“Hey, you, Mr. Frump, who are you to say to us our sons and brothers and husbands are all dead? Who are you to say there is no hope?”
Those words from Lotte Fredette some 30 years ago ring in my ears as the Malaysian airline saga proceeds today. She would become a friend, a confederate, a colleague over the decades, a strong voice for ship safety and reform. But then she was spitting mad, her gentle German accent pointed and clipped. I felt the intensity of her eyes long before I met her in person.
The Phillies had just won the World Series and in the shadow of the stadium in October 1980, the SS Poet had slipped away, cleared the Capes of the Delaware and sailed out into the Gulf Stream where it simply disappeared, along with 34 officer and crew, including Lottie’s beloved son.
I had filed a few short stories on the missing ship and then, after consulting search experts, filed a longer story stating that in all probability the ship and those on her were lost.
“Look, these are just the hard facts,” I told Lotte over the phone. “I’m the messenger here of bad tidings, and I am sorry for your loss, but if no one else has made it clear to you, I guess the story does. The ship is almost certainly gone, m’am.”
She implored me to continue covering the story and pressure the Coast Guard to continue searching for the ship. It was a fair enough request to simply quote her and the group of parents, husbands and siblings who were behind the request. At their invitation, I slipped into a Coast Guard briefing on Governor’s Island in New York, and reported the heartfelt grief of the families. I was not in a position to shut down all hope. Who was?
Perhaps if this were a lost passenger ship or a lost airliner, I would have pursued the search for months and months, as the current news media is now. Eyeballs do not attach themselves to merchant ship losses. If they did, CNN would be busy. A big ship goes down at sea on average once a month, with little fanfare other than the sobs of Filipino wives, Senegalese mothers, Haitian sisters and the relatives of other third world crew members. Even American deaths could not hold the headlines long.
For Lotte and me this may have been a blessing. Make no mistake. The survivors did not fare that well. A friend wrote a book about the SS Poet and of particular pain was the inability of the survivors to come to term with the deaths of those never found — and no certain cause of death. At the extreme, there was no certainty of death.
But at least they did not twist in the wind at every CNN report, every “ping” and every political and expert comment.
Every year on the anniversary, they would take the Cape May-Lewes Ferry round trip and at the mouth of the Delaware Bay at the rough point where last contact was made with the Poet, drop flowers and a wreath.
And the rest of the years, Lotte and a dedicated corps of Poet relatives turned their attention to reforming the maritime safety industry. As did I. The SS Poet hearing was a laugh and a coverup of an American system that sent old unsafe ships like the Poet out to sea. Three years later “the Poet mothers” (as I came to call them) attended the hearing of the wreck of the SS Marine Electric and heard the late Captain Robert M. Cusick take the witness stand and blow the lid off that bad system. Five years later, the entire system would implode thanks to those who maintained hope for the system and the pragmatic patience to force that system to work.
Some still spin stories of the Poet’s fate, some in good faith, others from boredom or delusion. Drug dealers hijacked it. Or Reagan shipped arms to Iran in an “October Surprise Scenario” and Lottie’s son and the crew are still alive in a secret compound in Iran. I’ve thumped those melons; none seemed ripe. Or real.
But you can peddle hope and mystery for a long time if you don’t thump very hard.
I wonder some whether I would have jumped onto the “hope” story if there had been more popular demand for stories about missing mariners. There is a natural appeal to those. The child in the well. The miners in the shaft. They are legitimate stories.
To a point. But at what point are they not?
There are no doubt survivors who bless CNN for its continued coverage and keeping the heat on officials. There are for sure those who are suffering by the moment as the coverage continues. Hope grasps at all that floats by.
At what point does the continued reporting turn salacious? At what point is “hope” turned into a sick trick for sweeps week?
Those aren’t original thoughts. As a newsman, I know they are not as easy to answer as I might think. But as one who has gone through this several times in my career, I know there is an overall commandment: report hope and report truth.
I know that I was wrong all those years ago to suggest there was no hope for the relatives of the Poet crew. But I know too that when hope becomes the dominant element in your reporting, you are no longer a reporter. Or friend.