What is it with the national media and Alaska these days? Were reporters infected with a case of Palin-steria after the national elections? Ever since, every Alaska-connected story has had them scurrying around the state like a bunch of crazed lemmings that stumbled into a patch of really good Matanuska weed, and I'm not talking about invasive dandelions.
Sometimes these days it seems the national media -- lamestream and otherwise -- has gone more mama grizzly than mama grizzly Sarah Palin herownself what with all the huffing, slobbering, ground stomping and unthinking charges. It sort of started with the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, which brought all those reporters north to write about how you could still find oil in Prince William Sound, and now it's spun into the unfortunate death of former U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens and four others in a plane crash.
The once sedate Wall Street Journal was Thursday headlining that "The 'Chuck Yeager' of Bush Pilots" was at the controls of the crashed plane when it went down -- the implication being clear to all who've read the book "The Right Stuff" or watched the movie of the same name. Yeager, a test pilot, was famous for "pushing the envelope," as they say.
There is no evidence that Terry Smith, the pilot of the plane in which Stevens died, was doing that. Nor is there anything to support this claim in the Journal story: "Pilot Theron "Terry" Smith, who was at the controls of the single-engine airplane that crashed Monday in Alaska, killing five people including former Sen. Ted Stevens, was a flamboyant former airline pilot who reveled in seat-of-the-pants flying."
As someone who spent time with Smith at a number of social gatherings, I can testify that about the last word anyone would use to describe him is "flamboyant." The word "reserved'' would be more like it.
But let's go back to that Yeager claim for a moment. If you're even a wee bit familiar with Alaska aviation history, you have to wonder: If Terry Smith was Chuck Yeager, who the hell was the late Don Sheldon?"
Sheldon was a Talkeetna bush pilot who once did something very risky, ie. Yeagerish. He backed a float-plane down through whitewater on the Susitna River to rescue some people stranded on a rock. It was extremely risky, but only for him, because a pilot has only marginal control of a plane drifting with the current. Control is regained only after the throttles are pushed forward and the plane begins powering upstream against the current, something Sheldon admitted he was relieved to do after rescuing the people from the rock. That was a Yeager moment. The crash that killed five people near Dillingham wasn't.
But if the WSJ suggestion that flamboyant flying -- for which, once again, there is no evidence -- was whacked out, how about this from Vanity Fair: "In the News -- What Will Become of Alaska's Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport?"
Apparently, hot dog reporter Juli Wiener is of the belief "like many others,'' whom she does not name, that the airport might want to "dissociate itself from a passenger who died in a tragic plane crash.'' Why? Who knows? Because the name might stop people from flying to Anchorage?
That is, of course, why I stopped flying through Chicago O'Hare International Airport. It's named for Lt. Commander Edward Henry "Butch" O'Hare who died...wait for it...wait for it...yes, here it comes...in a PLANE CRASH!
OK, he was actually shot down by friendly fire, but that only makes it worse, given Chicago's gangster-linked shoot 'em history. Flying into O'Hare, because of its name, makes me think about how the plane could go down or I could be shot up or both. So I avoid it, or at least I'd like to think I'd like to avoid it if I'd even known the history of Butch O'Hare before I Googled O'Hare airport 30 seconds ago.
Nobody knows the history of the people for whom airports are named, except maybe for those named after celebrities like John Wayne, Ronald Reagan or Louis Armstrong. Quick, who was Gen. Edward Lawrence, as in Gen. Edward Lawrence Logan International Airport? I thought so.
National media nonsense
So what is with this national media nonsense when it comes to Alaska, which seems to have started with Palin's resignation? She made reporters take a "dangerous" flight to Dillingham to interview her after she fled to hubby Todd's setnet fishing site. And never you mind that it's been a long time since a commercial airliner has crashed at an ILS-served airport in Alaska. That part of Alaska flying, at least, is as as safe as flying in the Lower 48, no matter how risky it might have seemed to sheltered Lower 48 reporters.
And after Palin, of course, came the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which sent national reporters spinning off to Alaska in search of the tale of the still-polluted, after all these years, Prince Wiilliam Sound.
Oil! Lots and lots of oil! Twenty-one years later and there's still lots of oil!
Why it pours out of the ground when the sea otters go clam digging in the beaches. OK, so the otters don't really dig in the beaches. They dig underwater. And there's really less than a half-full swimming pool of oil left buried under Sound beaches. And you really have to go looking to find it.
But there are those herring that haven't come back (never mind the herring-eating humpback whales that invaded the Sound sometime shortly after the spill to gorge on these tasty little critters on which they are still gorging) and the salmon. Oh yes, the salmon. Take it from nonetheless than the august New York Times that the "fishing here (in Cordova) is far from what it was.
Yes indeed, the fishing is far from what it was. Commercial fishermen in the Sound now catch about twice as many salmon on an annual basis as they did before the Exxon Valdez spill. The fishing is so much better than it was before the spill that maybe we should all be thanking Exxon instead of cursing the big, fat, money-grubbing international corporation.
But wait, there is that oil. Yes, there is that oil. No doubt about that.
Some of the national coverage would have almost left a man afraid to light a cigar in the Sound for fear the whole place might catch fire like the Cuyahoga River in 1969. There was even a local reporter writing about the stench of it in the air making her sick. Maybe. Or maybe she just made the mistake of breathing the exhaust of the boat that hauled her out to search for the oil. Because when I've been in the Sound, I've been forced -- whether I like it or not -- to agree with a simple conclusion from the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill final report on herring research: "In general, water in PWS is characteristic of the least-contaminated portions of the world's oceans."
In simple English, the water in the Sound is about the cleanest you will find anywhere these days. Cleaner than Puget Sound. Cleaner than San Fransisco Bay. A whole lot cleaner than the Gulf of Mexico.
Unless, of course, you're looking at it as a reporter sent to scary, wild, Godforsaken Alaska to find a pollution story and bring it home.
Sadly, I can here only echo former, half-term, controversy-plagued Gov. Palin in saying "lamestream." And to think she's now gone over to become a part of that media. She was working as a reporter on the plane crash story for Fox News, helping to inform the world about "the Agulowak and Aleknagik area of Bristol Bay which is right outside of Anchorage.'' Yes, that is what she said, and she could only giggle and say, "I don't know if that's the case'' when asked if Alaska still has more airplanes than automobiles.
Obviously, in fairness to the Outside scribes, the reporter thing isn't quite as easy as it looks. In fact, I'm still trying to figure out what the former governor-turned-reporter meant when she observed the problems "with Alaska having essentially only one main road through the state."
Would that be the old Richardson Highway from Fairbanks to Valdez, which has since been connected to the Dalton Highway to create a road extending all the way from the Arctic Ocean to Prince William Sound? Or the newer George Parks Highway that connected to the Seward, Sterling and Alaska highways to make it possible to drive all of the way from Homer near the tip of the Kenai Peninsula to America?
And while we're at it, who was Dalton anyway, and how did he die? Not in a traffic accident I hope.
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com.