There’s a reason you didn’t hear about a man who recently tried to bomb an airport

Most Americans probably haven't heard of Michael Christopher Estes.

Michael Christopher Estes. CREDIT: Buncombe County Detention Center via AP
Michael Christopher Estes. CREDIT: Buncombe County Detention Center via AP

Odds are most Americans have no idea who Michael Christopher Estes is or how close he came earlier this month to exploding a homemade bomb to sow national fear at a regional airport in western North Carolina.

On October 6, officials at the Asheville Regional Airport discovered an explosive device in a backpack left at the entrance of a terminal; FBI agents found and arrested Estes a day later, according to a criminal complaint filed in federal court. Authorities said in the complaint that Estes agreed to cooperate with law enforcement and confessed to placing the device — a backpack packed with a Mason jar filled with ammonium nitrate, nails, and shotgun shells, and an alarm clock bell rigged to trigger an explosion — at the airport.

Estes described his plan to authorities, noting he purchased the materials at Asheville-area REI, Walmart, and Lowe’s stores. He told officials he prepared the bomb in a nearby wooded area several days before leaving it at the airport. And, he did all this because, federal officials said, Estes told them he was getting ready to “fight a war on U.S. soil.”

Federal officials charged Estes with attempted malicious use of explosive materials and unlawful possession of explosive materials in an airport. No one was injured in the incident.

While Estes’ plans were thwarted, the paucity of news about the airport bombing attempt raises questions about how and why some potentially dangerous criminal activities raise screaming public alarms, while others go mute due to lack of attention. Reporters, editors, and media executives play a key role in setting perceptions and establishing baselines for public polices.

Through a myriad of choices, media representatives help shape our understanding of the world by selecting which stories to cover and deciding whether to portray criminals as sympathetic or evil. Choosing to ignore a significant story of public interest may have just as much impact on the public’s well being as the seemingly endless repetition of already-known facts.

In the Estes’ case, maybe his story didn’t reach the public’s attention because readers and viewers were wholly consumed by a larger and more deadly attack in Las Vegas. Estes’ thwarted attack occurred five days later, while the media remained fixated on trying to understand why a lone gunman opened fire on a crowd at a country music festival, killing at least 58 people and injuring more than 500 others. But that’s hard to reconcile with the bottomless appetite for crime news that seems more voracious than ever with social media and a never-ending news cycle.

Outside of local media in North Carolina and a handful of national media outlets reporting the Associated Press’ account, this story has gone woefully under-reported. I only learned about it, weeks after the fact, when a friend asked why the media — and President Donald Trump, who typically tweets about what he sees as a scary black, Latino, and immigrant criminals  — hadn’t said more about the “Asheville bomber.”

I suspect there’s a reason: Estes is a white man. Shaun King, a columnist at The Intercept, nailed it:

The story didn’t go viral and Trump didn’t tweet about it because the bomb was not placed by an immigrant, or a Muslim, or a Mexican. It was placed there by a good ol’ white man, Michael Christopher Estes. Unlike the Las Vegas shooter, Stephen Paddock, whose motive is still hard to discern, Estes wanted to be very clear that his ultimate goal was to accelerate a war on American soil.

To be fair, no one other than King has labeled Estes a terrorist, but the criminal complaint against him describes the activities of someone who sought to incite fear and sow civil unrest through violent means.

Words and images in the media matter. It’s easy to assume how the visage of a dark-skinned person would have play to the stereotypes of a populace primed to be fearful of some “other” American or immigrant. As we well know, Trump has a quick-trigger finger to name-call and demonize terrorists — often well before the facts of an investigation are known — when it suits his political passions, such as in the London tube attacks last month.

But when Michael Christopher Estes, a white man who admits to wanting to start a war against the nation, is the suspect in a horrific crime, it behooves our media to get the full and unvarnished story out before the public.

Of course, as most of us intuitively know, it would have done so if the suspect had been black, Latino, or Muslim.