Media coverage of the grounding of the Costa Concordia, which is owned by Miami-based Carnival Corp., has understandably focused on the human tragedy -- at least 11 people were killed and more than 20 are still missing -- and safety regulation in the cruise industry. The ship's captain is accused of taking the boat away from its pre-set course off the coast of Italy and then abandoning his ship after it went aground. He has a lot to answer for. But as a journalist, I was also disturbed by other forms of negligence as the disaster unfolded. What I observed was a story of slow-off-the-mark reporting and appalling inattention and insensitivity on the part of Carnival Corp. and at least two TV networks.
When I got up last Saturday morning and turned on MSNBC, I soon saw the dramatic footage from Friday, January 13, of the Costa Concordia, tipped over on its side. It was a big, modern ship, and its owner was identified as Costa Cruises. Knowing that the cruise industry is highly concentrated, I wondered who the parent company was. It took me about 30 seconds on the Internet to find out that Costa Cruises is owned by Miami-based Carnival Corp., the world's largest cruise company with almost half the global market. That was an important fact that MSNBC should have been reporting. I went to the New York Times website and found that it was running the Associated Press story about the cruise disaster. That story did not mention Carnival. After a while, the Times had its own story, but it didn't mention Carnival either. In fact, searching the Internet, I found only one story Saturday morning that identified Carnival as the owner of the ship. It was from Bloomberg News, not surprising since business is Bloomberg's specialty. I sent an e-mail to the Times suggesting that Carnival's ownership of the Costa Concordia should be in the story. I don't know if I can take any credit, but by the end of the day the Times had inserted a brief reference to Carnival, though no comment from Carnival was included. Other news organizations belatedly began to catch on as well, and many of the stories started to mention Carnival.
Meanwhile, I settled down to watch the NFL playoffs. At some point, I saw a Carnival ad talking about how much "fun" it is to take a Carnival cruise. That struck me as very inappropriate and insensitive. When I was business editor at TIME magazine, we had people whose job it was to make sure we didn't run an airline ad in the same issue with a story about an air crash, especially if the crash happened to the same airline running the ad. I think I saw the Carnival ad during the game on Fox, but I am not 100% sure, and I have not yet been able to confirm that. I was too mesmerized by football to do anything immediately. By the time the games were over, and I was ready to complain about Carnival's advertising on my Facebook wall, I wasn't sure which game the ad appeared in. If it was not the Fox game, it was the CBS game.
I thought my Facebook tweak of Carnival would be sufficient, but things got worse. I was watching NBC's Golden Globe Awards telecast on Sunday night, and there was another Carnival Cruise ad. You've probably seen it. A couple is basking on the deck of a cruise ship and the husband says, "Ah, so much better than last year." The scene flashes back to last year's wilderness vacation in which the couple is screaming in terror as their car is attacked by a bear and a panther. When the scene shifts back to the cruise, the wife says, "Never again." The ad's narrator concludes with "Get on board a Carnival cruise and get more fun for all." The clear message: you'll have a safer and more peaceful time if you take a sea cruise rather than risk a vacation on land. Can you believe the bitter irony of showing that ad two days after at least 11 people died on one of the company's own cruise ships? Couldn't the company have suspended advertising at least until all the bodies are recovered? And how about shelving the bear-attack ad permanently? At the moment, bear attacks don't seem to be the No. 1 vacation danger. Has Carnival no shame?
Apparently the company does. According to a spokeswoman for WNBC 4 New York, the New York station owned by NBC, Carnival's ad agency called the station on Tuesday morning and requested that all Carnival's advertising be pulled. WNBC complied immediately.
Right after the Golden Globes on Sunday night, WNBC ran its late-night newscast, which included a lengthy report in which survivors of the cruise disaster who had made it back to the U.S. were interviewed about their harrowing experience. The report included a statement from Costa Cruises, but never mentioned that Costa is owned by Carnival. The cynical interpretation would be that NBC didn't want to embarrass one of its advertisers. The truth, though, is probably that the network was just incompetent and clueless about how insensitive it was being in running the Carnival ad, and maybe some editors in WNBC's news department were temporarily unaware of Carnival's involvement in the tragedy. The WNBC spokeswoman told me that many of the station's other news reports about the accident have mentioned Carnival. Whatever excuse might be made to the victims on the Costa Concordia, Carnival's continued advertising for at least two days on highly rated telecasts on at least two major networks added insult to injury.
I have spoken to the PR departments of Carnival and Fox and put in requests for comment. Responses were not immediately forthcoming. If and when I receive responses, I will post them in the comments below.