Coverage of YouTube prankster another 2016 media failure

Much of the media is ending the year just as it began:

By screwing up. 

And worse yet, by not caring about the consequences.

The old carpentry rule of measuring twice before cutting once is no longer even a passing thought when it comes to vetting questionable stories. That includes one story that dominated headlines on Wednesday about a professional prankster named Adam Saleh who claimed he was thrown off a Delta Airlines flight in London after passengers complained about him speaking Arabic to his mother on the phone.


Saleh recorded video of the part showing his dismissal from the plane and posted it on Twitter and Periscope. The video on Twitter alone has been tweeted 648,000 times, which is a higher number than the entire population of Vermont, Wyoming or the District of Columbia. That doesn't include all of the media coverage around this, which easily puts the number of viewers into the millions.


For Delta, this could potentially be a public relations nightmare with many questions around Saleh's story still outstanding.

More than 420 million people speak Arabic, its the 6th most spoken language in the world... @Delta wtf is your problem #BoycottDelta

— shannah (@PurposeEurope) December 21, 2016

The airline issued a statement on Wednesday evening stating that Saleh and a friend accompanying him were engaging in "provocative behavior" that violated "the safety and comfort" of its passengers, thereby forcing the airline to remove them from the flight  

Delta’s statement: "Upon landing the crew was debriefed and multiple passenger statements collected. Based on the information collected to date, it appears the customers who were removed sought to disrupt the cabin with provocative behavior, including shouting. This type of conduct is not welcome on any Delta flight. While one, according to media reports, is a known prankster who was video recorded and encouraged by his traveling companion, what is paramount to Delta is the safety and comfort of our passengers and employees. It is clear these individuals sought to violate that priority.”

Precedent and context is also an extremely big deal here, as the 23-year-old entertainer of Yemeni descent has made a career out of video hoaxes and pranks and placing them on his Twitter feed and YouTube channel, the latter of which boasts more than 2.2 million subscribers.

Saleh's hoaxes include videos such as Saleh smuggling himself on to an airline via packing himself on a suitcase, a stunt that was quickly disproved by the airline.

@omgAdamSaleh Nice try Adam, but definitely a few inconsistencies with this vid, namely the fact we have footage of you boarding the plane!

— Tigerair Australia (@TigerairAU) December 14, 2016

And then there was the time Saleh did a not-so-hilarious video to show New York City police racial profiling. One problem: The whole thing was staged and Saleh apologized. But only after the video went viral, of course.

Delta says it is investigating the incident. But witnesses are already coming forward to dispute Saleh's claim, per Soledad O'Brien, who happened to have a good friend on that particular flight.

Soooo. I have a good friend on this flight right now. Getting additional details on how this went down. Standby

— Soledad O'Brien (@soledadobrien) December 21, 2016

A LOT still unclear. But apparently woman sitting near my friend tipped off flight attendants he was a youtube star known for pranks.

— Soledad O'Brien (@soledadobrien) December 21, 2016

Also people on plane disputing call to mom

— Soledad O'Brien (@soledadobrien) December 21, 2016

No matter, as #BoycottDelta was trending most of Wednesday on Twitter. And that's where the danger lies if this story isn't true. Delta could suffer as a business if it is seen as discriminating against its passengers. If it turns out Saleh is lying in the same manner he did with the New York Police Department, they absolutely should sue. 

So how did the media frame this story? 

Below are some headlines on how it was presented on Wednesday. Again, there are still many questions that make Saleh's story murky at best, and his history around pranks also needs to come into play when writing a headline. My commentary in parenthesis): 

CBS News: YouTube star Adam Saleh speaks out after being kicked off Delta flight

YouTube star for what, CBS? Hoaxes and pranks that have been dismissed as fiction? CBS proceeded to give Saleh a platform from there with many questions still unanswered. 

PBS: YouTube star removed from Delta flight after speaking Arabic 

This PBS headline is misleading because it states the removal of Saleh for speaking Arabic as fact. 

But kudos to USA Today and The Washington Post for writing the most appropriate headline: 

USA Today: YouTube prankster Adam Saleh says Delta booted him for speaking Arabic 

Washington Post: YouTube star known for pranks claims he was kicked off Delta flight for speaking Arabic 

Perfectly done. The headline states Saleh is a celebrity (YouTube star), what his specific brand is (based on hoaxes and pranks) and adds the key word "claims" before Saleh's reason for being booted (speaking Arabic). 

As for the paper of record, The New York Times, the first two paragraphs of its story are an example of exactly how it should not have been introduced:

Two Muslim American YouTube stars who were returning home to New York after a world tour said they were removed from a Delta Air Lines flight at a London airport on Wednesday after other passengers expressed discomfort with their presence on the flight.

Adam Saleh, 23, a filmmaker from Manhattan, and his friend Slim Albaher, 22, from Bay Ridge in Brooklyn, said they were asked by the captain to leave their flight at Heathrow Airport after Mr. Saleh spoke in Arabic to his mother by phone and they followed up by speaking to each other in Arabic, setting off anger and alarm among British passengers on the flight.

"Two Muslim American YouTube stars..." 

"Adam Saleh, 23, a filmmaker from Manhattan..."

“setting off anger and alarm among British passengers...”

In other words, two innocent YouTube stars, one of which is a "filmmaker" like Scorcese or Apatow, set off anger and alarm because -- according to them -- they spoke Arabic.

Sets a pretty accurate table, don't you think? 

Until it doesn't.

Overall, is this a classic case of some major outlets rushing ahead with a narrative and treating one side of the story as fact without all the facts being in?

It appears so.

And with fake news making big headlines right now, the last thing we need is a blaring example of a false narrative being pushed by our most prominent media outlets. 

The Hill will continue to follow this story and update accordingly.

Joe Concha is a media reporter for The Hill.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.