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United passenger gets second helping of humiliation
It's certainly been a rough week for David Dao.
Sunday, he was dragged off his United Airlines flight to make
way for an affiliated airline employee who needed the seat. A
fellow passenger's video of the incident broadcast the hapless
Kentucky physician's humiliation around the world.
Two days later having done absolutely nothing to exploit or
amplify the media sensation United's spectacularly bad judgment
had unleashed Dao was dragged to the center of the digital
main stage yet again, this time by reporters who exhumed a 13-
year-old felony conviction to insinuate that maybe, just maybe,
the brutalized airline passenger had done something to bring
Sunday's debacle on himself.
"Man removed from United flight had a troubled past," read the
headline that appeared on the home page of this newspaper's
website and a few thousand others around the world.
The accompanying story first published by Louisville's Courier
Journal, which like the Free Press is part of the USA TODAY
Network identified Dao, who'd spent the last decade residing
with his wife in a small Kentucky community near Fort Knox, as a
Vietnamese-trained pulmonary disease specialist who'd spent five
years on probation after being convicted of writing fraudulent
prescriptions in 2004. Medical licensing board records cited by
the Courier-Journal (and the news service accounts that quickly
followed) suggested that Dao had written the prescriptions in an
attempt to ingratiate himself with an employee in whom he was
This was old territory for the Courier Journal, which had
covered Dao's legal and disciplinary travails 13 years earlier.
But it was news to the tens of millions who knew Dao only as an
abused airline passenger.
Those who read far enough discovered that Dao had no subsequent
arrests and that he had succeeded in regaining his license to
practice medicine in 2015.
As for any suggestion that Dao's "troubled past" had played any
part in United's decision to evict him from the airline seat he
had purchased and haul him bodily from the aircraft ... well,
there wasn't any.
Still, the inference was unmistakable: This "innocent victim"
was no angel.
United Airlines executives, who've spent the better part of two
days hinting that Dao's belligerence had somehow provoked his
rough treatment, must have marveled at the subtlety of the smear.
So maybe the incident that had left Dao with a criminal record
was an anomaly, an episode of aberrant behavior that had
apparently not been repeated since George W. Bush was president.
But just look at all the Google key words conjured by the
exhumation of the doctor's conviction: Immigrant. Drugs. Felony.
And now, "troubled past."
Go ahead, Google it: David Dao troubled past.
By Wednesday morning, I got about 490,000 hits.
Skepticism without judgment
After spending the better part of four decades in newspaper
newsrooms, I can easily trace the arc of journalistic reflexes
many of them admirable that prompted good reporters and
editors to double down on Dr. Dao's humiliation.
Whenever something blows up on social media nowadays a police
shooting, a compromising photograph, a White House press
secretary making dubious distinctions between homicidal
dictators responsible journalists start asking questions:
Does the "smoking gun" video or sound bite that has taken the
Internet by storm tell the whole story? Are we missing some
critical context that would put the incident in a dramatically
different light? What happened just before the videographer
turned on her cell phone, or just after the reporter turned off
So it was with the video of David Dao being dragged before his
fellow airline passengers like a slaughtered animal. It sure
looked as though United had overreacted but what had prompted
such a seemingly egregious show of force? Had the passenger
threatened to vandalize the aircraft, maybe punched a flight
attendant? Was he drunk? High? Mentally ill? Had he been cited
for disruptive behavior on other flights?
These were not only fair questions, but vital ones.
The problem arises when the search for relevant contextual data
turns up details that are not so relevant like Dao's criminal
Once upon a time, when only a handful of companies or wealthy
individuals could afford printing presses or radio and TV
affiliates, a handful of editors could effectively decided what
was fit to print or broadcast, which details were relevant and
which were merely titillating.Today, every teen with a
smartphone is a publisher and even among professional
journalists, the reflex is to let every data point that's been
vetted for accuracy fight for its own relevance.
So while we know of no evidence that David Dao's 13-year-old
criminal record had anything whatsoever to do with his abuse by
one of the world's largest airlines, who can say with certainty?
What we know for sure is that there was an arrest, a conviction,
a probationary sentence, a suspension. Even today, there's a
paper trail. We have the documents.
Are they relevant? Do they shed any light on what happened to
Dao on Sunday? Is it even fair to bring them up now?
But that's not up to us, anymore. We report; you decide.
Where the buck stops
What self-serving nonsense.
So what if Dao's "troubled past" was doomed to resurface
somewhere eventually? So what if some aggrieved patient, anti-
immigrant website or savvy public relations representative eager
to redeem his embattled airline's reputation would have found a
way to leak the unfortunate physician's criminal past into the
blogosphere, where it could replicate in the fertile slipstream
of Sunday's sensational video?
Individual journalists still have agency and judgment, and we
should not hesitate to exercise either in the interest of
fairness and simple decency.
Because every one of us has a "troubled past," and it shouldn't
become headline news just because some overzealous airline
security thugs decided to give your seat to someone else.
Contact Brian Dickerson: .
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