidence for the safety problems that it heavily implies.