Thursday, April 28, 2016

Senator calls television show on Alaska plane crashes 'cruel, hurtful and exploitative.' Here's the National Transportation Safety Board response.

Chris Shaver, with the National Transportation Safety Board, investigates a plane crash in an episode of “Alaska Aircrash Investigations," on the Smithsonian Channel.

WASHINGTON -- The National Transportation Safety Board this week stood by its decision to participate in a television show depicting its investigations of airplane crashes in Alaska, but acknowledged it could've done some things differently now that some victims' families have criticized the agency's oversight of early promotional materials. 

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, previously called “Alaska Aircrash Investigations” -- a six-episode Smithsonian Channel series -- "cruel, hurtful and exploitative,” lodged a flurry of questions with the federal agency, and inserted a pointed rebuke in a report passed out of the Senate Appropriations Committee last week. 

Murkowski carried the torch for several groups in Alaska that opposed the show, including the Medallion Foundation, an airline safety organization, and those representing state tourism interests, who worry the program offers the impression that air travel in the state is unsafe. 

Along the way, Murkowski also picked up the cause of family members of airplane crash victims who said they learned new information about ongoing investigations from the show’s promotional materials. 

This week, the NTSB pushed back against the senator’s assertions, saying the agency carefully negotiated control over the series, and felt it suited its mission of transparency, boosting public understanding of the agency’s work. 

But NTSB spokesperson Chris O’Neil said the show’s production certainly “provided us lessons learned and best practices,” and if they were to do it again, they would be sure to review promotional materials “to ensure accuracy, tone and propriety and that adequate notifications, as appropriate, are made.”  

Camera crews filmed Alaska-based NTSB investigators as they examined six fatal crashes across the state during the summer and fall of 2015, creating a documentary-style show an Alaska Dispatch News reviewer found respectful but at times “clinical and almost boring.” 

Murkowski, claiming to have discovered the show’s existence via an article on just days before the premiere, demanded answers from the agency, including how the show came about, who paid for it, why the focus was limited to Alaska, and why they didn’t tell the congressional delegation about it.  

The answers were largely straightforward. 

A producer who previously worked with the NTSB on an episode of National Geographic Channel’s “Alaska Wing Men” approached the agency about doing a show focused on accident investigations in Alaska.

And in a letter to Murkowski sent Tuesday, the NTSB said agency officials met with staffers for Murkowski and Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, on June 29, 2015, and told them about the show. 

As for the cost, the “only expense incurred by NTSB regarding the series was the salaries of public affairs and other staff personnel who negotiated and enforced the multimedia production agreement -- duties that are within the normal scope of these employees’ responsibilities,” said NTSB spokesperson O’Neil. 

If “no appropriated funds were spent on the show, then that is welcome news,” Murkowski’s spokesperson Karina Petersen said earlier this week. “Money aside, (the senator) does not believe that federal agencies should spend time participating in documentary-style reality shows,” she added. 

NTSB’s future appropriations won’t be impacted by its participation in the show, “and Murkowski never suggested it would be,” Petersen said. 

Last week, Murkowski issued a new reprimand to NTSB, inserting a measure into a Senate appropriations bill report formally detailing criticism of the show by the aviation industry and some family members of victims.

In response to Murkowski’s letter and to questions from Alaska Dispatch News, the agency defended its decision to take part in the show. The agency “believes the documentary objectively captured the work of the agency's investigators and accurately portrayed the NTSB's investigative process,” a plus for government transparency, O’Neil said. 

And, countering the senator’s claim that the show was bad publicity for the state, NTSB said in its letter to the lawmaker it does not believe the episodes "provide a valid basis to support conclusions about the overall safety of general aviation in Alaska." 

But O’Neil said there were some hiccups in the process the agency would not care to repeat. 

In Murkowski’s appropriations report language, she referenced one family had contacted her to say “the publicity material released by the producers disclosed information, which had not yet been revealed to the family.” 

That statement alluded to an issue that arose when the production company -- Lucky 8 -- handed the show off to the Smithsonian Channel. 

"The NTSB review of promotional materials was not directly addressed in the multimedia production agreement other than as it relates to use of NTSB materials, logos and marks and the need to avoid implied endorsement” of the agency, O’Neil said Wednesday. 

But, he said, as “soon as we received negative feedback regarding the promotional materials,” the agency contacted the Smithsonian Channel and Lucky 8, who were quick to amend the materials.

Murkowski’s Appropriations Committee statement also noted an error in the first episode of the show, which she wrote “overstated the aircraft accident rate in Alaska during the summer months by 100 percent.”

That argument came to Murkowski from Jerry Rock, executive director of the Medallion Foundation, who countered the statement in the episode that there is an air crash every other day in Alaska. 

Between the start of May and the end of September in 2015, NTSB’s database lists 52 airplane crashes, which works out to roughly one accident every three days. As Rock noted, air crashes in the state have been on a steady decline since 2005, when there were 129 accidents. There were 78 total accidents in 2015. 

Not all family members of crash victims whose accidents were depicted on the show were opposed to NTSB’s involvement, or the final product. 

Grant Fairbanks, the father of 29-year-old pilot Seth Fairbanks, agreed to appear in the episode discussing a crash in which his son, as well as 23-year-old passenger Anthony Hooper, were presumed dead. Their plane crashed into the waters of Knik Arm near the Birchwood Airport in early August, with no bodies recovered from the wreckage.

Fairbanks gave both the crews behind the show and NTSB investigator Shaun Williams high marks in an interview Monday. 

“I have found that they’re probably one of the greatest federal government agencies I’ve ever worked with: they were awesome, they were sensitive, they were professional,” Fairbanks said. “The way (the show) portrayed my son’s plane crash was very accurate and very good.”

Fariah Peterson was piloting Wings of Alaska Flight 202 from Juneau to Hoonah on July 17 the Cessna 207A crashed near Point Howard. Peterson died in the crash, and her four passengers survived.

Michelle Ramsey, who appeared on the show’s first episode in March, echoed that view. 

Ramsey appeared on the episode titled “Forest Flight Down,” which covered the investigation into a July crash near Juneau that killed Ramsey’s sister, Fariah Peterson, a Wings of Alaska pilot, and injured her four passengers. 

“It’s been very positive, very professional, very informative,” Ramsey said. “Under the circumstances, it’s been a good experience.”

Both Ramsey and Fairbanks were displeased by Murkowski’s comments about the show. 

“I was like, ‘Wow, really?’” Ramsey said. “I couldn’t believe she thought it would put Alaska in a negative light, because it didn’t with our family.”

After consulting with his family, Fairbanks said he was angered by Murkowski’s comments.

“I think she was looking at it as more of a political thing, and she wasn’t thinking of families and she went off half-cocked,” Fairbanks said. “We were all hesitant about how hurtful this was going to be to watch, and we’re all in agreement that this was done in a tasteful way.”

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