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The great blue wonder

TELEVISION COVERAGE OF THE damaged JetBlue plane circling over L.A. on Wednesday joined Southern Californians in a riveting moment of collective anxiety. More, it was a piece of unscripted reality TV that could hardly have been a more perfect way to start the new season if it had been planned by a network executive.

Not many potential tragedies give the media enough time to bring in experts, set up the cameras and speculate on the precise timing of the dreaded climax. The passengers on board the Airbus jet, whose front landing gear was wrenched sideways, had three hours to think about their families, and the people on the ground had time to ache with empathy as they imagined what the passengers were thinking.

The outcome was pure Hollywood, with the sustained suspense as the front tires moved slowly -- oh, so slowly -- toward the ground, and then, after they touched, the dramatic flames, a pilot hero and a breathless but happy ending.

Thanks to the latest in satellite technology, the landing was a high-water mark of shared experience. There the passengers were, coping with a frightening situation. There we were, watching their frightening situation on TV. And there they were, watching us watching them, because each of JetBlue’s seatbacks is equipped with a small TV that receives news stations via satellite.

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That gave even the self-referential obsessions of TV news commentators a new irony. On CNN, Larry King wondered whether the JetBlue passengers were watching him as he spoke. (JetBlue had no statistics on King’s onboard viewership for that self-involved moment, and the jet’s TVs were off during the actual landing.)

As much as the coverage united those on board and those on the ground, viewers were left wondering at what point such shared moments might go too far. What if the Airbus had met with disaster instead of its landing gear resting gently on the runway midline? At the same time that we yearn for vicarious danger through news, reality TV, roller coasters and action movies, we are less certain that we want -- or have the right -- to view the most private moment of life: death.

That desire for privacy was expressed by pilot Scott Burke, displaying Chuck Yeager-like grace under pressure while disdaining the attention that was sure to result. “I want to keep the media wolves off my back,” he told ground crews while he was still aloft. “I’ve got nothing to say to them.”

But we, the media wolves who were watching anxiously with the rest, have something to say to Burke: Nice job.

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