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ON THE SCENE: An airplane theory story

August 18, 2017
By NAJ WIKOFF , Lake Placid News

"If it bleeds, it leads" is a phrase often used by the media as a means of indicating placement priority for stories.

This phrase illustrates fear-based reporting and is used to grab attention by praying on our anxieties to cause the reader to tune in or purchase a paper with a sensational headline. As media makes money primarily through ads and viewership levels, and now with so many media outlets competing for audience, media increasingly leans toward the spectacular.

Another phrase, not as common, was introduced by Pulitzer-prize winning journalist William Finnegan, a staff reporter for the New Yorker, to those gathered on the third floor of the Lake Placid Conference Center on Saturday, Aug. 12 for the Lake Placid Institute's final Adirondack Roundtable.

Article Photos

Doug March, Paul Smith’s College President Cathy Dove and William (Bill) Finnegan
(Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

The phrase was "the airplane theory of a story," given to him by his editor John Bennet. It refers to a writer, being sent on an assignment and having researched the situation and players of the event he or she has been asked to report on, who writes the basic outline of the story while en route (on an airplane). Upon arrival, the reporter then looks for the facts, quotes and activities that confirm their pre-conceived story line.

Finnegan has been writing for the New Yorker since 1984, joining the staff in 1987. A winner of an array of prestigious prizes for his articles covering events in such diverse places as Africa, Central and South America, Europe, the Balkans, Australia and the United States, his Pulitzer wasn't for journalism, as one might expect, but his autobiography, "Barbarian Days: Surfing Life." He seemed somewhat chagrined when saying this book had sold more copies than all his other books combined.

Finnegan described four assignments and how his editor's caution to be careful of writing a preconceived airplane theory did him well. Once on the ground, he discovered that the true story was at times radically different than was being reported in the media and his research led him to expect. The kicker for him was, when writing "Barbarian Days," being required by his British editor to check the facts of his memory with others. He discovered that his own life was not exactly how he remembered it. In some cases, the truth was the opposite of the narrative he told himself and other for some decades.

"My challenge is how to scuttle my airplane theory of the story," said Finnegan. "It's the version of a story that a writer envisions while flying to a reporting. At some point, maybe after having a couple of drinks, you see the story as a whole, the theme, the characters, the narrative, and maybe even the structure of the piece. You reel off the plane in Louisiana, Guatemala or wherever all ready to find what you decided is there to be found. All you have to do is flesh out this wonderful theory you developed. The test of a good reporter is how quickly he or she can abandon their story when the facts on the ground fail to support it as they eventually do."

He told how his preconceived ideas could be shaped by the news coverage using Somalia post-Black Hawk Down as his first illustration. Somalia had no national government, the U.N. was pulling out, and armed forces led by the U.S. had been unable to establish a transition government despite having spent billions of dollars in the attempt. About a dozen reporters made it into the capital Mogadishu and were covering the disastrous U.N. withdrawal. The story line was about all the chaos and anarchy throughout the country, and that the people were doomed and on their own.

As Finnegan doesn't do "news," he wasn't interested in covering the U.N. pullout and as a consequence soon realized he had the rest of the country to himself. All the other reporters along with the U.N. and U.S. military leadership had written the country off and were focusing on the withdrawal.

"I realized that there were endless stories out there. All sorts of things were going on," said Finnegan. "I learned that not only was Somalia not moribund, but rather it was thriving. Certainly, bustling and not starving. It wasn't easy to see how that could be. There we no conventional information sources to go to, no ministries, no universities, no financial centers, no anything else - no government. No government spokespeople. No post offices. No banks. No numbers to be had on import-export production."

He said he could see ships coming and going in and out of the ports, but that he could not find out who was filling them, or where they were coming from or going to. He noticed that newspapers were being published, which gave him a place to start. The quality of the paper and layout was not great, not what we are used to, but they were coming out on a regular basis and available throughout the city and surrounding communities, so he started by tracking down the reporters and publishers.

"I made my way to one of the more popular papers titled, Well Informed But Discreet," said Finnegan. "The editor turned out to be a very interesting guy who worked out of his own house. I spent a lot of time with him. From there I started traveling around and putting together an understanding of how Mogadishu and Somalia were actually working. I discovered what the structures were that had risen in the absence of government to regulate political and social life. Most of those structures derived from traditional Somali clan society, but others such the rudimentary courts and police force were Islamic. Some of the structures were Western. Fundamentally, the whole post-colonial structures had melted away leaving a series of city states."

Finnegan went on to say his challenge was which of the many fascinating fact-based stories he was now witnessing to tell. Doing so, he did not use any of his preconceived descriptors such as lawlessness, anarchy and chaos. The realization is that if we stay isolated in our silos, in our safe group of friends who read the same articles, get our news from the same sources, and spend time with people who think and do like us we will develop and act upon preconceived stories about how others think and live.

How many of us have gone to and connected with the people who attend and exhibit at the Essex County Fair, or serve as chambermaids and cleaning staff of our hotels and restaurants, come from other countries to pick our fruit, attend a different church, or vote for the other parties? Imagine how much more we could accomplish if we opened ourselves to hearing other people's concerns and needs, they did the same, and we then worked towards the common good.

"I was so impressed with Finnegan's intellectual honesty," said Rob McDougal. "We all have preconceived notions as a result what we watch, what we read, and who are our friends. We do live in a narrow spectrum. I applaud Finnegan for going outside that and letting the facts lead him to what's really there."

"He was inspiring and amazing," said Cathy Dove, president of Paul Smith's College. "I love the airplane theory and the importance of going after the set of facts that aren't always obvious."



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