Was It Real for You, Too? – New York Times
NYT op-ed piece relates what happens when a near-emergency on a flight turns into fodder for reality TV
Flight 1004 made its careful descent. Later, a Southwest official would explain to me that after takeoff, the control stick in the cockpit had begun to shake violently – the universal warning to pilots that a plane is about to stall. To the captain, the jetliner seemed to be flying fine. But the shaking stick would not stop. We had reversed our course; it would turn out that an angle-of-attack measurement vane on the exterior of the plane had broken, and the pilots were receiving a false indication of the impending stall. But neither the crew nor the passengers knew that at the time.
We landed, to the audible relief of those on board, pulled up to the gate, and – before the captain could tell us what had gone wrong – four people entered through a jetway. One held a television camera; another began handing out release-permission forms.
The captain – referring to the camera crew – told us: ‘They’re ours.’
The television people were from an entertainment series called ‘Airline,’ which runs on the A&E cable network. The program is one of the many so-called reality shows – nonfiction. Highly stylized, accompanied by a soundtrack of guitars and percussion instruments, ‘Airline’ weaves in and out of several stories at Southwest Airlines each week.
Five minutes earlier, we had been holding our breaths. Now the camera was rolling; as the captain stood in the aisle and explained to us about the aborted flight, the lens pointed over his shoulder, catching our expressions.
We had already become a plot point – it had happened just that swiftly. The realness of the trepidation we had felt in the air had seamlessly been turned into reality, that parallel but separate new state. The clammy uncertainty that had filled the plane was even now being packaged as entertainment, with a beginning, a middle and an end.
We hadn’t been given permission to stand up yet, and no one had aspired to be a part of this, but the production had commenced. It felt oddly familiar, and it was, because permutations of it have been around us for a while now: 911-call audiotapes with the anguished sounds of people in the worst moments of their lives, their recorded voices involuntarily played on TV and radio for the divertissement of strangers; surveillance videotapes from brutal convenience store robberies and shootings, routinely televised for all to watch; children being beaten by school-bus bullies, caught on video, broadcast nationwide if the images are gripping enough. Life as a carnival sideshow.