I was nine, maybe ten. My heart was pounding like a sub-woofer and I could barely hold the wheel with my tiny, sweaty, trembling hands. I was driving the family car down Highway 5 outside Centreville, Alabama.
I couldn’t reach the pedals so my dad was helping with those, but I was driving the car. Sitting in his lap, I could smell cigarette smoke and Old Spice, and feel my own excitement. He also had control of the wheel with his right index finger, although I didn‘t realize that until two decades later, when I did the same with my son.
We were driving at road speed, mixing in with other traffic. I was nearly hyperventilating, and was terrified I would do something stupid to alter the smooth, steady flow of small town Sunday afternoon traffic. But I did fine and my confidence increased with each mile. Although I have long since pulled back the curtain and know who was really in control, this remains one of the top five adrenalin rushes in my life.
I helped Dad put a bicycle together late one Christmas Eve, for my youngest brother. I also had three sons of my own. Little by little, I began to understand how much of my maturation was not so much a wild, haphazard plunge into manhood, but a controlled experiment with the man who loved me more than anyone else firmly in control. I tried to do the same for my own children. You will have to ask them how I did.
Earlier this week, a New York air traffic controller got in trouble for doing virtually the same thing with two of his kids on successive nights. The recordings went viral, as so much does nowadays, and the man was suspended, along with his supervisor.
The Today Show was where I first heard about this story. The lighthearted enjoyment of the pilots, the people whose very lives were dependent on the tower, struck me first. I would bet most of the pilots listening in thought of their own father and how many times he created an illusion of control while keeping things perfectly safe.
But Meredith Vieira didn’t see it that way. Her network knew that this was big ratings, regardless of any real danger. Airplane safety is high on our manufactured fear list and the ratings would be high.
The second day NBC had tracked down a former airline safety expert who obviously was a killjoy in his spare time. He used words like dangerous and unconscionable, making sure he earned the money the network paid him to be the opposing side in this argument.
Network news understands how things work. Fear, uncertainty, and conflict equal big ratings. Earnest discussion with fact based analysis is boring. Channels change, advertising goes down. The problem is that a lot of viewers don’t understand that. They still think if it leads the newscast, even fluff news like the Today Show, it must be important enough to worry about. Besides, fact based reporting is hard to do these days.
It is easier to scare us with tales about killer airlines, bloodthirsty drug gangs, and internet predators. Anyway, that guy who was giving his kids a cheap thrill: He was breaking rules. No one should do that. Ever. Especially if the story is scary enough to garner big ratings.