Sean Flynn Discovery: Shoddy News Travels Fast

Keith Rotheram and Dave Macmillan in Phnom Penh. Photo by Fred Wissink, AsiaLIFE photography editor.

I first met David Macmillan in AsiaLIFE‘s old office on Hoang Sa. I don’t remember what he was doing there, but I remember we talked about Operation Ivy. I had selected some of the proto-ska band’s lyrics to run with a thematic fashion shoot, and he asked, “Who chose these lyrics?” My only other impression of Macmillan was of him singing at the first Hey Ho Let’s Go! festival at a local venue in Saigon. With his slicked back hair, thin mustache and long sideburns, he looked the part of a greaser punk.

It’s hard to believe that the guy we often referred to as Dogma Dave around the office (for his association with the HCMC-based Dogma clothing brand) is now taking a lashing from international media in newspapers around the world.

Last Sunday, Macmillan was thrust into the spotlight when he and his friend, bar-owner Keith Rotheram, turned over a pile of bones that could be the remains of Sean Flynn, the actor-tunred-photographer and son of American actor Errol Flynn who went missing in Cambodia in 1970 while chasing the new frontline of the Vietnam War. I knew about the development long before it broke, because Macmillan had contacted AsiaLIFE and our contributing editor Thomas Maresca about it approximately two weeks ago. He already had a relationship with Tom and AsiaLIFE and asked Tom to cover the find.

Since then, there’s been a lot of speculation about Macmillan and Rotheram’s motives, first insinuated in an article by Sopheng Cheang that was distributed around the world by the Associated Press. For all I know, it may be true. But as a young journalist and editor, I am frankly shocked at the lack of professionalism on display in news coverage of the development.

Cheang’s article is rife with loaded language and insinuation. After a brief rundown of the facts, he suddenly shifts directions in the ninth graf, writing, “Freelance ‘bone hunters’ have also taken up the search for both missing journalists and US service personnel. Some proved to be swindlers who demanded money from relatives of the missing.”

This graf is immediately followed by quotes from Tim Page, the journalist, war photographer and friend of Sean Flynn, which express Page’s disapproval of the way Macmillan and Rotheram carried out the excavation (which I’m not disputing here). If Cheang is not insinuating that Macmillan and Rotheram are “bone hunters,” I don’t know what the purpose of that graf is.

I’ve written more about Cheang’s article on the AsiaLIFE blog.

Mark Dodd, writing for The Australian, did Cheang one better, referring to Macmillan and Rotheram as “bounty hunters.” Amidst his clear bias and tenuous grasp of the facts, Dodd writes that it’s not certain whether Flynn’s mother, Lili Damita, who has funded past excavations, was behind this one, as well. What’s the problem with this line? Lili Damita died in 1994. (See my extended criticism here).

To me, it appears that many journalists and news agencies are in such a hurry to get the story that they’re in fact creating it themselves. It is regularly being reported that Macmillan and Rotheram claim that these are the remains of  Sean Flynn and that they’re selling the story to the highest bidder without reference to the source of that information. I do know that Macmillan and Rotheram are not speaking to the press right now, and that they inquired about how much the AP pays for photos, but they asked for no compensation for the story that Thomas Maresca and Simon Parry of Red Door News Agency wrote for the Sunday Mail and the South China Morning Post.

The two are certainly interested in selling the exclusive feature, but my impression is that neither are particularly media savvy and may be confusing selling news for selling an exclusive magazine feature. I’m not sure this matters to the media. So long as they can stoke the flames of controversy and make the story seem as tawdry as possible, they seem to be content to follow that line.

There’s been little attempt to differentiate Macmillan from Rotheram; the two are regularly lumped together as “bone hunters.” When it comes to their motives, the two are treated as a single entity. However, context matters. Macmillan has been part of the search for Sean Flynn for at least a year, while Rotheram is simply a friend who helped him organize and fund the dig.

Further, journalists have widely ignored information from Maresca and Parry’s story, which reveals that Sean Flynn’s sister Rory, who is quoted, helped fund the excavation. Articles have also overlooked Tim Page’s relationship to Macmillan, which stretches back at least a year. It was Macmillan who arranged Tim Page’s interview with Maresca for The Last Search for Sean Flynn, a special feature that ran in March 2009’s AsiaLIFE. Nor has anyone mentioned what Page told AsiaLIFE in that interview: that he intended to write a book about his search for Flynn and expressed plans to have a documentary film on the subject made. I am not questioning Page’s motives for criticizing Macmillan and Rotheram, but given this information, he clearly had a commercial interest in finding Flynn himself. And that should have been reported.

I am not taking Macmillan’s side. Quite frankly I don’t know him well enough. But this whole experience has been very illuminating. I have seen some good coverage of the development that resists speculation and hype, but the fact that grossly misleading articles have ended up in papers like The New York Times and The Guardian is an unsettling lesson in the ability of bad news to reach millions.

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One response to “Sean Flynn Discovery: Shoddy News Travels Fast

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