Charlie Funk
Charlie Funk

There used to be a country music and comedy show called "Hee Haw," which lampooned rural life in ways that might not be considered politically correct in 2016.

One of the regular segments I remember best was "Gloom, Despair and Agony on Me," a doleful dirge interspersed with anecdotes about misfortune, performed by the quartet of Roy Clark, Gordie Tapp, Grandpa Jones and Archie Campbell. The song concluded: "If it weren't for bad luck, I'd have no luck at all. Gloom, despair and agony on me."

It could serve as the theme song for the fascination so many people have with the misfortunes that befall others, especially when reported by checkout-counter tabloids and other media outlets driven by the need to outsensationalize their competitors.

The travel industry in general, and cruises in particular, seems to have gotten a disproportionate share of attention lately. But it hasn't always been that way.

When the cruise liners Andrea Doria and Stockholm collided off the coast of Massachusetts' Nantucket Island in heavy fog on July 25, 1956, 51 passengers died. Many considered it a miracle that the remaining 1,660 passengers were rescued before the ship sank.

This was before the Internet, even before live coast-to-coast television transmission, so the main source for detailed information surrounding the calamity was newspapers. And the thing I remember most was how the stories focused on that there were so many survivors and on the skill of the two captains involved.  

On Oct. 7, 1985, four hijackers from the Palestine Liberation Front commandeered the Achille Lauro, ordering the captain to sail to the Syrian port of Tartus. When the Syrian government denied permission to dock, the hijackers singled out wheelchair-bound passenger Leon Klinghoffer, shot and killed him and forced two crew members to throw his body overboard.

Again, my memory was that media coverage at the time was largely concerned with the Klinghoffer family and bringing the hijackers to justice. None of the reporting sensationalized the ordeal.

But that attitude did not last.

Jump ahead to 1994, when passengers aboard the Celebrity Horizon, cruising to Bermuda between April 30 and July 9, were diagnosed with Legionnaires' disease. There was quite a hue and cry in the media and some less than objective reporting. Never mind that Celebrity cancelled the next cruise on the vessel to find and correct what caused the outbreak.

What also wasn't publicized was that Celebrity determined a filter on the hot tub that caused the outbreak was defective and sued the company that made it. It was an effort to protect Celebrity's reputation and image as well as recover the cost of passenger lawsuits. It took until 2006, but Celebrity prevailed and was awarded $193 million.

I don't recall a word in the media about this vindication of Celebrity.

On Jan. 13, 2012, the Costa Concordia sailed close enough to Isola del Giglio in Italy to strike a large rock outcropping, damaging the hull to the point where it ultimately rolled onto its starboard side. About half of the ship was submerged, which combined with the angle at which it listed made evacuation difficult. Media coverage was frenzied as each outlet sought to scoop its competitors on having the latest, most gruesome tidbits to report.

By now, the essence of reporting had shifted from a celebration of survival against great odds (thanks in a large part to a courageous crew) to a rush to assign blame far beyond the clearly culpable captain.

When Hurricane Sandy struck later that year, it wasn't quite the storm that Andrew had been in 1992. But it was bad enough for the captain of the Disney Fantasy to advise all passengers to remain in their rooms because the weather had become worse than predicted. The ship was just off Miami on the way to Port Canaveral, Fla., when it encountered high winds and waves. Furniture was overturned, merchandise on shop shelves fell to the floor and the ship sustained a few cracked windows.

The media coverage was in many cases over the top, with one report, headlined "Disney ship hammered by Hurricane Sandy raises questions," starting: "Cruise ships may be built to withstand rough seas, but the Disney Fantasy was no match for Hurricane Sandy over the weekend."

But here are the facts: The storm developed more rapidly than had been expected with greater severity than had been anticipated, there were no injuries and the vessel reached port a few hours later. The Disney Fantasy was a match for Hurricane Sandy. But reporting it that way doesn't sell newspapers or sensational books that question the integrity of the entire cruise industry. One report went so far as to indict the cruise sector as existing in a culture where economic interests often take precedence over passenger safety.

Then there was the Carnival Triumph in February 2013. There's no need to revisit the details. I mention it simply to underscore the frantic efforts of the media, especially the 24-hour news channels, to report such events with as many anxiety-inducing adjectives as can be found in a thesaurus.

What wasn't reported were the efforts of the crew to restore some shipboard functions or the transfer of food and water from other Carnival ships that pulled alongside the Triumph the next day. Nor was it mentioned that a passenger needing dialysis was moved to the Carnival Legend for transport to Cozumel in Mexico for treatment.

This month, Royal Caribbean's Anthem of the Seas was caught in a storm with hurricane-force winds and waves estimated at 30 feet off the North Carolina coast. The ship sustained only minor damage, and there were just four reports of minor injuries. But this event stayed in the news rotation for several days, with "experts" second-guessing the captain's decision to sail despite "warnings for four days of the storm." Social media exploded with videos, minute-by-minute blogs and other descriptions of the "terror" experienced. National network coverage was equally sensational.  

And again, there were assertions that the profit motive had overruled safety considerations and concerns. A member of Congress even called for an investigation.

What wasn't given significant coverage was that the passengers gave high marks to the crew for the way they reacted to the incident. The reality is that the crew performed exactly as it should have, and damage to the ship was so minor that it left for its next cruise on time.

Here are a few realities:

  • Cruising is a safe way to take a vacation. In general, ships can avoid inclement weather and have a good record of doing so.
  • Suggestions that a captain would deliberately sail a ship with more than 4,000 onboard for profit-motivated reasons are so ludicrous as to be unworthy of comment.
  • Media, whether print, broadcast or Internet for the most part are motivated to do or say whatever it takes to get a prospective content consumer involved, which is profit-driven.
  • Paradoxically, events involving cruise ships beg for coverage precisely because of their rarity.

It is true that the arguments many travel retailers have used for years to encourage a prospect to take a cruise, sail faster than the weather and never deliberately go into harm's way, have taken a pummeling. The reality, though, is that travel professionals have an obligation to be a moderating voice against sensationalism regardless of the quarter from which it comes. Travel advisers must be a factual source of reason.

It's like this: You won't hear me saying that travel professionals should never be critical of a supplier. Far from it.

You will hear me say that the travel retailer can be a beacon for consumers in helping them understand what the real story is when a supplier that has supported the retail channel over the years needs that factual voice speaking on the supplier's behalf. Royal Caribbean is one such supplier. It's time that retailers said "enough is enough" and proactively worked to provide accurate information to any media channel that needs it, providing a counterpoint to the sensationalism.

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