Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Vanity Fair and the Cowardly, Fatuous Mr. Langewiesche (Part I)

Being attacked in the Vanity Fair magazine is a little like being assaulted by a parakeet. You wonder what got this ridiculous feathery turquoise thing in a flap, and who let it out of its cage to begin with.

A couple of months ago, Vanity Fair ran an article by the invincibly fatuous William Langewiesche about the horrific Brazil midair collision over the Amazon in late 2006 that killed 154, and in which I was one of the seven survivors.

Langewiesche did some decent reporting in the Amazon, but it was his depiction of events on the Legacy business jet that caught my grave attention, since 1. He wasn't there and 2. He didn't try to contact those who were there, like me.

Oh, but he had a grand time with his "it would seem's" and "one could assume's," reconstructing the horrible scene on the Legacy that collided with a Brazilian Boeing 737 at 37,000 feet, killing all 154 on the bigger jet.

In his zeal to construct narrative, this Langewiesche assigned motives to me, impugned my professionalism, put words in my mouth. He made several serious errors. He also implied in several instances, and overtly stated in one instance, that my presence on the jet had presented a possible distraction to the pilots, and may have contributed to the crash. Not only was that statement profoundly asinine, it was arguably actionable.

As I said, Langewiesche never had the basic courage to try to contact me. How does this character defend that? I spoke with one of his editors, and he wouldn't discuss it. As any reporter knows, this is a craven act. And any editor who lets a reporter get by without attempting to contact someone who appears in a story in a negative light, that editor is a base coward. There are commandments about how one behaves in journalism, and this is near the top.

Why was Langewiesche afraid to call me, having spent all of that Vanity Fair dough, having spent all of that time on this article, knowing full well that I have been openly discussing and writing about this disaster from the moment I got home from Brazil?

Hell, I was all over the media talking about this. My blogs accusing the Brazilians of scapegoating the two American pilots got me sued in Brazil for "defaming the nation."

(I have been the only survivor free to talk and write about this, because the other six, including the two pilots, were employees either of the charter company that had just purchased the jet in Brazil, or of the Brazilian manufacturer, Embraer, and thus they were involved in lawsuits over the crash, and in the pilots' case in criminal charges that are still in place.)

Instead, Langewiesche just sort of ... well, friends, he piped it, aided by a nearly year-old transcript of the cockpit voice recorders that Vanity Fair and ABC Nightline, which helped to promote the Langewiesche story (and tried to get me to appear on its show promoting that story without disclosing that it was working with Vanity Fair), ridiculously touted as an "exclusive." Vanity Fair got a lot of protests for exploiting the horror scene on the 737 by running on its web site the audio from the doomed plane as it went down. Evidently it is possible to shame even Vanity Fair, which removed that audio from its site.)

By the way, this is not the first time Langewiesche has been accused of cravenly employing various journalistically disreputable "literary" techniques to grease his precious "narrative."

In a book he wrote about the cleanup at the World Trade Center after 9/11, he accused some New York firefighters of looting a jeans store during the disaster, without presenting what you and I might call evidence.There are a couple hundred New York City firefighters and their relatives who would love to have a word with him about those precious narrative techniques.

More on that later, when I also will offer a little extra insight from a wonderfully illuminating and worshipful profile of Langewiesche that appeared in "Christianity Today," in which Langewiesche pretentiously expounds on his "narrative" technique and its tenuous relationship with common fact, when said fact might be inconvenient in a literary sense.

Big disclosure problem: Langesiweche is himself an airy-let-me-fly-my-little-plane-anytime-I-want private pilot. That is an avocation he didn't disclose in the part of the Vanity Fair article where he goes to some length to denounce private aviation as an abomination.

Also, Langewiesche's ancient father wrote a justifiably famous book about how to fly an airplane -- but the elder Langewieschwe also worked in the business-aviation industry -- the very industry that the son denounces with righteousness, righteousness being the substitute for courage.

After some negotiating, Vanity Fair ran my letter in which I objected to the Langewiesche article in the previous month's issue, along with a curiously legalistic editors' note that carefully suggested that no one with any sense could possibly infer from the Langewiesche article what it clearly said, and what I was clearly objecting to, in the letter printed just above said editors' note. But I thought that was the end to it.

Silly me!

Now there's another letter in this month's issue, this from one Wilson S. Leach, the aggrieved proprietor of the company that publishes the Business Jet Traveler magazine, which, as Leach noted, Langewiesche had stated could be considered complicit in the disaster "for wanting to ride along." (Meaning: Me.)

Leach allows as how it was otherwise a great article, but he wants to make sure everybody knows that I wasn't his representative on that airplane. Which is absolutely true, as we all know. That mistake wasn't the main journalistic problem, as I saw it. The real problem was stating that blame was shared by me for a horrible disaster.


The new Legacy plane had 13 seats, meaning nine were empty till I agreed to hitchhike home on one. It was a non-revenue delivery flight back to the U.S. The ExcelAir representatives invited me to ride back with them just so I could see how their new-plane delivery process worked and learn a little about the company. On the plane, the seven of us were just working stiffs.

But trust me, when that plane collided with that 737 seven miles above the deepest
Amazon, and as we survivors spent the next 25 minutes fully expecting to die before the pilots slammed it down on a runway that appeared unexpectedly in the jungle, the last thing I was thinking was, wow, I can't wait to get this story into the Business Jet Traveler magazine!

The story ran on the front page of the New York Times, where it belonged. At greater length, it later ran in the Sunday magazine of the Times of London.

In all of this huffing and puffing over that disgraceful Langewiesche article in Vanity Fair (and every journalist I know says it was a disgrace), it seems to me that something got lost, once one absorbs (as I personally am still haunted by every single day) the fact that in a freak accident, seven people inexplicably lived while 154 (inexplicably) died. I think about that every day,

Beyond that, and speaking now to this Langewiesche article: Who, exactly, was injured by its malice and error?

Oh, right: The guy who actually covered the story honestly and (as subsequent events would show) with courage ...


1 comment:

ChefNick said...


I simply can't conceive of the circles in which you travel -- it simply boggles the mind. The simple fact that you go to bed each night remembering that fateful day alone boggles the mind.

I was once on a Pan Am 747 from Heathrow to New York when I was somewhat younger and one hour out they turned the whole goddamn plane around and went back to Heathrow. Go figure. But they said "Hydraulics" and even at that tender age my skin crawled.

Then I was on an A-340 from KIX to YVR that actually aborted takeoff midway and blew all its tires doing it, but Jesus W. Christ Jr., it doesn't hold a candle to what happened to you.

I was following your story from the second it happened (I'm an airline brat, I happen to do these things) but it's an appalling one, and people who purport to write for major magazines, (plus the magazines themselves) should account for any bullshit in a case like this.

Jesus fucking christ (sorry, French is not my forte). As if they could layer any more bullshit on your conscience.

You were a) not the PF (Pilot Flying) and PNF (Pilot Not Flying), nor were you ATC or ANY OTHER ACRONYM other than Jerk6B (passenger in 6B).


Go for it. Nail the asshole. Make him go to sleep with your memories if you can possibly do it. Work on that!

He derseves it; YOU DON'T.