Ethics Corner: Reinvestigating the Crash of TWA 800
Posted: 9/16/2013  |  By: Allan Wolper
"Goddammit, when is somebody going to go on the record in this story? You guys are about to write a story that says the attorney general of the United States, the highest ranking law enforcement officer in the country, is a crook. Just be sure you are right.... And leave room for his denial.”

Ben Bradlee, played by the late Jason Robards, is warning Bob Woodward, played by Robert Redford; and Carl Bernstein, played by Dustin Hoffman, in the film, “All the President’s Men,” that they are taking on the then powerful Richard Nixon White House. It’s a cinema reflection of the real world. But not all movies are documentaries, especially when they recreate real people. If you are going to produce a documentary that takes on the White House and its myriad entities like the FBI, the CIA or the National Transportation Safety Board, you better not make any mistakes. You have to get people to go on the record, put their reputations on the line, and then be prepared for the fallout.

Kristina Borjesson and Tom Stalcup’s 90-minute documentary, “Flight TWA 800”, did just that. It is an angry, compelling, solemn investigation of the July 17, 1996 flight that crashed into the Atlantic, 10 miles off the coast of Long Island, N.Y., killing 230 people. The plane took off at approximately 8:19 p.m. and was about 10 minutes out of JFK Airport en route to Paris when it went down.

Borjesson, a former producer with CBS News, NBC and ABC, wrote, directed and co- produced the film with Stalcup, a physicist and head of The Flight 800 Independent Researchers. They have tried for years to prove once and for all that the plane was victimized by a missile, domestic or foreign, and not from a faulty central fuel tank, as the National Transportation Safety Board has ruled. The evidence in the documentary: TWA was shot out of the sky. The documentary, was televised on July 17 — the 17th anniversary of the TWA tragedy — on EPIX, a premium cable channel owned by Viacom.

Stalcup has filed a petition with the NTSB that it reopen its investigation into the TWA 800 explosion. The petition was signed by Stalcup, and several people involved in the original NTSB investigation, including Hank Hughes, a retired NTSB investigator; Bob Young, a retired analyst for TWA; Jim Spear, an accident investigator for the Airlines Pilot Association, and at least a dozen members of the surviving families.

NTSB has informally agreed to reexamine its original findings, an extremely rare move by the agency. It has already assigned one of its top investigators to head a complete review of the original findings, according to sources. It is a situation that has raw emotions, from those who lost loved ones and accept the NTSB decision, and those who feel the cause of the crash has been covered up these past 17 years.

The overwhelming national press reaction to the documentary muddied the debate even more. Television critics, for the most part, analyzed the documentary as a film, while straight news journalists quoted the debate between experts.

There were also 76 reporters who participated at a teleconference call held by the producers and their experts to support the missile theory of the documentary. Another press crowd attended a NTSB briefing held at its training center in Auburn, Va. to emphatically defend its original ruling that the plane crash resulted from a mechanical failure and not a missile. Media reports note that the experts quoted in the documentary were credible.

Verne Gay, a television reviewer for Newsday, which won a Pulitzer Prize for its spot coverage of the crash, was typical of the serious coverage the documentary received. “There is nothing flaky about “TWA Flight 800,” Gay wrote. “There are no fruitcake conspiricists here or lunatic fringes... At the very least this film builds a case — a surprisingly powerful one — for plausible uncertainty.”

Still, he utters a word of caution: “...as effective as this film is at hacking away at the official explanation, it can’t fully cleave it either.”

There were several subplots in the documentary. The one that captured the media attention were charges that the FBI and the NTSB improperly handled evidence, disregarded statements of witnesses who saw the plane go down and refused to allow the Suffolk County Medical examiner to analyze autopsy reports.

The film also alleges the CIA produced a video which misrepresented the science which brought down the plane. Most chillingly was an FBI interview with a witness who seemed to support the missile theory that was never followed up except by Richard Valeriani in a Huffington Post article. Afterwards, the witness, Phyllis Torney, in the documentary, said she told the agents what she had seen, and one of them gave her this advice:

“You have your papers to become an American citizen, don’t you...I said yes, I’m waiting to be called...well, it would be very wise of you if you want to become an American citizen, to keep quiet about this and not talk to anyone about it...I didn’t because I figured, you know, I wanted to become an American citizen.”

Torney, a retired nurse, subsequently received her citizenship and now appears with Borjoesson, Stalcup, Young, and Hughes at screenings to support the documentary’s evidence. Valeriani, who also supported the documentary’s findings, appeared on a panel discussion in Washington, D.C. with the producers.

The less obvious, yet hard to miss political subplot involved the way the producers handled the fact that the crash took place during the Clinton Administration. The final minute of former President Clinton with a notation that he declined to be interviewed without explaining why they needed to talk to him.

The reason? Borjesson and Starcup say they wanted to highlight the forensic evidence they say they have uncovered and to avoid “politicizing” their investigation. They seem willing to give reporters copies of a redacted memo they say proved the president was kept in the loop in the TWA 800 investigation as well as other material they acquired in their investigation.

This could be an issue that could be used by future presidential candidates who might run against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has all but announced she is planning to run for president in 2016. She lived in the White House when TWA 800 exploded, but no one has produced any evidence that she had any role in the NTSB or FBI investigation.

That April 16, 1997 redacted memo concerned a witness who claimed to have seen the trajectory of the plane when it crashed. The unidentified author of the memo asked whether his findings should be shared with then-CIA chief George Tenant; James Kallstrom, the assistant FBI agent in charge of the initial investigation, then FBI director Louis Freeh and Clinton.

“We just want journalists to go back and do some actual reporting,” Borjesson said, frustration in her voice during a lengthy telephone interview. “All I want them to do is go back to the old fashioned way of doing things in journalism. Avoid creating a virtual reality with official source reporting. It is absolutely shocking to talk to reporters from major outlets who just won’t do that. Who won’t interview witnesses to the crash because they don’t trust what they are saying. Evidence is evidence. I just (want) them to do some real reporting. Come up (with) their own stories. Check us out.”

Borjesson’s hope is that The New York Times and The Washington Post   — considered the country’s newspapers of record — will turn loose some of its investigative muscle — to confirm the conclusions, or not.

Stalcup, hoping to entice The New York Times to follow up on the findings of the documentary, sent an email in May to Scott Shane, the paper’s National Security reporter, indicating he knew who might have blown up the plane. “We have solved the CAUSE of the crash, which no one has done until now,” he wrote to Shane. “We have circumstantial evidence pointing to who did it, but again, we don’t speculate and think that uncovering the hard evidence showing the cause of the crash is indeed newsworthy.”

Stalcup made his offer after receiving an email from Shane in which he said the paper would not write a story on the documentary unless he could see that evidence.

“Tom, I certainly do think that if you had proven that the official version of TWA 800 was wrong, and came up with a persuasive alternative theory, it would be a big story,” Shane said in his email. “But as I mentioned previously, in the absence of a better explanation, it’s hard to make it news. Vague speculation, without evidence, that missiles were fired by unknown entities that accidentally shot down the plane doesn’t meet that standard. Nor does the cover-up notion because you don’t offer a coherent motive for a bunch of people from different agencies to cover up the truth.” Shane declined to comment on the exchange. The Post has thus far declined to publish anything on the documentary.

However, Matthew Wald, the Times reporter who has covered numerous plane crashes since the early 1990’s and is the lead reporter on coverage of the jumbo jet disaster, insists the issues the documentary is reprising are theories that have been long discounted.

“We looked at the DVD and decided not to do anything,” Wald said. He said he attended the NTSB briefing and even asked some questions. “It was my beat so I covered it, but no news came out of it.”

The current tumult is similar to the reaction that followed the publication of the March 10, 1997 front page story in the (Riverside, Ca.) Press-Enterprise   by David Hendrix that first suggested that TWA 800 had been shot down by American naval vessels on maneuvers.

Mel Opotowsky, a lecturer at California State University at Fullerton and the founding director of the California First Amendment Coalition, was the managing editor of the Press- Enterprise when it broke the story.

“Where is the media skepticism?” he asked in an article in an April, 1997 article in Editor & Publisher. “The FBI’s disinformation campaign is working...   The New York Times has someone assigned to the story. The Los Angeles Times has someone assigned to it. There are some very bright reporters working on it. But the skepticism is not there.”

That question is one that has long haunted journalists who dared to challenge the official version of things. Some important original investigators to the cause of the crash are doing just that. The best and brightest in America’s newsrooms should follow suit.

Allan Wolper is a professor of journalism at Rutgers- Newark University and host/ producer of “Conversations with Allan Wolper,” a broadcast on WBGO 88.3, an NPR affiliate in the New York area.