United Airlines, Dr. David Dao, and the Media’s Love Affair With Victim-Blaming

united airlines david dao and the media victim blamingstock image from Pexels

Have you seen this horrific video?

How about this one?

The man seen in these nightmarish videos is 69-year-old Dr. David Dao. In case you didn’t know, Dao wasn’t yanked off the plane in relation to a terrorist incident. He was not a threat to himself or the other passengers. Why was this man so violently accosted? United Airlines needed extra seats for the flight crew.

The idea that a paying customer could be treated in such a disturbing fashion is chilling. That United Airlines CEO Oscar Muñoz didn’t demonstrate anything remotely resembling remorse until after stocks plummeted is enraging.

This interview is cringeworthy. It comes after Muñoz released not one, but TWO tone-deaf statements about the incident. It wasn’t until the company shed $1 billion overnight that his tone-deafness changed. By then, it was too little, too late: the lack of remorse on the part of United Airlines was clear to the public. Not only that but just how far the airline was willing to go to blame the victim rather than own up to any wrongdoing.

Flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville was overbooked. After our team looked for volunteers, one customer refused to leave the aircraft voluntarily and law enforcement was asked to come to the gate. We apologize for the overbook situation.

This sterile statement completely overlooks the fact that Dao was a paying customer who was violently accosted and bloodied. All for a couple of seats for crew members.

Such an insensitive remark when combined with shocking footage of the incident only served to dig United into an even deeper whole. And yet the thing about writing up such an incident is that there are various angles to explore. Although the blame for the incident falling would logically fall squarely on the shoulders of United Airlines, that doesn’t prevent certain journalists and news outlets from further exploiting the victim.

What often follows high-profile incidents like this is the  predictable desire to “dig up dirt on the victim.” In the case of Dr. David Dao, it began with a seemingly innocuous tweet.

Morgan Watkins, a writer for the Kentucky-based news organization Courier-Journal, reached out on social media for the victim’s identity. Someone might have given the information in good faith. Others suspect United shared the passenger’s information in hopes of generating a successful “smear campaign.” We don’t yet and might never learn the truth.

What we do know is what Watkins and the Journal did with it. Via Think Progress:

[On] Thursday, the Louisville Courier-Journal sullied the passenger’s reputation in a victim-smearing piece entitled, “David Dao, passenger removed from United flight, a doctor with troubled past.”

Detailing the criminal records of victims of police brutality — especially in cases where the victims are minorities — is a tactic commonly used to explain away police misconduct.

The Courier-Journal piece, citing Kentucky Board of Medical Licensure documents, discusses how Dao was convicted of felonies after an undercover investigation revealed “he was involved in fraudulent prescriptions for controlled substances.”

The point Think Progress makes is a solid one. The “tactic” of smearing the reputation of victims is a tried and true one in the media world. Somehow, the victim’s allegedly sordid past is meant to eliminate any sense of moral outrage the public should feel on his or her behalf. It can’t be said for certain that this was the intention of either Watkins or Courier-Journal.

Certainly, the backlash was severe enough to get Courier-Journal to make edits to the original article. However, the damage was already done. Not just to Courier-Journal’s reputation, but to that of David Dao. Remember, this man did not voluntarily identify himself. He did not hop on social media and broadcast this event.

Before Dao, his family, or his high-powered attorneys could open their mouths to make a statement, the Journal and tabloids such as the Daily Mail and TMZ were already making sensationalized claims about him. These writers and news sources inadvertently dragged this man’s reputation into the mud, further exacerbating his victimization.


The most logical explanation is also a rather callous one: money. Sadly, it remains profitable to blame victims of violence anyway one can. Just there are people outraged in situations like this, there are those seeking an excuse NOT to be. Some people want to believe that the person earned their victimization somehow. Perhaps it’s karma. Perhaps they’re just a greedy nobody looking to get rich. Whatever their confirmation bias dictates, they wait for the “other side of the story.”

That other side is never the victim’s side. Instead, it’s some revelation that “exposes” the victim as a criminal, a sinner, or some variation of flawed human being. These articles are fodder for finger-pointers who feel vindicated in withholding empathy. And sadly, there is money to be made in giving in to someone’s cynical confirmation bias.

Perhaps the silver lining in all of this is that there are people who are present enough in the moment to ask, “What does this have to do with David Dao getting dragged off a United Airlines flight?” So many asked that it at least forced Courier-Journal to scramble. However, the fact that someone thought this was a good angle — and a profitable one — only proves the media’s love affair with victim-blaming won’t be ending anytime soon.

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Defend The Pen
Defend The Pen is a website dedicated to reporting the latest writing news and blogging about ongoing trends that impact writers. It also hopes to be of help to writers and bloggers who find themselves at the ends of their collective ropes!

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