An AskMetaFilter Question Thrice Cited Over Potential BS in the NYT June 4, 2013 10:01 AM   Subscribe

So I'm reading Inside Higher Ed, this morning, as I'm wont to do, and I come across this article about a New York Times Magazine essay that seemed like BS to the IHE author. The reasons he questions the veracity of the events described are: this AskMe question, this blog piece also citing the AskMe question, and this Washington Post humor column also citing said AskMe question. It was odd to see AskMetaFilter three times before lunch. Congratulations, Junior Detectives, you may have caught a aviation bloviator.
posted by Toekneesan to MetaFilter-Related at 10:01 AM (89 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

Hey neat. I forgot to mention that AskMe question during the podcast but it's a pretty interesting thread and I liked reading what IHE said about it, in particular the quote from the guy's editor and Warner's commentary about it. The only thing anyone would need to do is say "Well what flight was it" because the original essay was about a real thing that happened to more than one person and would probably, if true, have had to have been reported. I'm not sure why people act like checking that sort of thing is somehow rude or otherwise not what editors do. It's as simple as checking the spelling of someone's name.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 10:09 AM on June 4, 2013 [3 favorites]


That’s funny. I’m a big fan of the NYT magazine, but I remember reading this and thinking WTF? Not only that it seemed like bullshit, but mostly that it was boring and pointless. If you’re going to make shit up , why not a good story?
posted by bongo_x at 10:12 AM on June 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


In general, no harm no foul. We can all move on...

Uhh...what? The paper of record publishes a lie as the truth and we don't care? Again?
posted by DU at 10:18 AM on June 4, 2013 [3 favorites]


This incident also mentioned in today's Public Editor entry from the NYT.
posted by secretseasons at 10:30 AM on June 4, 2013 [3 favorites]


The paper of record publishes a lie as the truth and we don't care?

But was it a lie? Sounds like it was a real plane that had a little difficulty and maybe the author glorified it a bit but the facts were true?
posted by mathowie (staff) at 10:36 AM on June 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


This story was absolutely truthy.
posted by gilrain at 10:39 AM on June 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


All i took away from the public editor story was that the editor of Times Magazine was backing up the author on doubling down that this was TRUFAX.

Even if some basic facts of it are true, the way it's written is just awful and there's large parts of it that just sound like B-grade college writing project novella crap. Overwrought was a great description.

Pretty much, even if there's real liquor in this drink it still tastes like nothing but soda to me. And i'm sure as hell not getting a buzz from it.
posted by emptythought at 10:40 AM on June 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


I caught a fish once. It was this fucking big!
posted by cjorgensen at 10:42 AM on June 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


Congratulations, Junior Detectives, you may have caught a aviation bloviator.

And with that, they captured the Phantom of the Airport and remove the mask and are shocked to find feature writer Noah Gallagher Shannon. "And I would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren't for you meddling kids!"
posted by MCMikeNamara at 10:43 AM on June 4, 2013 [3 favorites]


The story is fake but accurate.
posted by Tanizaki at 10:43 AM on June 4, 2013


Even if some basic facts of it are true, the way it's written is just awful and there's large parts of it that just sound like B-grade college writing project novella crap. Overwrought was a great description.

I think I’m more offended that it’s been referred to as well written than the fact that’s it’s exaggerated.
posted by bongo_x at 10:45 AM on June 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


But was it a lie?

Well that's the thing. They've now given a date/time for the flight and people are still having trouble tracking down any information about it and it's not on avherald which isn't super unusual but is a little. I liked askthepilot's take on it.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 10:48 AM on June 4, 2013 [7 favorites]


The truth was unvarnished. Unfortunately, given the stresses of plunging to the Earth in a screaming death spiral at terminal velocity, the truth came out looking pretty weathered. Probably could have used a few coats of protection, in hindsight.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 10:55 AM on June 4, 2013


If you’re going to make shit up , why not a good story?

Yeah... And there were SNAKES!
posted by Devils Rancher at 10:57 AM on June 4, 2013


I like one of the comments on the fourth link, where it says the "cute girl" Shannon refers to was Lennay Kekua. I had to google that, but that's plain mean and wonderful.
posted by cjorgensen at 11:02 AM on June 4, 2013 [10 favorites]


I like one of the comments on the fourth link, where it says the "cute girl" Shannon refers to was Lennay Kekua.

Ouch.

By which I mean "Good one!"
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 11:04 AM on June 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


Oh wow how did I miss that question? Let me go read all of it and do some bloviating of my own.
posted by backseatpilot at 11:04 AM on June 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


He only reported what he heard and felt, which is consistent with the magazine's Lives page, where the account was published.

In other words, it was as bullshitty as something has to be to make it into the Lives section.
posted by BibiRose at 11:04 AM on June 4, 2013


I had a friend mention me a few times in a NYTMag piece about Amazon wishlist stalking and had to speak to surly fact-checkers from NYT just to verify I had really once wanted things like a book on straw bale homes and the like. How did something like this slip through?
posted by DirtyOldTown at 11:21 AM on June 4, 2013 [3 favorites]


would probably, if true, have had to have been reported.

Not really. Incidents where planes have mechanical issues, but then land safely aren't generally new items. It is possible such incidents aren't reported on avherald either -- I'm not sure about that.

Supposedly the fact-checker had copies of the writer's receipts, confirming he was on the plane. The FAA acknowledged that this flight had mechanical difficulties of some sort. The airline refused to comment. So, I don't think it is "as simple as checking the spelling of someone's name."

Not defending the piece at all, but if you were the fact-checker, what would you do? You have maybe a day to work on it, and are probably juggling a couple other, longer pieces.

(As I said in the original thread, I have absolutely no inside knowledge of what went on with this piece, but I do have some second-hand familiarity with NYT Magazine fact-checking.)
posted by neroli at 11:21 AM on June 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Dear New York Magazine Live's page,

I never thought it would happen to me, but there she was: The cute girl! The plane was about to crash and I was still not a member of the mile high club, so I grabbed the Captain's cap, put it on a bit cocky to show I wasn't afraid of dying, took her hand, and gestured to the stewardess to join us in the lavatory. Three can fit in there if you stack correctly! Does this count as the two mile high club? I wondered. Who cares! If I was going out, I was going out with a bang and clean hands!

- Noah Gallagher Shannon
posted by cjorgensen at 11:24 AM on June 4, 2013 [5 favorites]


You have maybe a day to work on it, and are probably juggling a couple other, longer pieces.

You "fail" it. What else is their job if it doesn't pass the smell test?
posted by emptythought at 11:28 AM on June 4, 2013


I woke to a slap. “The pilot’s going to make a motherfucking announcement,” the flight attendant said. I rubbed my stinging cheek, nodded and looked around, feeling withdrawal kick back in. The cobra next to me was spitting at her scales while she polished them with pages torn from a fashion magazine. I flinched involuntarily back against the window as the flight attendant passed again. Black mambas blanketed the sky floor.

I sat up suddenly. Wait — snakes can't hear. Won't they miss the pilot talk?

The flight attendant leaned over and told me, “This is your door,” pointing to the exit door next to me. “You’re in charge of getting these motherfucking snakes around you evacuated in 10 seconds from my motherfucking plane.”

Then the wheels hissed the ground like any other flight, brakes squealed and we rolled to a stop. The pilot yelled to remain seated — that we were safe. The cobra next to me sighed in boredom, ate a small rat, and waited for the exit to open.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 11:31 AM on June 4, 2013 [20 favorites]


Next up: the scratch and sniff FPP.
posted by arcticseal at 11:32 AM on June 4, 2013


Now that I have read and responded (you can thank me later), the article sounds like the fantastic retelling of a minor airplane issue by a guy who's afraid to fly.
posted by backseatpilot at 11:35 AM on June 4, 2013 [5 favorites]


Uhh...what? The paper of record publishes a lie as the truth and we don't care? Again?

I would not rely on the NYT Magazine for hard-hitting, fact-checked, journalistic exposés. It's a piece of fluff thrown into the Sunday edition for NYT readers too scared to admit they read People or watch Access Hollywood.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:43 AM on June 4, 2013 [3 favorites]


Thanks for posting. I read it the other day (I'm behind, what can I say) and I thought it had an awkward aroma of fakitude about it. The Captain part was fishy, but what really raised my eyebrow was the attendant saying he had "10 seconds to evacuate these rows" or whatever. I am an avid exit-row flyer and thought that that was kind of weirdly phrased and that the interaction would have been more detailed, not just essentially "yer on yer own, buddy." Glad to know my BS-meter is still well calibrated.
posted by Miko at 11:44 AM on June 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


The "near-xxxx-experience-and-how-I-almost-died-but-I-didn't-and-guess-what-I-am-writing-a-book-about-something-else-that-you-can-soon-buy" story is a staple of the NYT. Not just the mag, but the paper. Slogging through the stories and trying to figure out what is news as opposed to the shill du jour is too tiresome and that is why I dismiss that paper altogether.

I saw the question in the green, did an eye roll and moved on.

Now if Kaycee had been the pilot and Scott Adams was the author of the article, then it might be worth discussing.
posted by lampshade at 12:00 PM on June 4, 2013


lampshade: "Now if Kaycee had been the pilot and Scott Adams was the author of the article, then it might be worth discussing."

However, if that had happened, the servers would have exploded long before we ever had a dialogue.

[NOT ADMIN-IST]
posted by MCMikeNamara at 12:12 PM on June 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


I am OK with flabby personal essays, I think. What I'd really like to annihilate is the fey, pathetic Meh list.
posted by Miko at 12:20 PM on June 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


It seems that the basic facts of the flight are confirmed, but the important question seems to be whether the author had a duty to report his subjective experience better, based on the type of article that was being written.

I think that the answer is yes, and the instinctive response of those who are questioning it shows that there's a certain level of credibility that still needs to be catered to and respected, even for articles like these in this particular section of the paper. You can't just default to a subjective/imperfect remembering of facts (as if they were true) to fill in the blanks. If you are doing this, there should probably be a disclaimer or something.

I think that's what rankles at the end of the day. Even if the facts of the flight details and problems are established, the way certain details seemed to be embellished makes you feel there is an attempt to manipulate you into empathizing in a way that the facts may not do on their own, had you experienced the same thing. Good journalism should create empathy through details, but there's a big difference between narrowing in on particular historical facts to paint a particular portrait, and then inventing certain details wholesale, or being careless in your remembering such that they might as well be invented. Having an imperfect memory does not excuse a potentially infinite number of inaccuracies.

So, the author had a genuine responsibility to do better, I think, for journalistic integrity reasons and for ethical reasons that are connected to the way that people think about flying. If you are riling people up with your own experiences, you have an obligation to get certain details right, so that people know whether to genuinely empathize or not. At the very least, the editorial staff should have given better direction on the framing of this, or should have anticipated how this kind of retelling could be problematic. That they did not leaves me with a lack of trust in their process almost similar to the entire thing being made up.
posted by SpacemanStix at 12:29 PM on June 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


Amateur travelling journalist gets scared, exaggerates. Joe Sharkey of the NYT was in a real honest-to-god plane crash in Brazil and didn't bloviate or polish the truth.
posted by subbes at 12:32 PM on June 4, 2013


This just in, I was riding on a Citibike and lost full power.

If I had a helmet I would have removed it and informed myself I was going to die. Something about "a chain wiggling off the, the big gear-wheel thingy, anyway we're just going to try to brake it."

The long pneumatic tubes that connect the brake to the handlebar slumped in defeat. The bike pitched, and catched. At the last second I slowly slid to a stop under a hedge, miraculously avoiding Mrs. Novoselec and her twin pekinese out for a stroll on the Bowling Green.

A bike without brakes is like a world without Jobs, Hope or Cash.

Thanks for your well-wishes and money.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 12:38 PM on June 4, 2013 [6 favorites]


Uhh...what? The paper of record publishes a lie as the truth and we don't care? Again?

To be fair, for regular readers the front section and back page of the NYT Magazine (along with the entire Styles section) are pretty much considered to be the NYT's equivalent of the Sunday funny pages. So this is sort of like finding a medical error in Rex Morgan, M.D.
posted by Mchelly at 12:49 PM on June 4, 2013 [7 favorites]


So, the closest flight for Frontier 727 that I can find on FlightAware is on 4th July 2011.

The URL is http://uk.flightaware.com/live/flight/FFT727/history/20110704/1729ZZ/KDCA/KDEN.

Changing the date in the URL to 30th June (or 3rd July, which was a Sunday), or indeed, any date in June won't give a record of which flight took place, and presumably, if the flight was diverted, then it would end in KPHL not KDEN anyway. Where I can't find the correct data to enter is instead of the 1729ZZ, which is the scheduled departure time (17:29 GMT which is 13:29 EDT, as shown on the page). Presumably the scheduled time (which is obviously rounded for the passenger display) changed from 4th July onwards.

Does anyone have any ideas on how to reach the conclusion of this deeply nerdy treasure hunt of mine?
posted by ambrosen at 12:57 PM on June 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


Who among us hasn't, as part of our employment, exaggerated how close they came for dying? I mean, I remember two or three years ago I was working in a liquor store, and this guy came up to me and said. "Tell me a believable story about a time you nearly died and I'll buy that Balthazar of expensive Belgian beer the store's been trying to get rid of for 3 years, if you don't I'm going to put you on a plane that might crash." So I told him the story about the time I was in a liquor store and somebody threatened my life if I didn't play Scheherazade to his Shahryār, but with added intercom squawks, and rhetorical questions in my inner monologue.

Needless to say, I ended up getting a personal pan pizza and a discount of my next flight. The best part is, I didn't even PAY for the original flight. Suckers.
posted by Gygesringtone at 1:01 PM on June 4, 2013 [8 favorites]


> I would not rely on the NYT Magazine for hard-hitting, fact-checked, journalistic exposés

When I was working as a factchecker in NYC, the NYT Magazine factcheckers were rumored to be paid considerably more than the going rate because they were union. (I have an urge to underline the parts of that sentence that should be factchecked.)
posted by The corpse in the library at 3:34 PM on June 4, 2013


And there we go: a nice picture of Frontier 772's flight path.
posted by ambrosen at 4:02 PM on June 4, 2013 [6 favorites]


the important question seems to be whether the author had a duty to report his subjective experience better, based on the type of article that was being written.

This falls just within the definition of "article," but it's not a piece of news reporting. it's a personal essay. I'm not sure these are even fact-checked; the Public Editor piece leaves it vague enough that any fact-checking could have taken place after the furore.

This kind of confusion about how to read a newspaper (or magazine) is something that concerns me. It's impossible to critically read (or listen to or watch) a journalistic product without understanding a bit about the genres represented within: news reportage, editorial, op-ed, letters to the editor, columns, features, essays, reviews, advances, profiles, etc. These are all subject to different standards and editorial approaches. I join the world in calling hyperbolic BS on this story, but not in faulting the Times. I don't think they're under any obligation (which would be self-imposed anyway) to fact-check personal essays.
posted by Miko at 4:12 PM on June 4, 2013 [5 favorites]


Miko, I agree that it didn't need to be fact checked, but the quote you picked out fits more with this one from the Inside Higher Ed article:

Hugo Lindgren is right, different people would remember the incident differently but it doesn’t appear that Noah Gallagher Shannon made any attempt to recall it accurately at all

But really, the question is not whether the Times should have fact-checked, it's whether they should have published a memoir of an experience that was utterly trivial but blown out of all proportion to be remarkable, when presumably that slot is for readers to submit interesting experiences to.

Being bullshitted is not interesting, and doesn't teach the bullshittee anything, so on those criteria, the column was a failure.
posted by ambrosen at 4:36 PM on June 4, 2013


I join the world in calling hyperbolic BS on this story, but not in faulting the Times. I don't think they're under any obligation (which would be self-imposed anyway) to fact-check personal essays.

A bit of clarification would have helped. Something like this?

LIVES:
The Plane Was About to Crash. Now What?
A Hyperbolic BS Essay By NOAH GALLAGHER SHANNON
Published: May 17, 2013


This would have satisfied me had they printed it…………but they didn’t. Who knows? Maybe it didn’t fit?
posted by lampshade at 4:41 PM on June 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


The paper of record publishes a lie as the truth and we don't care? Again?

One of the FIRST things the Internet Era was SUPPOSED to do is eliminate the need to designate ANY source as "the paper of record". Yet there are still many MeFites who believe that every time the Grey Lady belches, it belongs on our front page.
posted by oneswellfoop at 5:02 PM on June 4, 2013


I don't think they're under any obligation (which would be self-imposed anyway) to fact-check personal essays.

I don't have a problem with them running it—though I think it should set off their BS meters as well—but I do have a problem with Shannon writing it.
posted by cjorgensen at 5:27 PM on June 4, 2013


I would not rely on the NYT Magazine for hard-hitting, fact-checked, journalistic exposés.

Remember when print said blogs couldn't be trusted?
posted by DU at 5:40 PM on June 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


This kind of confusion about how to read a newspaper (or magazine) is something that concerns me.

Couldn't agree more. It's probably just my own (serious, for-reals) English Comp. major talking, but I constantly see (here and elsewhere) people evaluating e.g Vanity Fair pieces as if they're supposed to be fully AP style book compliant. Gee, he sure used his thesaurus! The NYT Magazine is not part of the news operation, even if it sometimes publishes reportage (as distinguished from reporting). And c'mon, read some Ring Lardner someday. Magazines are allowed to be entertaining, laze on the porch reading.

Part of what happened is that things went online, and every other "article" looks like a news article now. You're not aware that you're not reading the Times, you're reading the Times Magazine. Which, like other magazines (VF, Esquire, GQ), has a bit more floridity in its house style and a lot less Joe Friday just-the-facts-ma'am. Heck, we have a Wisconsin newspaper that puts its letters to the editor online, and during the whole Walker-vs.-unions war they would occasionally get passed around as if they were articles or even voice-of-the-paper editorials.

That said, I think the NYT let a stinker through this time. It's overly melodramatic, it's full of dramatic tension that was all in the writer's mind, and I really think alarm bells should have rung. This wouldn't have run in the New Yorker with its vaunted fact-checkers keeping the gate, I imagine. Even so, I could see it being recast as that personal drama it turned out to be, as long as the author is clear to the audience. "The Captain seemed sweaty and tense, and then I realized I couldn't even see him over the loudspeaker -- the perspiration was steaming off me like an Amazonian mid-day." That sort of thing. Too bad he chose to sort of wing it (pun intended), Jayson-Blair-style.
posted by dhartung at 5:47 PM on June 4, 2013 [4 favorites]


"Magazines are allowed to be entertaining, laze on the porch reading."

Yeah, what's the big deal about Stephen Glass, anyway? I mean, he wrote for a magazine and his stuff was pretty truthy. It was fun to read, that's for sure.

I find that these distinctions are indispensable because, for example, when I read a regular newspaper story, I know that I don't have to engage my critical faculties because it's entirely fact-checked and therefore absolutely true. With newspaper lifestyle sections and Sunday supplements, I know that 87% of the piece is entirely accurate, with the remaining 13% being the untrustworthy adjectives, which I know to ignore. Profiles are, of course, accurate and fact-checked only with regard to names, dates, and hair color; everything else is understood to be whimsical elaboration.

It's a mystery to me that many kids these days are not well-versed in this; I didn't think you could get out of high school without mastering this system.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 6:16 PM on June 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


That said, I think the NYT let a stinker through this time.

You're right; the real crime is that this was hackneyed crap, with neither a new observation or an interesting style to redeem it.

Ivan, for your own benefit I plan to choose to believe that despite being unable to resist another opportunity to zing, you can in fact tell the difference between a personal essay in the Lives section of the magazine and a story in the news section of the paper.
posted by Miko at 6:21 PM on June 4, 2013 [3 favorites]


I read that article and felt immediately skeptical, which then fired off my "I bet this will be on Metafilter" spidey-senses. I'm a NYT loyalist for life, but the second I felt like calling bullshit on part of the story, I immediately assumed that conversation would happen on Metafilter in some capacity. Sorry, public editor.
posted by Charity Garfein at 6:22 PM on June 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


Next it'll be the Vows column. "Correction: the bride did not say the groom was "an repellent slob" when they were first introduced; she said he was "slightly disheveled." The couple did not have their first date aboard a period reproduction zeppelin; it was a period reproduction hot air balloon, and remained tethered to the ground."

Actually I'm pretty sure they fact check the Vows column. But whatever. As long as that meh list and "What Mario Batali is Drinking Now" stay on the first page, I'm not sure there really are any depths that it would surprise me to see the magazine sinking to.
posted by Miko at 6:29 PM on June 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


*Note to readers: Mario Batali actually drinks mostly seltzer water and is probably doing so now. The drinks he writes about for the magazine are merely suggestions.
posted by Miko at 6:31 PM on June 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Ivan, for your own benefit I plan to choose to believe that despite being unable to resist another opportunity to zing, you can in fact tell the difference between a personal essay in the Lives section of the magazine and a story in the news section of the paper."

Well, sure. I just don't think that the one end of the spectrum is so reliable and the other end so unreliable that it makes sense to excuse this piece on the basis of these differences. And yours and dhartung's comments specifically were arguing that the people who are concerned about the veracity of this story are possibly doing so because they're ignorant of how to properly evaluate a newspaper or magazine article. Apparently, you don't include me in that group — I'm flattered. I wish you'd not included anyone else, either.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 6:46 PM on June 4, 2013


I wish you'd not included anyone else, either.

I can't do that, unfortunately. If people are holding a personal essay to the standard of a news article, they are doing the wrong thing. They are applying a standard from one genre to an entirely separate genre - in an entirely separate section of the publication, with a separate editorial group and a separate purpose. That's not how it works.

Whether this is a bullshit story makes for some interesting banter, but that's about it. It's not a reflection of news standards at the New York Times, and it's a mistake to treat it as though it is. The Public Editor is right; people are the authorities on their own experience. This incident may not have a historical basis, or its historical basis may be overblown, and it's certainly not the first or last time that will ever happen in a first-person account of an experience.
posted by Miko at 6:54 PM on June 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


Sorry, this particular incident does have a historical basis.
posted by Miko at 7:01 PM on June 4, 2013


And there we go: a nice picture of Frontier 772's flight path.
posted by ambrosen at 4:02 PM on June 4


Am I reading the linked material correctly? It looks like the flight was only 43 minutes long, which wouldn't allow for two hours of circling to burn off fuel. (I realize we're past the point of expecting all of the elements of the piece to be factually accurate, but this strikes me as particularly off.)
posted by slmorri at 10:13 PM on June 4, 2013 [4 favorites]


slmorri's right; that flight tracker site lists the flight's duration at 42 minutes. How on earth could Shannon have been circling for two hours?
posted by mediareport at 11:17 PM on June 4, 2013


He dreamed the whole thing...
posted by a humble nudibranch at 12:34 AM on June 5, 2013


The plane was in the shower the whole time.
posted by arcticseal at 6:00 AM on June 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


The plane was calling from inside the house.
posted by bongo_x at 11:30 AM on June 5, 2013


"Frontier Airlines flight 727" was the name of his sled.
posted by neroli at 11:44 AM on June 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


The plane was dead the whole time.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 12:06 PM on June 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Sorry, I’m poring over that article trying to figure out if Noah Gallagher Shannon is a replicant. Why else would the pilot have left that origami unicorn in the aisle?
posted by bongo_x at 1:10 PM on June 5, 2013


The plane flies on its back, its belly baking in the hot sun, blowing its engines trying to turn itself over, but it can't. Not without your help. But you're not helping.

Noah: [angry at the suggestion] What do you mean, I'm not helping?

I mean: you're not helping! Why is that, Noah?
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 1:18 PM on June 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


It looked as if the plane had landed safely in Philadelphia and got to the gate when the captain announced at the gate:

"We are safely landed at Philadelphia. Thank you for flying Spirit Airlines. We hope to see you again soon."

The cabin crew all looked at each other aghast, wondering why the pilot had forgotten he was from the Frontier clan, but were aghast not much longer, as the doors were opened from the outside and the Spirit Airlines warriors burst in, slitting the throats of all the cabin crew and announcing their intent to attack the low cost airline guilds on the Pacific side of the Rocky Mountains.

Life in Southwesteros is a precarious thing.

#redlanding
posted by ambrosen at 1:39 PM on June 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Miko: If people are holding a personal essay to the standard of a news article, they are doing the wrong thing. They are applying a standard from one genre to an entirely separate genre - in an entirely separate section of the publication, with a separate editorial group and a separate purpose. That's not how it works.

Well, it is, in the most important ways, how it worked on every publication I worked on in over a decade (this was in the UK). The issue is not that people are holding a personal essay to the standard of a hard news article. I don't think that anyone has any problem with inserting colour into the piece, or the guy being a bit florid with his prose – though if I was commissioning editor for the section this ran in, I'd have binned it the moment I first read it, because you're right, it's terribly written – but that even for magazine features sections which include personal accounts (and I've worked editing on a few of them), it so fails to pass the smell test that any editor worth his or her salt would have had a back and forth correspondence with the writer in question in order to establish the basic facts.

Whether this is a bullshit story makes for some interesting banter, but that's about it. It's not a reflection of news standards at the New York Times, and it's a mistake to treat it as though it is. The Public Editor is right; people are the authorities on their own experience. This incident may not have a historical basis, or its historical basis may be overblown, and it's certainly not the first or last time that will ever happen in a first-person account of an experience.

Oh, I'll agree that people are the authorities on their own experience, but when that lived experience happens to diverge from the facts of what happened, it's the writer's responsibility to own up to that and present their piece much more clearly as a hugely subjective bit of writing; likewise, it's any good editor's job to twig to that potential gap, and either narrow it through further investigation and subsequent editing, or to spike the piece. This isn't rocket surgery; this is the basics of editing this sort of stuff.

I mean, I'm not demanding that every editor be a one-man or -woman equivalent of the New Yorker's famed fact checking team. But if I'd let this run in any publication which I worked on as a commissioning editor, without establishing some basic concordance between the piece and what actually happened, I'd at the very least be hauled into the office of the magazine or newspaper's editor and be given a good bollocking.

A relevant recent example, though not mine, obviously: Xan Brooks interviews Michael Douglas in The Guardian as part of their Cannes coverage. The story runs in their daily features/arts/fashion supplement, G2. Douglas, according to the interview, claimed that cunnilingus was the cause of his throat cancer, thanks to HPV. Story blows up; Douglas' publicist issues denial; Guardian publish audio of interview in which he does, indeed, make that claim. The original piece already had more than one declaration of scepticism, including one from a doctor the writer consulted who stated it "makes no sense".

Just because I spent most of my editing time working on features, arts reviews, and arts/celebrity interviews, and thus (mostly) didn't have to worry about getting things legalled and strictly fact-checked so the publication I worked for didn't get sued for libel (or worse), that didn't give me licence to just allow made up bullshit into the paper.
posted by Len at 2:54 PM on June 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


when that lived experience happens to diverge from the facts of what happened, it's the writer's responsibility to own up to that and present their piece much more clearly as a hugely subjective bit of writing

That's what a personal essay is. A hugely subjective piece of writing.

I understand what you're saying about other sections as I have worked in some of those particular trenches myself. Libel standards are different here, but setting that aside, this is not even a feature or a profile. It's not an interview with a celebrity purporting to represent that celebrity's words or views. It's an essay. This is a column, a venerable one, within the New York Times Magazine expressly for entertaining personal essays. That is all it has ever been.

I agree with you that it should have been spiked for aesthetic reasons. But not for lack of objectivity. It's not reasonable to expect personal essays to be anything but subjective.
posted by Miko at 3:03 PM on June 5, 2013


The argument against the piece goes beyond "aesthetic reasons," Miko. Subjectivity is great, rah, love it to death, perspective and all that. But it's hardly demanding full objectivity to note that Shannon makes numerous claims from his oh-so-subjective space that many folks with relevant knowledge say cannot possibly be true. He's bullshitting us. That goes way beyond "aesthetics."
posted by mediareport at 3:15 PM on June 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Depends: Does his shit smell like roses?
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 3:21 PM on June 5, 2013


Miko: That's what a personal essay is. A hugely subjective piece of writing.
[...]
I agree with you that it should have been spiked for aesthetic reasons. But it's not reasonable to expect personal essays to be anything but subjective.


Sorry, maybe I should have phrased that bit about "a hugely subjective" piece of writing a little better. Personal essays are always subjective, but there's subjective and there's stating what appear to be, but in fact are not, definitive facts and surrounding it with subjective commentary, and I think that this was the latter. Let's look at one example from his piece: he claimed the PA announcement said that the plane had been circling Philadelphia's airport for at least two hours. And it turns out that since taking off from DC, his flight had only been in the air for 42 minutes before landing in Philly. This is something that it is trivially easy to check, for the writer, given that he knew what flight he was on, and presumably owns a watch.

Given that the very first sentence of the piece is "I woke to a nudge," it's also something that is trivially easy for an editor – especially one who's a bit uncertain on the piece's veracity – to ask about the writer's certainty of. "Hey," you might ask, "are you sure that what they said on the PA was right, given that you'd just been woken up, and might have been a bit groggy? I mean, if there's a bit of doubt, maybe it might be an idea to phrase that as "The PA squawked awake not long after I did, and I'm pretty sure I heard it say ..."" It's not necessarily a better written sentence – in fact it's pretty much in keeping with the godawful writing of the original – but it at least preserves the voice and would get across the idea that this was not necessarily what was said, but what the writer thought was said. That's what I meant.

Miko: I understand what you're saying about other sections as I have worked in some of those particular trenches myself

This is what I find so surprising about your take on this; from your previous comments I knew that already, and while reasonable people can beg to differ, your take on this is so squarely in opposition to my own experience of similar situations that I'm really puzzled as to why you're making the argument you're making. And I don't think it can solely be put down to the differences between British and American journalistic practices. (Though I'll admit, if that is the sole reason, I wouldn't doubt you but I'd be pretty taken aback.)
posted by Len at 3:27 PM on June 5, 2013


Did you read the Magazine editor's piece? They've verified everything verifiable. It may well be that others think it couldn't be true, but there you are. Nothing more can be unearthed. Your argument seems to boil down to 'the editor should have pushed to improve the piece' - while I agree that he should have, that's still aesthetic. If he had done so, he'd have done so because the piece didn't sound believable, not because it was seen as factually inaccurate.

there's subjective and there's stating what appear to be, but in fact are not, definitive facts and surrounding it with subjective commentary, and I think that this was the latter

In terms of an essay, I don't see a disctinction here. Looking over the topics in past essays, it's easy to see all kinds of situations which share things that seem to be definitive facts, but we have know way of truly knowing how accurate we would agree they are. I Found My Biological Parents, Wish I Handn't. Gay parents have problems adopting a baby in Kentucky. A weird interaction on a train. A DUI results in a lost license. Old flames reconnect online. Mom takes the wrong medication. By nature, these topics are going to be full of subjectivity and, yes, probably hyperbole.

I agree with the editor that personal perspective can be distorting, but in this forum, personal perspective - not reportage - is the editing goal.
posted by Miko at 3:47 PM on June 5, 2013


Miko: Did you read the Magazine editor's piece? They've verified everything verifiable

Well they apparently didn't bother their arse to verify the entirely verifiable fact that the flight was only in the air for 42 minutes, and had not, in fact, been circling over Philly for two hours.

Your argument seems to boil down to 'the editor should have pushed to improve the piece' - while I agree that he should have, that's still aesthetic. If he had done so, he'd have done so because the piece didn't sound believable, not because it was seen as factually inaccurate.

Yes, this is essentially my argument, but I wouldn't consider it a strictly aesthetic one. The reason the piece didn't sound believable, aside from the terrible writing, was because large chunks of it were completely fabricated, and the editor completely failed in their job in that respect; I'm not sure how you can separate the believability from the bollocks, as it were. The editor could have improved the piece by making sure that it wasn't a turgid, cliche-ridden piece, which is an aesthetic issue and would have required a ground-up rewrite (and Christ, I did enough of them); or they could have fact checked it better, and left it as an accurate but still turgid and cliche-ridden piece, which is arguably what they should have done, but didn't. (I've done plenty of them too.)

I'm not suggesting that absolutely everything that runs in every section has to be reportage. But for the stuff that isn't, there still should be some factual standards adhered to, and if an institution as venerable as the Times – which has per-page budgets that would dwarf the budgets of entire sections* that I've worked for but who somehow still managed to check these things – don't want to devote the resources to making that happen, then maybe they should reconsider running this stuff in the format they currently do.

*and in some cases, entire magazines!
posted by Len at 4:13 PM on June 5, 2013


for the stuff that isn't, there still should be some factual standards adhered to,

Yeah, I don't agree about this part. If we held to this, no newspaper would ever run a horoscope column...

I don't really think the TImes approach to Lives is broken. The only difference between this piece and hundreds of others is that this tripped more alarm bells.
posted by Miko at 4:17 PM on June 5, 2013


Yeah, I don't agree about this part. If we held to this, no newspaper would ever run a horoscope column...

I think that there's a fundamental, categorical difference between horoscopes and peoples' subjective accounts of stuff that has purportedly happened in the real, verifiable by other people, world. Does this mean that you'd be okay with anyone who believes in woo-woo bullshit should be free to pontificate in the NYT about how chemtrails caused their thumbs to go weird, or that the MMR vaccine gave their infant son autism? Because if we follow your logic to its conclusion, that's where we end up.

I don't really think the TImes approach to Lives is broken. The only difference between this piece and hundreds of others is that this tripped more alarm bells.

See, I'd take the opposite view. The reason that this piece tripped so many alarm bells was because elements of it were publically verifiable/falsifiable; that it's not possible to subject the other stories in Lives to the same scrutiny is an argument for the editors to take on that job themselves and do it better than they have been doing, not for us to just throw up our collective arms and say fuck it, print what you want.

I don't know. Maybe this comes down to a fundamental difference in what I've experienced in my time as a writer and editor and what you have. Perhaps it's a difference in newspaper culture here and where you are – from your take on this it sounds, to me, like I'm missing some major point in American journalism that is taken as read, but seems totally alien to me. And I'm reasonably sure that I've not missed anything that colossal.
posted by Len at 4:43 PM on June 5, 2013


Or maybe we'll just have to agree to disagree, because I don't think either of us is going to convince the other of the rightness of his/her argument.
posted by Len at 4:49 PM on June 5, 2013


Does this mean that you'd be okay with anyone who believes in woo-woo bullshit should be free to pontificate in the NYT about how chemtrails caused their thumbs to go weird, or that the MMR vaccine gave their infant son autism? Because if we follow your logic to its conclusion, that's where we end up.

No, but I also don't believe that such a piece would get into Lives because of all its other editorial criteria. Meanwhile, their news department seems a little more comfortable flirting with that sort of stuff.

My logic is that different standards apply to different genres, so that's entirely consistent. We don't want to have the same standards for all sections. What we want is for people to be able to tell the difference between sections, so they know what standards apply when reading them. Most papers don't get angry letters of outcry when they didn't have a lucky day or go on a long, long journey after all, no matter what the horoscope said.

The reason that this piece tripped so many alarm bells was because elements of it were publically verifiable/falsifiable

That's exactly my point and that's what I said - people are familiar with the content and could play detective a bit more than they can in stories about your second-grade crush or your nasty neighbor. I don't think the editors work that hard in that way on these pieces as long as authors assert they are true, and because they're personal essays I think that's OK. I think the editors can reasonably confine theselves to looking for interest, potential insights, and general writing quality in these pieces.

I'm missing some major point in American journalism

It may just be that you're less familiar with the Times Magazine.
posted by Miko at 5:11 PM on June 5, 2013


I don't think the editors work that hard in that way on these pieces as long as authors assert they are true, and because they're personal essays I think that's OK.

Well I'll mostly agree with that, with the caveat that if somebody submits something for this sort of section that smacks of invention as obviously as this piece did, then the editors are kind of duty bound to either not run it or do some further checks on its veracity.

It may just be that you're less familiar with the Times Magazine.

Oh, I'll totally admit to that, though I'm pretty familiar with its UK equivalents at the Guardian, the Telegraph and the Times, more than one of which did or does run a similar column in their Saturday and/or Sunday magazine. And I know a couple of people who have worked for supermarket checkout-style real life magazines, and if they're running some kind of insane "my brother kept me as his wife and fathered six of my children"/"I was sexually assaulted with a fire extinguisher" stories – both real examples, by the way – which is written up as a first person account, then they make damn sure to check everything out, even if it doesn't libel anyone else.

Maybe it's just that I find it depressing that the likes of Chat and Closer appear to have better fact checking standards than bits of the NYT. I mean, setting aside Jayson Blair, Judith Miller, that guy who mirrored his NYT magazine shots (as exposed by MeFi!), and the unending awfulness that is the NYT's style section and its trend pieces that apply to, at most, six artsy millionaire families with renovated brownstones in Cobble Hill – and I'm willing to forgive large chunks of that, with the exception of Miller – you, or at least I, kind of expect better from the New York Times.
posted by Len at 5:39 PM on June 5, 2013


> I don't think they're under any obligation (which would be self-imposed anyway) to fact-check personal essays

I factchecked plenty of personal essays back when I worked in magazine publishing. You make sure that historical events happened as described, that brand names are spelled correctly, all that sort of stuff. If you're curious I could show you what I would have chosen to check in that essay.

I never worked at a newspaper, but my understanding is that the non-magazine section is not factchecked -- the reporters are expected to get it right on their own.
posted by The corpse in the library at 5:50 PM on June 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


The corpse in the library: If you're curious I could show you what I would have chosen to check in that essay.

Ha! I actually did consider doing that. And then I thought: well, I didn't get paid enough to do that when I was doing it, so I don't think I can be arsed doing it for free now.
posted by Len at 5:52 PM on June 5, 2013


you, or at least I, kind of expect better from the New York Times

I do, but I really put the newspaper proper in a different category than the fluff sections of the magazine. In short, had the editor done a little more nudging i agree we wouldn't be having this conversation.

my understanding is that the non-magazine section is not factchecked -- the reporters are expected to get it right on their own

Certainly true for smaller papers, but my mom has written news for the Times and had some elements of her stuff checked. Basic elements, and a long time ago, though. Could be different standards for staff writers/stringers, which is quite likely.

...and Ladies' Home Journal was actually a lot more stringent, as I recall.
posted by Miko at 7:27 PM on June 5, 2013


I did some work for LHJ and yup, they took their factchecking seriously.
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:25 AM on June 6, 2013


Patrick Smith has seen the records.

The landing gear was never the issue. They didn't circle or dump fuel. There was virtually no safety risk. There was a low reservoir reading on a a gauge for one of three hydraulic systems. The problem was a faulty gauge . Had the hydraulic system actually failed they would have lost thrust reverser on one side, meaning taking a little longer to roll to a stop.

Noah Shannon Gallagher is a patent liar. The New York Times published fiction and tried to excuse it.

There is no defending or excusing the publication of pure lies in the paper of record,
posted by spitbull at 4:15 AM on June 13, 2013


To the barricades!

I mean, I think we already established that this was extremely exaggerated and embroidered and had a lot of made up content. This piece adds only more spleen-venting.
posted by Miko at 5:34 AM on June 13, 2013


I think Smith's piece is informative; I'm glad he dig up the actual facts. Any spleen he vents (frankly, I don't see much) is typical of an expert on a subject when it's been treated in a dumb way in the media.
posted by BibiRose at 6:47 AM on June 13, 2013


I think we already knew the salient fact: a lot of this was made up. But you're right, spleen is typical.

For me, personally, with all the issues I'm concerned about in world of contemporary newsgathering and reporting, this does not rise to the level of serious concern. The Times acknowledged it, the record of exposure stands. I'm not sure we'll see stricter standards for personal essays in the Magazine, or not. I see that neither On the Media nor CJR has mentioned the incident - I think their silence accords with my feeling that it's not that big a deal. Interesting? Sure. Like I said, it tripped my BS-meter too. But the end of Western journalism as we know it? Far from it. If anything it's an inconsistency in editorial standards and a lack of sufficient clarity for readers that these essays are not published as reportorial fact.
posted by Miko at 8:43 AM on June 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


Yeah, there was plenty of BS in Shannon's piece. And the fact-checkers, unfortunately, didn't catch it before the issue went to press. And Hugo Lindgren did himself no favors by getting defensive and spouting the "just his impressions" line before all the facts were in.

But...the Lives column, which publishes unsolicited 1st-person narratives, is not exactly 'The New York Times Magazine." And "The New York Times Magazine" is not "The New York Times."

A young memoirist made some shit up. And the filtering system that's mostly intended to catch unintentional errors by journalists didn't do well with fictionalizing-personal-experience stuff. And the EiC, standing up for that system, jumped the gun.

It's all rather embarrassing, totally.

But to go from that to "all journalism at the Times is suspect!" is, I think, just as hyperbolic as believing a routine equipment failure on a plane was a near-death experience. Talking about "pure lies in the paper of record" is a way of overdramatizing a fuck-up in a complicated system, and maybe a way of turning oneself into a kind of brave witness of that failure -- just like Shannon himself did.

It was icky when he did it, and it's icky here.
posted by neroli at 4:22 PM on June 13, 2013 [2 favorites]




Yay! He used my link to FlightAware!

Sounds like an appropriately contrite interview from Gallagher. He couldn't out and say "I was bullshitting like you would when telling tall stories at a pub.", after all.
posted by ambrosen at 3:52 PM on June 20, 2013


I think it's more likely that in the telling and re-telling of the event, his memory of it slowly was altered and he (mostly) wrote it as he remembered it. That's basically the fundamental truth of memory and why eyewitness testimony isn't very reliable.

A couple of years ago, I gathered together with my closest high school era friends and we did some reminiscing. One thing that came up was a pretty memorable event thirty years ago, this month. Two of us were both working as radio disc jockeys at the time. He, the night shift and me, the overnight. What I'm certain happened one night is that when I arrived at midnight and the five-minute hourly network news was playing, he took me to the back door of the station, opened it, pointed at the three radio towers (two for the AM station, one for the FM station), and said, "watch!", and reached over and pulled down this huge knife switch, turning off all the tower lights. He quickly turned them back on. He did it a few more times. I was horrified, he thought it was hilarious.

So, this night a few years ago, he brings this up. Except that, in his memory, it was me who played his role in this. Which, honestly, there's a lot of reckless things I did around then, including within the radio station I had all to myself every night, but turning off the radio tower lights would have seemed to me then, as it does now, as asking for the kind of trouble that isn't worth the risk. He pretty vigorously defended his version, up until the rest of our group basically told him that, yeah, that was much more like the kind of thing he'd have done and not me. Even though I also did crazy things. At that point, he was mystified but grudgingly accepted the possibility that he's totally misremembering it.

I mention this because although thirty years is a much longer time than two, it's also an event that was relatively memorable and, importantly, which of us played which role is the kind of thing one wouldn't expect anyone to become confused about (assuming we were sober, which we were). One of us has a very false memory, actually remembering himself as the other person. That's pretty stark. And I feel certain that whichever of us is wrong, it's because this is a story we both tell to other people, somehow the story changed at some point, and the memory as recreated every time we each tell the story is really all we know.

Oft-told personal anecdotes are very prone to this, and even more so when the story is unusual and interesting and therefore the temptation is large to heighten certain things and diminish others for the sake of telling a good story.

In the late nineties, I was in a plane that had a bomb threat and we had a sort of emergency landing at an intermediate airport (DFW). Emergency vehicles, distant runway, rushed off the plane (but not with the slide), ushered away and then driven to the terminal in a bus, the local media interviewing passengers. But basically all I remember now about what happened are the things that I've told when I've recounted this experience. My memory is the story and the story is the memory. Who knows how accurate that is.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 4:26 PM on June 20, 2013


Patrick Smith has seen the records.

I wonder—is that what Smith's blog said at the time you made that comment, spitbull?

I'm just catching up on the last couple weeks' worth of developments in this story.

I find it interesting that while we're all trying to pick apart the text of Shannon's story and separate the confirmable facts from the embellishments, many people smudge the textual evidence. I called out an example of this phenomenon in the original Ask Metafilter thread, where people were exaggerating a detail from Shannon's account much as he exaggerated the factual details of his experience. Now I'm seeing people including spitbull (above) and James Fallows (here) claim that, as Fallows puts it, "Patrick Smith, of Ask the Pilot, has seen maintenance records from the flight described." What Smith's updated blog entry actually says—as of my reading tonight—is this:
I received a letter from a person who was able to view the maintenance record of the aircraft involved. According to the information I was given, the pilots' post-flight logbook entry, which references a caution message displayed on a cockpit advisory screen of the Airbus A320, reads as follows:

"ECAM HYD Y RSVR LO LVL"
So, no, Patrick Smith has not seen the records. He has, according to his own account, seen secondhand "information" about the records, and he is careful to qualify his factual assertion ("according to the information I was given . . ."). I applaud him for that. But I wonder whether he originally claimed to have seen the records, without qualifying the claim; or whether the people saying he had seen the records were misremembering or inaccurately reporting what was published on Smith's blog at the time.
posted by Orinda at 9:21 PM on June 21, 2013


I looked at that link shortly after spitbull posted it, and it said the same thing you note, Orinda - he had not seen the records, he just mentioned someone else's having seen them. I thought about noting it in a comment then, but decided to let it ride. If it did change, it was between the 7:15 post on 6/13 and 8:34 when I first responded.
posted by Miko at 9:25 PM on June 21, 2013


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