The United Passenger's Past Doesn't Justify What Happened On That Plane

David Dao's history is irrelevant to how police and the airline treated him.

The executive editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal has defended an article the publication wrote exploring the previous felony convictions of the man violently dragged off a United Airlines plane out of Chicago Sunday.

David Dao, a doctor who allegedly had to be at a hospital in the morning, was seen in a video posted to social media screaming as Chicago aviation police pried him out of his chair and dragged him down the aisle on his back after United picked flyers to deplane so its employees could take their seats. United’s CEO described Dao as “disruptive and belligerent” but said he “deeply regretted” the situation that unfolded.

Since all of this went down, articles have popped up on sites like the Courier-Journal and TMZ about Dao’s “sordid history.”


The Courier-Journal’s executive editor and vice president of news, Joel Christopher, told The New Republic that the paper had covered Dao previously.

“That’s how people in the newsroom knew who he was. It was a fairly high-profile case. It was a case that stuck in people’s minds because it was high-profile,” Christopher said, adding that the article’s many critics in national media “need to make sure they’re commenting on it with full context and perspective.”

So now that we have the context, which apparently is that the paper recognized Dao from its previous reporting, what does their new story add to the United tale? Why desperately look for excuses to indict people who are thrown into public view?

No one is getting on a soapbox to defend Dao’s past actions, nor is there any need to. But in the current context, putting a spotlight on them serves an insidious purpose: It searches for some sort of justification for the corporate violence and police brutality we all witnessed.

This isn’t what journalists are supposed to be doing. And journalists are ethically obligated to “minimize harm” and “avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.”

We can’t just blame the individual writers of the articles. There are editors involved in the processes, so more than one person had to green-light this piece. This is a fundamental issue with how we the media report stories.

There are ways of reporting further details about this particular story that don’t imply what happened to Dao on that plane was something he had coming. It’s important to give the public additional background information when it’s relevant to the narrative being discussed. For example: This is prime time to look into what else United has done to deserve the public flogging it’s currently getting.

As ThinkProgress notes, the Courier-Journal piece doesn’t delve into the background of the Chicago Department of Aviation or the 10-year stretch between 2004 and 2014 when the Chicago Police Department paid out more than $500 million in brutality settlements and legal fees. “Nor does it attempt to explain why the CDA placed one officer who was involved in the Dao incident on leave but not the other two who can be seen manhandling him in videos,” ThinkProgress points out.

But as for Dao’s “sordid history,” what purpose does that serve?

This sort of unnecessary muckraking has taken place repeatedly.

For example, take Timothy Caughman, a 66-year-old New York City man who was stabbed to death by a white supremacist in March. News reports about Caughman’s murder investigated his arrest records from the 15 years prior, though his criminal history had nothing to do with his death or why his killer, James Jackson, targeted him. Jackson admitted in an interview that he “had traveled to New York from Baltimore intending to kill numerous black men.” Isn’t that more significant than charges for marijuana possession over a decade old?

We can also consider what happened to 18-year-old Michael Brown after he was fatally shot in Ferguson, Missouri. Brown’s life was dissected posthumously: The New York Times called him “no angel” due to habits deemed “problematic” ― activity that included “dabbling in drugs and alcohol,” rapping and “one scuffle with a neighbor.”

And look at what happened to Ken Bone, the red-sweatered man who asked a question during the 2016 presidential debates and won America’s hearts. After Bone had become a widespread meme, reporters discovered that he had made unsavory comments about the likes of Trayvon Martin and Jennifer Lawrence on Reddit. Again, there’s no reason to defend Bone here. The comments were bad. But what was the motive for bringing them to light?

In Dao’s case, no matter what he did in his past, United’s actions are unjustifiable.

We are living in an age where the media is under incredible scrutiny. People routinely doubt facts and even have presidential support to consider journalists an enemy. It’s important that we do our jobs as effectively as possible. But the more we dig up irrelevant dirt from people’s pasts, the more we resemble pitchfork-carrying mobs.

We don’t need to tell every story, folks. But if we must put it out there, let’s tell it right.

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