Ben’s free flights and journalism ethics


Bomb clip art by Arvin61r58

Interviews are minefields for sources. And the resulting articles? Almost too fickle and frightening to contemplate. At least that’s the view taken by the subject of a Rolling Stone feature who I’ve been reading about lately.

Ben Schlappig’s reaction to major media attention shows the one-two punch of trepidation and surprise that only a savvy source can experience. He describes being cautious taking part in the reporting process for Ben Wofford’s piece, and expecting to emerge either more flattered than he expected or woefully disappointed at the portrayal. The maelstrom of coverage—most of it piggybacking on the RS coverage (see here, here, here, and here)—also got me thinking about journalism ethics.

In the magazine story, the reader meets Schlappig in first class. Here’s the scene with this master of frequent flyer miles,  (feel free to play Spot the Sexual Innuendos):

Inside Cathay Pacific Flight 807 bound for Hong Kong, he’s passing out a couple of hundred dollars’ worth of designer chocolates to a small swarm of giggling flight attendants. The six suites in this leather-bound playpen of faux mahogany and fresh-cut flowers comprise the inner sanctum of commercial flight that few ever witness…. On this trip, his fans will witness Schlappig’s latest mission: a weekend jaunt that will slingshoot him across East Asia — Hong Kong, Jakarta, Tokyo — and back to New York, in 69 hours.

Much of this, the subject says in a response to the feature story, is wrong. What exactly fell askew? Let me start with my current theory about covering sources. It posits that three things can make an interview spark or sputter:

  • Accuracy of facts and quotations
  • Depiction of the big picture
  • Integrity of the angle

According to Schlappig, the writing fell short on all three.  The chocolate, he writes, wasn’t quite worth that much, and the author takes the largesse out of context by failing to mention this was Valentine’s Day. Overall, the article takes the angle that Schlappig revels in gaming the miles reward systems and manages to fly around the world for free. If the article spouts inaccurate facts, shines its spotlight selectively, and takes an angle that oversimplifies reality… well, it’s not doing too well against my ethics metric.

Some of the complaints don’t add up, though. I’m surprised Schlappig writes that the journalist promised he could look at a draft. That’s a rare measure for a writer to take, and often frowned upon. In fact, one of my editors lays out in the contributor guidelines that we are not to do that–ever. I would love to have been a fly on the wall (or inbox?) for that conversation between writer and profilee.

Then there’s the matter of the “Ben flies for free” idea. Schlappig writes that people have been contacting him, eager to learn his free-flying ways. The idea that he gets all of this stuff gratis, with little effort, seems to spawn more from the headline than anything else. I suspect the author himself didn’t have much to do with writing the title–which took on a life of its own on social media.

When I read the article, the massive effort Schlappig’s hobby requires smacked me square in the reading glasses. If you read even a few paragraphs into Wofford’s story or other coverage, it’s hard to miss that this takes WORK. The writer explains that Schlappig has been at this since he was a young teen, and suggests that he took to it with a passion fueled by a deep childhood trauma. The hobbyists must constantly learn about credit card loopholes and airline policies, and then muster energy and ingenuity to make the systems work for them. The hobbyist also has to fly… and fly and fly… and then maybe stay in a luxury hotel for a night, and then fly some more.

The people who’ve written to Schlappig asking how he flies around the world for free might as well ask a first-chair violist how he got to Carnegie Hall, or an air traffic controller how she leads such a carefree life.

This has led to some good stories, no doubt. Even some tips for the typical A to B flyer. But also lots of confusion, disappointment, extra attention, and work.

However, another story reminded me that the interview and writing process isn’t always fraught. Last week, a more local celebrity posted on Facebook about her own experience in the spotlight. Unsure of how the piece might come out following her interview with a journalist, she was delighted with the result. The story, she wrote, came out “spot on.” So not all surprises explode.

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What I’m Consuming: Rosé wine

A glass held at a slant being filled with rose wine

A glass of rosé by Samantha from Scotland, via Wikimedia Commons

Reading is fun, but so is drinking wine. So to mix up my What I’m Consuming series, I’m going to talk about rosé.

According to a wine expert I just interviewed for an article, rosé is a great go-to wine for summer.

Wait, you may be saying. Isn’t that what ’80s housewives lounging by their California pools drink?

Nope, you’re thinking of white zinfandel.  Which is different, and to which you have sommeliers’ permission to turn up your nose. There are apparently several other things you should know about rosé, which include that it’s not a mixture of red and white wines (rather, it’s a wine where the grape skins have had a limited amount of time to macerate in the grape juice). It’s also good with barbecue. I’ll be trying it with a white bean panzanella.

So I picked up a Chateau Montaud Cotes de Provence rosé, which clocked in at $12 and seemed like a good entry-level pink wine.

But you don’t have to worry about brands. Just know that I, via my actually knowledgeable source, recommend it. Grab a bottle, pop it in your fridge, take it back out to warm up a bit to the right temperature, and consume a chilled sip of summer.

Cheers and Shabbat shalom!

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Screenings and a panel in New York


…and in other news…

Originally posted on The Videofreex:

It’s been an active month for the Videofreex. Building on a successful debut in North Carolina, “Here Come the Videofreex” made the rounds in New York last week. In between showings in Brooklyn and Rosendale, the Brooklyn Museum hosted the screening and discussion Videofreex and Feminism: “Bumps on a Level Playing Field”.

I attended the Rosendale Theatre screening, seeing the final cut of the film for the first time. I couldn’t have been more proud of what this energetic band accomplished, or of filmmakers Jon Nealon and Jenny Raskin, who spent a decade on the movie. Naturally, we received the royal treatment.

Red Rosendale Theatre seats with signs taped to them: Seats in the first rows of the Rosendale Theatre await the Videofreex and guests. The signs read “RESERVED FOR FREEX.”

Jon conjured the…

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Publication: The DC garden boom in Civil Eats

Screen shot 2015-06-30 at 10.55.44 AM

I have a piece in the fine publication Civil Eats! I’m proud to bring news of DC’s urban agriculture boom to a national audience.

Check it out: An Urban Farming Renaissance in Our Nation’s Capital


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Dispatch from the New Paltz Peace Park

Mom walks across the Peace Park bridge with her red umbrella.

Mom walks across the Peace Park bridge with her red umbrella.

Peace feels so far away. On June 17, a gunman killed nine people in Charleston, SC. I can’t imagine sitting in a place of worship and experiencing that violence from a stranger. I can’t fathom the kind of hatred that leads to sitting among people you don’t know, then ending their lives.  It shows privilege and a blindness that I’m so shocked.

Last Sunday, the community remembered them together.


The sculpture in the New Paltz Peace Park

The sculpture in the New Paltz Peace Park was created by an artist in our sister city in Japan.

I just spent a week in New Paltz, NY, a liberal college town with a Peace Park across from the Village Hall. On one boarder is the street where I parallel parked my mom’s white Honda Civic hatchback to earn my license (on the second try) almost two decades ago. I recognize the new mayor’s smile–his mother taught me calculus. At the culmination of each Memorial Day parade, our marching band stood a few yards from this park. Every year, it seems, at least one of our ranks passed out from the heat under those ridiculous hats that resembled oversized Q Tips.  There, men brandished guns for ceremony.

We have our demons of prejudice and ignorance here. We have our moments and movements of love. Peace lives here, too.

Red and white sign reads: New Paltz Peace Park. Dedicated: April 23, 1994

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Publication: Pressure Point Therapy in O

Oprah magazine July 2015

Look who’s in the July issue of O the Oprah Magazine!  In the A-Z guide to relaxation for the busy woman, I explain (veeeery briefly) how P is for pressure point therapy. Check out page 104.

It was a pleasure to work with editors Elyse Moody and Molly Simms on this, and to draw on the expertise of Cat Matlock.


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What I’m Consuming: Home Fires Burning by Karen Houppert

Book cover: Home Fires Burning It seems fitting to finish Home Fires Burning: Married to the Military–for Better or Worse on Memorial Day.  And that’s what I did. Considering my last What I’m Consuming post* was a while ago, I’m also due for another one. So here it goes.   What it is and why it’s here This is a book of nonfiction by a writer I respect, who spends years researching her books.** She is also the daughter of a U.S. Air Force pilot. Home Fires Burning weaves together portraits of, as Houppert puts it, “women who straddle the military world–one foot on post, one foot in the civilian sector.” Most of the interviews took place on an army base in New York. But each personal story reifies a larger narrative–about war widows, domestic violence, the economics of military jobs, political dissent. Though Houppert is a seasoned journalist, the picture she paints is far from neutral. The book takes a critical angle on military practices, especially when it comes to spouses and children of the enlisted. The stories highlight hypocrisy on the bases and in the military in general. Continue reading

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