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Why are Americans obsessed with missing plane?

PERTH, Australia (AP) -- From the disappearances of aviator Amelia Earhart to labor union leader Jimmy Hoffa, there's just something about a good mystery that Americans find too tantalizing to resist. Perhaps that's why the saga of missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 has continued to rivet the country long after people elsewhere have moved on.

From the beginning, the story has bubbled with enough drama to rival a good Hollywood whodunit. And even though it unfolded on the other side of the world with only three Americans on board, many were sucked in anyway.

"This story has many ingredients of compelling drama, particularly early on: lives at stake, mystery unsolved, a race against time, human emotion," Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute, said in an email.

But why did interest remain so high in the U.S. when the story lost steam elsewhere? It dropped from most Australian front pages and websites weeks ago, despite the search being coordinated off its western coast. CNN International, CNN's overseas network, tapered its coverage when other big news broke, such as the crisis in Ukraine and the Oscar Pistorius trial in South Africa. But CNN in the U.S. continued its heavy focus on the plane.

Even in China, where two-thirds of the passengers were from, reports never ran nonstop on TV and the clamor on social media also died down.

But Americans yearned for more.

Many found it impossible to believe that a modern Boeing 777 carrying 239 people could just vanish without a trace in an age where an iPhone can be tracked just about anywhere.

Part of the obsession may also revolve around the country's gotta-know-now mentality and its social media addiction that gets fed 24/7 by the latest breaking news, raw footage or photos going viral on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Since the plane disappeared, it has consistently been one of the top five most-read stories on The Associated Press' mobile app.

And so Americans tuned in to watch the latest developments. And when there were no new developments, they stayed glued to their smartphones because the suspense of not knowing - or possibly missing something new - somehow spiked when nothing was going on. From oil slicks to pings from dying black boxes, each new lead provided a salacious morsel that drove viewers to wonder: Will this be it?

"I find myself drawn into watching or reading about it because it has taken on seemingly mythic worldwide importance," Paul Mones, an attorney from Portland, Oregon, wrote in an email. "In this modern world we simply refuse to accept that something so concrete can get so out of our physical reach and understanding. ... People just refuse to concede that the cause of the disaster will likely forever remain unknown."

After six weeks of breathless reporting, not one shred of hard evidence has been found from the jetliner. An unmanned underwater submarine is now using sonar to comb the ocean floor at a depth exceeding 4.5 kilometers (2.8 miles) off the west coast of Australia. It is desperately trying to spot something - anything - that resembles wreckage in an area where signals believed to be coming from the plane's dying black boxes were heard.

According to the latest survey by the Pew Research Center conducted April 3-6, the missing plane remained the top news story in the U.S., with 33 percent of people saying they followed it over a deadly shooting at Fort Hood Army base, developments related to Ukraine and President Obama's health care overhaul. That's down from 39 percent in the previous March questionnaire, when nearly half of those asked said they thought the hunt for Flight 370 was being given the right amount of coverage.

CNN covered the drama heavily for weeks, once breaking into one of its programs to report that objects recovered from the sea could be trash - which is exactly what they proved to be. They featured tons of go-to footage from a flight simulator and a nonstop spool of speculation from talking heads. Everyone had a theory, with some sounding more like a Twilight Zone rerun than a newscast: Could a black hole or even something supernatural be behind the aircraft's March 8 disappearance?

CNN declined to comment for this story despite repeated requests from the AP.

Last week, Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr., begged CNN to scale it back.

"Enough, already," he wrote. "Give us a break from the missing plane. ... Put your hands up and step away from the story."

Even though its coverage was mocked by "The Daily Show" and spoofed by "Saturday Night Live," Americans kept watching, and the 24-hour news network's ratings kept soaring.

CNN reported itself that its all-important 25- to 54-year-old viewer demographic more than doubled after its plane reporting began.

A month and a half into the massive search that has involved scores of countries scouring thousands upon thousands of ocean miles, the plane was still among the top three stories Sunday on Google news. The only new development was that the robotic submarine was expected to finish its sweep of the seabed in a week.

A combination of popular TV shows and a history peppered with real-life detective dramas, from who shot President John F. Kennedy to the identity of Watergate source "Deep Throat," may have been factors that tempted Americans to latch onto it.

"It's almost like all the seasons of `Lost' was the promotional period for this story," said Robert Thompson, a pop culture expert at Syracuse University.

"We have always kind of put a lot of our popular national narrative into these mysteries and conspiracies and all of the rest of it," he added. "And this is a pretty powerful one."

Join the discussion

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legendofxanadoo April 21 2014 at 3:26 PM

it is an important milestone ,not only because of the human lives lost ,but also about the innability to get to the buttum line ,as to what really happened with that civilian airliner ... Actually, I am very glad that the US government is the only country that has not given-up..regardless of the cause of this tragedy ..it prove that we do care about the truth .

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Hi Gram, Ty&Dill April 21 2014 at 4:05 PM

America is obsessed with it because...until it is found there is a possibility is was hijacked and is aimed at the new tower at ground zero. That will never leave our memories, and for good reason...

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David April 21 2014 at 4:11 PM

I don't know one person "fascinated" with Flight 370's disappearance. However, CNN is "obsessed" with it and just won't let it go. The various "hosts" on CNN repeart what the last host said, bring back the same "experts" to give their opinions. Obviously these experts get paid for their faces on CNN. I used to turn to CNN midday to see what might be happening in the news. CNN seemed to be angry that a ferry sank and hundreds of students went missing - not because the accident happened but because it took away from their coverage of 370. The remains of 370 will more than likely never be found. I'm sorry that the families will never get any closure. Life is what it is - mysterious, sometimes cruel and always 100% unpredictable.

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newfbw April 21 2014 at 4:16 PM

The writer of this article makes the assumption that this tragedy is all we Americans talk about, and I completely disagree. I don't watch CNN, and thus, am not having it "shoved down my throat." My wife and I "moved on" weeks ago and are more concerned with news that relates to us directly, such as local, state and national politics, as well as the economy. If the news media were to turn off the spigot on this story, then Americans would also move onto other topics.

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1 reply
albertaclippas newfbw April 21 2014 at 4:57 PM

You tell em dear !

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kenneth_spriggs April 21 2014 at 4:19 PM

I'm quite sure the Boeing 777 plane will be found. Maybe not right away, maybe not for years, but it, or what is left of it, will be found. I think it's possible it sunk in 1 piece and drifted down like a submarine. The wings won't know the difference between water or air.

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2 replies
frankerin kenneth_spriggs April 21 2014 at 4:35 PM

YOu think? Magical thinking as smart as the CNN croud

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albertaclippas kenneth_spriggs April 21 2014 at 4:55 PM

If there is a HELL its there. You'll see +D

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usci1 April 21 2014 at 4:19 PM

Anybody looking on Victoria desert on the western coast of Australia?

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1 reply
albertaclippas usci1 April 21 2014 at 4:54 PM

Just you and your mind :)

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rivers360 April 21 2014 at 11:53 PM

It's easy. Americans are interested in what the US government can and cannot do. We all thought we knew everything about everything simply from orbiting satilites taking photos (they can see licence plates on our cars) and then there is the intrusion into our day to day phone and internet communications. Amazing to see that a plane like this can just vanish. I think that gives us some hope tht the government is not capable of being and seeing all / everything. Just a guss. Smile.

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1 reply
Janwa2 rivers360 April 22 2014 at 12:44 AM

surprised there not selling vanishing airplane t-shirts

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turner1000 April 21 2014 at 11:52 PM

I hope we remain "obsessed" with the whereabouts of this airliner until it is located! Something just doesn't add up. A plane that large doesn't just crash into the ocean without a trace, not even a seat cushion, nothing! There are too many unanswered questions. I believe that airplane is not where they are looking.
I work with undersea devices called acoustic beacons. That is the device attached to and a part of the black box and it emits the signal or "ping". Acoustic beacons are readily obtainable. Dynamically positioned vessels have abandoned thousands of them over the years. It was reported that the beacon that was a part of the black box was designed to emit a signal that was a frequency of 37khz It was also reported that the signal received was 34khz and the signal had drifted. That acoustic beacon is a digital device. It will send a signal at the frequency as designed or not work at all. The frequency will not drift.
It would have been a simple matter to drop a beacon either from a vessel or an aircraft with enough battery life for it to function for 30 days. The perfect diversionary tactic! My theory may be proven wrong, but I hope we do not give up until either the plane is found intact, or beneath the sea.

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nmnickle April 21 2014 at 4:21 PM

Americans arn't obsessed it's the media that will do anything to milk a story for all it's worth and then beat it to death.

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1 reply
albertaclippas nmnickle April 21 2014 at 4:48 PM

The story like those aboard the plane are dead in the water to me

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ChingOW Mango April 21 2014 at 11:47 PM

This is among the top STUPID HEADLINES I have ever seen on AOL - congratulations - this actually may be NUMBER ONE!

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