Some Network Reports Look Silly After it Appears ‘Mystery Missile’ Really Isn’t

By Alex Weprin Comment

Yesterday, the cable news channels were all aflutter over a mystery missile launch that happened off the California coast.

For the most part the three channels played up the “U.S. government has no idea what it is” angle, with all three at one point or another engaging in some mindless fear-mongering.

Now the evidence is leaning heavily towards a much more benign explanation: it was a contrail from an airplane, with the viewing angle and lighting giving it the appearance of a missile.

So, which network did the best job of fear-mongering yesterday? Find out after the jump.

All three had reports yesterday that they probably regret, but the most bombastic (and likely incorrect) report came from the always entertaining Shepard Smith at Fox News, who delivered a report straight from the next James Bond movie :

We are told it happened off the coast of Los Angeles and a Pentagon spokesman says the military cannot explain what the picture shows. The Navy says ‘it wasn’t us,’ and NORAD that handles aerospace defense, does not know specifics. The pentagon spokesman claims he has ‘no knowledge whatsoever,’ of what happened. That is what they are telling us. A show of force with the president from overseas? An accidental launch from a submarine? Or a Russian submarine? 5 miles off the coast of Los Angeles? Somebody knows. Whoever launched it has to know. Right now we don’t know. And now a source tells our reporter ‘it is, in fact, a missile. The U.S. government knows where it came from,’ and our source believes it may have come from a submarine, classified.”

Or maybe it was just an airplane.

CNN ran a segment which featured a perfect example of what journalism professor Jay Rosen calls “The view from nowhere” presenting “two sides” of the story in a taped piece that aired on “The Situation Room”:

“It looks like a missile launch, but no U.S. military or civilian aviation authorities are able to explain it. These incredible pictures were captured monday evening by a local news helicopter and the plume appears to have originated 35 miles off of the Los Angeles coastline and heading west to the Pacific and experts speculated on a wide range of possibilities.

‘It could be a test firing of a intercontinental ballistic missile.’

‘It is clearly a airplane contrail and an optical illusion, it is going up rather than towards the camera.’

Vandenberg Air Force Base, which often launches missiles said it was not theirs, and the FAA ran radar replays of the large area west of Los Angeles and it did not reveal any fast moving unidentified targets in there. We have called the Air Force, and the Pentagon and local members of Congress and nobody knew anything.

In other words, the evidence indicates it was an airplane, but why not place that on equal ground as the “it was an intercontinental ballistic missile” theory?

MSNBC consistently called it a missile all morning, before being the first network to run with the “airplane” theory in the early afternoon.

Probably the most memorable discussion came between Contessa Brewer and NBC Pentagon correspondent Jim Miklaszewski, who was shocked, shocked that the Pentagon couldn’t immediately ID what it was:

Quite frankly, Contessa this is unbelievable that this could have happened, the U.S. military, for nearly, for more than a half day now claims it is doesn’t know exactly what happened. Now, Pentagon and military officials here confirmed that it appears there was a missile launched into the skies to the west of Los Angeles, the missile appeared to head off in a northwesterly direction. still, they claim they don’t note source of that missile… my note says the Pentagon is not alarmed, which leaves you wondering, why they are not alarmed.

Maybe because nothing happened.

Update: Dr. Michio Kaku appeared on all three cable news channels this morning, setting the record straight and explaining that yes, it was an airplane. The video from his appearance on Fox News (via J$P) is below.