Special note: In a departure from our usual practice and instead I am signing this column. In the interests of full disclosure, I have occasionally appeared as a “talking head” on Al Jazeera America (AJM) with respect to breaking aviation news and on panel discussions over national airline policy. I had no involvement in the 787 special. I was skeptical of what I saw on the preview, which didn’t show anything of substance that was new but because of the attention already drawn to the program, I wanted to wait until seeing it myself before commenting. Al Jazeera
America English has invited me to be on a panel to air Sunday or Monday to discuss this investigation; I have accepted. It remains to be seen after this review if AJM AJE still wants me.
Boeing and Al Jazeera news are trading punches over an hour-long program by the latter that Boeing says was positioned as a documentary under false pretenses and using tabloid tactics.
The controversial all-news station, which evolved when Al Jazeera bought Current TV from from vice president Al Gore (who is now suing for partial non-payment), focused on Boeing’s 787 South Carolina plant.
Boeing’s counter-offensive began Monday in advance of Wednesday’s broadcast. The Charleston Post and Courier neatly encapsulates the Boeing response to the show. Boeing’s full response is at the end of the post.
A Boeing communications official spoke with me at Tuesday’s Ryanair delivery event, repeating much of what is recounted in the Post and Courier article, with particular emphasis on:
First, I’ll comment on the above.
The “disgruntled employee” defense is all too common and broadly encompassing. More to the point, just because an employee is disgruntled doesn’t mean he or she is wrong in his allegations.
The misleading intent of the purpose of the interview is impossible to defend. While it is certainly true that had Boeing known what the program was about would have led the company to go into the four-corner defense mode (I’ve seen this many times, including on occasion when I’ve posed sensitive questions), to outright mislead about the purpose of the program is questionable, and Boeing has a right to be pissed. It was abundantly clear that Larry Loftis, who is currently head of the 787 program but who was not during much of the period that is the focus of the piece, was completely blindsided and unprepared. Al Jazeera absolutely had an obligation to let Boeing know where it was headed so Loftis (or whomever) would be prepared.
As for the ambush interview, welcome to the heyday of 60 Minutes, when Mike Wallace was the lead ambusher. This is not an unknown journalistic tactic when you suspect the subject would not otherwise be available for an interview. But the circumstances surround the Loftis interview were far different than Wallace-inspired ambush interviews.
Having said that, let’s examine the substance of the program.
The “investigation” was a disappointing effort.
Update: Al Jazeera posted Boeing’s written responses delivered after the Loftis interview was terminated.
Full Boeing Statement:
What has been produced is as biased a production as we have seen in some time. It is unfortunate that the producers of this television program appear to have has fallen into the trap of distorting facts, relying on claims rejected by courts of law, breathlessly rehashing as “news” stories that have been covered exhaustively in the past, and relying on anonymous sources, who appear intent only on harming The Boeing Company.
When first contacted by the producers we accommodated them in order for them to produce a fair and objective report including facilitating factory access, interviews and providing full and open responses to their questions. The 787 is an outstanding airplane delivering value to our customers, but we have also talked candidly in public about its challenging development process. There are no tougher critics about our early performance than Boeing. Unfortunately, the reporting team appears to have chosen to take advantage of our trust and openness and abused their position from the outset by deliberately misrepresenting the purpose, objective and scope of their planned coverage.
This specious production appears to have ignored the factual information provided by Boeing and instead based the majority of its reporting on unnamed sources pursuing their own agendas and a disgruntled former employee engaged in a legal dispute with Boeing. In one instance, the producers resorted to ambush tactics normally seen only in tabloid-style TV news. The anonymous sources the TV program depends on are clearly working with those who seek to harm Boeing and its workers. They appear to have no real interest in truth, safety, or better informing the public.
Even on-the-record sources seem to have changed their stories for the producers. For example, former Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA) President Cynthia Cole said this about the 787’s first flight in 2009: “Today’s flight is a testament to the skill, hard work and diligence Boeing employees put in to get this airplane ready to fly,” Cole said in a news release. “Boeing returned to engineering, and that’s what made today possible and successful.” Now she states in the documentary trailer that Boeing “shortchanged the engineering process.”
Instead of an objective view of the 787’s development, viewers and our employees will see a television program that is neither balanced nor accurate in its portrayal of the airplane, our employees, or our suppliers. This program and those involved with it do a disservice to the hard-working men and women of Boeing and our supplier partners who designed and build the 787.
Furthermore, the program presents a false impression of Boeing South Carolina and the quality of work performed there. Airplanes, whether delivered from South Carolina or Washington, meet the highest safety and quality standards that are verified through robust test, verification and inspection processes. Our data of the current 787 fleet in service show parity in the quality and performance of airplanes manufactured in both locations.