When I first read Noah Gallagher Shannon’s New York Times Magazine “Lives” essay, “The Plane Was About to Crash, Now What?” I sniffed a very obvious aroma of B.S. A first person account of an “emergency” landing due to a “failure of the landing gear,” Shannon’s essay is larded with too-good-to-be-true details, including this passage about the plane’s captain addressing the passengers:
The captain came out of the cockpit and stood in the aisle. His cap dangled in one hand. “All electricity will remain off,” he said. Something about an open current and preventing a cabin fire. Confused noises spread through the cabin, but no one said a word. “I’ll yell the rest of my commands from the cockpit.” I could see sweat stains under his arms. “Not going to sugarcoat it,” he said. “We’re just going to try to land it.”
I’m not sure which detail smelled the worst to me. It might’ve been the sweat stains, though that’s probably trumped in the competition for least likely to have actually happened by that dangling cap, an item pilots stow the moment they step on the plane.
Noah Gallagher Shannon’s plane was in trouble and a cliché showed up to goose the narrative along. Logically, there is no rationale for a pilot to behave this way, unless the pilot’s goal is to freak out his passengers as much as possible prior to engaging in an emergency landing.
There are other, if not red, let’s say pink flags throughout the piece. I encourage you to read it for yourself.
I wasn’t the only one questioning the story. The media observer Jim Romenesko noted that both Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten and readers at Metafilter had some concerns.
Weingarten zeroed in on some of the things that bothered me, the too-good-to-be-true details: “The pilot's speech to the passengers is wildly dramatic and, to my ears, wildly improbable. Pilots in crisis are famously soothing and under-emotional. (I do like the pit stains. Nice detail!) I spoke with an FAA official who told me that the pilot's terse, scary speech "sounds unlikely." Also, that killing the electricity for a landing gear problem seemed inappropriate.”
The Metafilter readers questioned many of the technical details regarding the plane’s operations.
The journalist James Fallows next picked up the thread in a blog post, “Could the NYT Mag ‘My Plane Almost Crashed’ Story Actually Be True?” An experienced pilot, Fallows questioned almost all of the details regarding the flight’s operation and procedures.
Fallows, who commands about as much industry respect as possible, in short order received a response from Hugo Lindgren, editor of the NYT Magazine. Lindgren confirms the basic facts of Noah Gallagher Shannon’s experience, that he was on a Frontier Airlines flight that was diverted to Philadelphia and made an emergency landing.
I was more interested in what Lindgren has to say later in the response. I want to quote it at length:
Did the author's personal recollection represent an accurate picture of what he experienced on that flight? Well, only he can attest to his own experience. But the author did provide receipts and took notes after the flight to back up his account. And his recollection, when run by an aviation specialist, did seem entirely plausible to him. While some of the author's language may have been imprecise, his recollection of his experience was consistent with recollections of passengers in similar air incidents. Naturally, not every detail matches everybody else's experience. Surely even people on that plane would remember it differently. The story was about the personal experience of a fearful moment. The author did not present himself as an authority in airline technology or emergency procedures. The airline, in fact, refused his request for more information about what happened after the fact. He only reported what he heard and felt, which is consistent with the magazine's Lives page, where the account was published.
Maybe I’m reading between the lines here, but I believe a fair translation of Lindgren’s statement may be: Yeah, he might have embellished somewhere between a little and a lot, but we have no way of knowing, and hey! He was on the plane!
I actually respect Lindgren’s careful parsing. Part of an editor’s job is to – within reason – defend his writers, and as editor, it was ultimately Lindgren’s decision to publish the essay. Rather than throw Noah Gallagher Shannon under the bus, Lindgren managed to respond to the allegations in a way that (sort of) clears things up.
In general, no harm no foul. We can all move on, except that I can’t quite shake this incident. I was interested in parts of the responses from Gene Weingarten and James Fallows -- two writers who are, no exaggeration, heroes to me. They are my betters in every sense of the word, but I have to take issue about one, not-small-to-me thing.
Weingarten called the essay “well-written.” (Though he goes on to demolish Shannon’s work, saying of the essay, “I do know it should not have been in print in this fashion.”)
Fallows in his final post on the issue said, “Noah Gallagher Shannon is clearly a very talented young writer -- no one would have wondered about the story if it hadn't been so grippingly told.”
I don’t mean to be mean to Noah Gallagher Shannon, but his essay is not well-written, and if it is gripping, the only reason is because it serves up highly palatable, but indisputably hacky descriptions that substitute for what was likely a much more interesting and complicated experience.
Shannon’s – let’s call them embellishments – seek to serve his experience on a silver platter for his audience. He’s signaling the things we already “know,” making sure that we "get" it, but in the process, he sands away any complexity and ambiguity. His mission should be an attempt to tell a "truth." Instead, he opted for entertainment.
All I can think is how much more interesting it would be for Noah Gallagher Shannon to write from his now knowing perspective (he was never in any danger) about what he truly felt in those moments he thought he was in danger. Maybe his mind was a blank. Maybe he didn’t notice the cute girl crying. Maybe there was no cute girl. Maybe part of his very real terror was in not knowing anything about what was going on around him.
That would be illuminating, and it wouldn't be so cheap, so easy.
I believe this stuff matters. As a category of sin it's no different from Mike Daisy's "elaborations" regarding his time at the Foxconn factory in China, or James Frey "embellishing" his experiences with addiction.
The result is to draw the spotlight closer to the subject, to glorify the author, and further from what really happened.
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. As Gene Weingarten says, "I do know it should not have been in print in this fashion, and that's what makes me angry."
The essay reads to me like it was written by someone who very much wanted to be published and receive attention, and he might not have cared about the means as long as he achieved the ends.
I found out about the other people questioning this essay because I follow Jim Romenesko on Twitter.