Story Before Facts: Steven Slater's Media Rise and Fall

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It was a scene that could have come from the 1993 Michael Douglas film Falling Down. An ordinary man who follows the rules and does his best is continually harassed and abused. He is irritated by everyday annoyances, ignored and bullied until finally one day he’s had enough. The final straw is placed on his back and he just snaps, lashing out at his antagonists and the uncaring world around him, walking away and going home.

That’s what happened on Monday to JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater, who walked off the job (and off the airplane) after being abused by rude passengers. After a difficult flight with obnoxious customers, he cursed at them, grabbed a beer, deployed the emergency slide, and headed home. He was arrested soon afterward and soon became a cause celebre.

Americans love the underdog, the beaten-down working stiff who lashes out; it was a great story, and the news media ran with it. Some outlets called him a hero; a Facebook fan page sprang up overnight with hundreds of people offering their support and congratulations. A headline in the New York Daily News read: “Take this job and shove it! JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater does what we all dream of doing.”

Journalists sought out interviews with psychologists, asking them to explain Slater’s behavior. What inner demons might have driven him to his radical act of workplace rebellion? Could any of us snap like that? What turns an otherwise polite, sane, sober man into an out of control bundle of fury?

Yet, as often happens, the story got ahead of the facts.

It seems that the story that Slater told—as parroted mostly uncritically by the media—was a lie. Passengers and police reports suggest that it was Slater—not any unruly or rude passengers—who started the altercation. Slater was the one who was being uncooperative and difficult, and may in fact have been drinking on the job.

Of course, the truth makes a much less interesting story. If Slater was drunk then we don’t need psychologists and other experts to bloviate on camera about what makes a man snap. Furthermore, if the allegations of drinking are true, Slater could have endangered the passengers’ safety. If some emergency should arise, flight attendants must have their wits about them to guide passengers to safety, not be cranky and three sheets to the wind.

The nmedia was so busy rushing to explain Slater’s behavior as a psychological issue that they neglected to look into the more likely causes of his behavior. The news media’s rush to be first with the story often comes at the expense of accuracy, and the earliest news reports are invariably the least factual. As this case shows, any analysis based upon those tentative facts are often little more than idle speculation, and it’s often best to wait for the facts.

Image: AP Photo/Louis Lanzano