United vs Dr Dao vs the press: A breakdown

This edition is free. Because the shame and humiliation of United and the conduct of many in the press should not be hidden behind a paywall. 

So, the timing of this is unfortunate but it’s on my mind and you did subscribe, after all. If you were hoping for something to lighten the mood as you prepare to sit down to Easter lunch with your families, well you are shit out of luck.

I want to talk briefly about last week’s United incident and the deep conflicts and crises the Dr Dao assault highlighted. More than anything, Dr Dao, the victim of literal corporate brutality deserves to have his privacy back and every think piece that is published about what went down last week prevents that from happening. But that desire to protect the victim must be also weighed against the harm caused by United, and the harm caused by the press. And in any case the good doctor is rightly suing the airline so I suspect this case will continue to make headlines for weeks and months to come.

It is worth noting that the only reason this incident became public in the first place is because other passengers risked violating federal aviation law by recording and distributing footage of the assault online.

Let’s put aside for one moment the widespread failures of reporting of this incident and focus on the fact that many members of the Fourth Estate decided to publish alleged salacious details about Dr Dao’s personal life that were then used as a justification for why he was ‘randomly selected’ for an in-flight beatdown in the first place:

I can only speculate as to the source or motives of the leaks, suffice it to say I suspect someone in United’s PR agency gon’ get fired, or at least a stern talking to.

Then there was the fact that many publications hadn’t bothered to even confirm the identity of Dr Dao before airing his dirty laundry.

The fact that two Dr Dao’s were found to exist in the US should have been more cause for caution amongst reporters and editors. That it has now all but been confirmed that the Dr was correctly identified is immaterial. The potential for defamation existed long before I dug up the conflicting registration documents.  It took almost two days for anyone to be able to say for certain whether Dr Dao was indeed the ‘man with the dark past’. That fact alone should have been reason to hold-off on publishing any salacious details…that and the fact that he wasn’t assaulted by officers from the Chicago Aviation Department, because years prior he might have done something that put both his job and his relationship in peril. There was no reason for that information to come out.

That United was probably trying to peddle this information to sympathetic publications could and should have been a news story but instead more than a handful of news outlets accepted the details of the leak at face value and hit publish without thought as to the impact it would have on his wellbeing, let alone the prosecution of the case.
Dr Dao’s personal history has absolutely no bearing on his ejection from the United flight and the press had no place publishing such tripe. I have had stories deleted and spiked on the grounds of defamation because they risked offending CEOs as potential future advertisers.  That risk pales in comparison to using Dr Dao’s alleged personal sexual history as justification for his ejection from the United flight.

As if having the shit beaten out of you by the Chicago PD all but live-on-air wasn’t bad enough, then your personal shame is distributed around the world, all so that United and the Chicago Aviation Department can reduce the liability costs they will almost certainly have to pay to Dr Dao and his family for the pain and humiliation they inflicted.

The fact that many  – but not all – publications decided to run with the story demonstrates clear corporate complicity.  As I mentioned in my previous report, these petty rumours about the doctor’s past feeds into prejudiced narratives justifying xenophobia, ‘yellow peril’, and Orientalism.

Moreover the second-day story massively normalised the expectation of corporate sanctioned violence.

United is not contractually within its rights to beat the shit out of you

Nor is it contractually within its rights to evict you from your seat once you have already boarded.

It is an FAA violation to boot a confirmed passenger in favour of crew. Airlines are obliged by law to give preference to customers with confirmed, reserved seating when deciding whether to involuntarily eject passengers from flights.

And here are some screenshots of the FAA case law sited by Cornell University:


And if FAA regulations aren’t grounds enough to invalidate the argument that United was within its rights, Rule 21 of its own Contract of Carriage lists a whole bunch of reasons it can eject passengers, none of which include human resource errors.

United is contractually within its rights to boot you from a flight for having nasty body odour, for making a call on your cellphone or for being nine months pregnant (though I’m not sure how airline personnel are meant to establish this fact). It cannot eject you from a flight for business reasons like it needs your seat for its crew because its human resources department is incompetent.

In fact Rule 21 states that United employees or those of other airlines may be denied boarding without compensation because they do not have confirmed seats.

The airline tried to hide behind the argument that the flight was overbooked, a lie which was quickly debunked, but that didn’t stop publications including the New Yorker, The Telegraph (UK), The Sydney Morning Herald, News.com.au, TMZ, The Australian, CNN, The Economist and the LA Times from repeating the United line.

As Naked Capitalism rightly points out, reporting on the extent of Dr Dao’s injuries were significantly understated and underreported, and there were ‘troubling inconsistencies’ across stories as to the timeline of events.

Almost no reporter or publication – Hello Humans included – correctly reported the status of the airport security personnel.

The Financial Times was one of the few publications to correctly identify the security officers as belonging to the Chicago Department of Aviation, a self-funded governmental unit of airport police.

“They are not part of the Chicago Police department but appear to have their own special purpose authority within the airport,” writes Yves Smith.

I have yet to see a single outlet, let alone social media user ask why the CDA doesn’t operate more independently of United. That seemingly no-one within the CDA raised alarm bells at to why it was being ordered to rough up a passenger over United’s inability to put together a half-decent personnel roster is troubling to say the least.

Then there’s the uncomfortable possibility that the CDA seems to hire former Guantanamo Bay operatives as security officers… 

Aside from the widespread misreporting, and the massive violations of privacy that occurred, the United incident has further eroded trust in and of the Fourth Estate.

In an era of fake-news and alternative facts, trust in journalism is at an all time low.

Research conducted by Edelman, the world’s largest public relations consultancy revealed the largest-ever drop in trust across the institutions of government, business, media and NGOs.

Trust in media (43%) fell precipitously and is at all-time lows in 17 countries, while trust levels in government (41%) dropped in 14 markets and is the least trusted institution in half of the 28 countries surveyed. The credibility of leaders also is in peril: CEO credibility dropped 12 points globally to an all-time low of 37%, plummeting in every country studied, while government leaders (29%) remain least credible.

The survey found 53% of respondents believe the current overall system has failed them—it is unfair and offers little hope for the future—while only 15% believe it is working, and approximately one-third are uncertain. Even the elites have a lack of faith in the system, with 48 percent of the top quartile in income, 49% of the college-educated and a majority of the well-informed (51%) saying the system has failed.

None of these perceptions would have been reversed by CEO Oscar Munoz’s non-apology, apology following live footage of a paying customer being dragged unconscious off a plane.

The fact is United Airlines was prepared to rough up one of its paying customers because it wasn’t prepared to exceed $800 for their inconvenience. And as Dr Dao mentioned over and over that day, he had patients to see. He had already boarded. His wife was with him on the flight. He had a more than reasonable expectation of safe passage to his destination. As far as I can tell there has been no attempt to track down the other four United customers that were booted from the flight that day. Nor was there any attempt to contact the four United personnel those customers’ were bumped in favour of. Any of the aforementioned issues would have made for a more important and relevant second day story. But instead many publications decided instead to focus on Dr Dao’s private life, events which had occurred years prior and had no bearing on his humiliation that day, or the embarrassment he continues to endure for every day that this story continues to make the front page.

The online speculation over Dr Dao’s mental health demonstrates a level of  indifference and desensitisation to the erosion of civil liberties and the militarisation of law enforcement. It appeared the passengers on the flight were far more concerned for his wellbeing that day than many on the internet who interpreted his resistance as a sign of mental illness. We should be questioning why the other three passengers were so quickly prepared to part with their consumer freedoms, (let alone their rights as citizens and residents to travel safely and free of the fear of molestation). We should question our own questioning as to why we think the events that unfolded were somehow his fault.

United and the Chicago Department of Aviation could have handled this a handful of different ways that would have prevented the situation from escalation: The randomly selected customers could have been called to the gate to duke it out with airline staff in the boarding area instead of on the frigging plane. United could have upped its offer to something reasonable, say: a free ticket on the next available flight, free accomodation, food and $1000 for the passengers’ inconvenience. It could have found a smaller aircraft or other flights for its four crew members whose lateness in the first place seems to have been at least a contributing factor to the incident.

What’s worse is that the dissection of what went down that day moves us farther and farther away from the heart of this issue and it dilutes our concern for Dr Dao’s well-being. As a doctor he has an ethic of care, which is why he put his patients over his personal safety. United has an ethic of care and a consumer code which it violated. The Press has a duty of care and an obligation to do no harm.

You can come at me all you want over the conflicting registration documents, but my research proved many outlets hadn’t done theirs. But I wouldn’t have needed any documents to assert defamation.  And if it means that a single journalist went back and checked their facts and sources, then my job here is done. But at least I didn’t repeat slanderous claims that used Dr Dao’s personal sexual history as justification for his brutal assault by the Chicago Aviation officers.

Truth may be a defence to defamation but significant harm was done to Dr Dao’s emotional and mental well-being. His name will forever be associated with humiliation and shame which was compounded that day by trigger happy publications which happily contributed to the normalisation of violence and the militarisation of law-enforcement in defence of corporate profits.

And it seems that many of us are, in fact, ok with this.

We all accepted a little part of that lie on Friday. In the words of John Birmingham: “the fact that the media accepted that lie, and accepted the even greater lie that the airline, any airline, could do as it damn well pleased, shows how passive and accepting of our own powerlessness we’ve become.”


Claire Connelly is working on her first book, How The World Really Works, a guide to recognising rhetorical red flags and immunising yourself against bullshit. You should definitely buy it when it comes out. A podcast of the same name will also be launching in the coming months. Stay tuned. In the meantime, for the cost of one cup of coffee a month, you too can support independent journalism. Damn the man. Save the Fourth Estate!