Airline Won’t Sue TV Station for Broadcasting Fake Pilot Names

The original gaffe had been blamed on a summer intern

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Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP

In this Saturday, July 6, 2013 aerial photo, firefighters extinguish the wreckage of Asiana Flight 214 at the San Francisco International Airport in San Francisco.

Updated: July 17, 10:00 a.m.

It was supposed to be a big scoop. During the noon newscast last Friday, San Francisco network KTVU revealed the names of the four pilots on the horrific Asiana jet that crashed at the San Francisco International Airport just a week earlier. But the names weren’t quite correct. In fact, not only were they factually flawed, they were also racially offensive. While the station apologized and the National Transportation Safety Board accepted the blame for verifying the false names, that’s not enough for the South Korea-based airline, which is considering suing KTVU for damages to its reputation.

But on Wednesday, the airline reversed its course. “We decided not to proceed with the suit to concentrate all our efforts on dealing with the aftermath of the accident,” Asiana said in a statement.

The trouble began last Friday when the station’s anchor Tori Campbell launched into a report about the Flight 214 crash recovery, featuring a graphic noting the “just learned” names of the four pilots who were supposedly helming the jet at the time of the crash. “The NTSB has confirmed these are the names,” Campbell noted, but any viewer who took a cursory glance at the four names on screen or even was half-listening to the broadcast could see that the names weren’t accurate, but instead were stereotypically Asian-ized distortions of English-language phrases, two of which sounded like “Something Wrong” and “We Too Low.”

(PHOTOS: Boeing 777 Crash-Lands at San Francisco Airport)

The Fox affiliate quickly realized something was indeed wrong. As word spread through social media of the false names broadcast on air, KTVU offered a televised apology. “We made several mistakes when we received this information. First, we never read the names out loud, phonetically sounding them out,” anchor Frank Somerville admitted. He underscored that the National Transportation Safety Board, responsible for investigating transportation accidents in the U.S., confirmed the names to KTVU, in an effort to absolve the Fox affiliate of any responsibility.

Later Friday evening the NTSB released a statement accepting blame and apologizing for the “inaccurate and offensive names that were mistakenly confirmed” as being those of the plane’s pilots. The federal agency put the blame squarely on “a summer intern [who] acted outside the scope of his authority.” On Monday, the agency said the intern had been fired, though they distanced themselves from the looming question of who created the names, saying KTVU presented the names for confirmation. Adding further suspicion to the lack of editorial integrity, Asiana Airlines had already identified the pilot as Captain Lee Kang-kook and the co-pilot as Lee Jeong-min just one day after the crash, a full five days before the KTVU report.

(MORE: China Mourns the Two Teenagers Killed in San Francisco Plane Crash)

Even with the requisite apology and firing, it was far from the end of the racially-fueled saga. Asiana has lawyered up and was preparing to launch a lawsuit against the TV station. Asiana said they’d sue KTVU to “strongly respond to its racially discriminatory report” that disparaged Asians, Asiana spokeswoman Lee Hyomin told the Associated Press, explaining that it damaged the airline’s reputation. According to NBC, the airline has already chosen a U.S.-based law firm and was seeking a defamation suit.

As of Monday, there was nary a mention of the gaffe on the station’s website – save for its “hot topics” box, where an article apologizing for the mistake was sitting as the most-read story. An interactive button on the page noted the article had been shared 57,000 times. But that pales in comparison to the viral nature of the original video, which has now been viewed nearly 8 million times.

This article has been updated to reflect the fact that Asiana dropped its potential lawsuit against the TV station.