Ben’s free flights and journalism ethics

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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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