Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Truth Comes In For a Crash Landing at The New York Times

Noah Gallagher Shannon Backpedals; Hugo Lindgren Keeps Wiping Egg From Face

It's the embellishment that won't go away.

You might remember that compelling Lives column in The New York Times magazine last month in which Noah Gallagher Shannon wrote about two hours worth of anxious moments when the flight he was on prepared for an emergency landing that might not have ended well.

It was a gripping read. Only problem: it didn't ring true with a lot of people. Which is a problem, as the Lives column is meant for nonfiction accounts. In other words, real things that happened in real life. And, yes, maybe a lot of people were caught up in the story initially to not ask, "Hey, how come I never heard about this?" That soon changed.

The man who has most been on the case trying to unspool this yarn has been the great James Fallows at The Atlantic. Last week he interviewed Shannon, who acknowledged he was not as fastidious as he should have been for an account that Fallows labels as "plainly false."

It was driven home to me that it was wrong to give the impression of certainty, of fact, and the things I was a little uncertain or hazy on, I should have qualified those observations, and I think that would have been the better journalistic thing to do--or done more background research. But I didn't at the time, and I have to apologize to the readers and The New York Times for that, and I take full responsibility.

That's a stand-up response and a better one than the B.S. first offered up by Times magazine editor Hugo Lindgren, who labeled the narrative a "personal experience of a fearful moment." Except, it appears, that fear trumped many of the facts surrounding what actually happened.

This is yet another example of how editors give more of a pass to memoirs than for other nonfiction. Too often, even when there is fact-checking, we are inclined to take the author at his word. That rabbit hole turned into a full-sized crater back in 2006, when James Frey fessed up that "A Million Little Pieces" was essentially a work of fiction. Even so, his editor Nan Talese foolishly defended the genre by insisting a memoir was an author's impression of how something happened. And if it never happened? Not a problem, so long as there was an impression that it had occurred. It was a lame explanation then, and Lindgren's variation also comes up short.

Even the Times realizes this, as public editor Margaret Sullivan pointed out yesterday. "The Times needs to stand for truth, not truthiness – yes, even in a memoir-style feature article in the magazine."

She later added: "I have reason to believe that in the next day or so, Mr. Lindgren may amplify his current note to readers ... It would be a good move — as would linking to that blog post from the online version of the original article, which is not the case now. A straight-up acknowledgement of the factual problems of this article is the only way out of this."

No comments: