I was practically falling over myself with a combination of glee and envy last week when I heard the story about Steven Slater’s epic resignation. As everyone knows by now, he’s the JetBlue flight attendant who supposedly took an inordinate amount of abuse from an irate passenger until he reached what I call his customer-service shelf life. This is the point at which you know you can’t do this job one moment longer. Most service-industry folks have one. Mine came after 10 years of waitressing when a customer berated me for serving him steak-cut fries instead of the curly fries we’d run out of. I fantasized about dumping the fries in his lap and squirting a tub of ketchup in his face before walking out the door for good. Instead, I let him belittle me for an entire evening, cried on the drive home and promptly gave my two-week notice the old-fashioned way.
Unlike me, Slater didn’t just daydream a magnificent exit with an expletive-filled PSA and a slide down the plane’s inflatable emergency chute. He went right ahead and lived it.
And I went right ahead and signed on as the 61,403rd supporter of his Facebook page. By last Thursday night, his fan tally hovered at 200,000, but as much as I liked the suggestion by another fan that “White Castle should rename their sliders ‘Slaters,’” that number no longer included me.
After reading a short blurb titled “Is Steven Slater a Hoax, Too?” on Slate (slate.com), I fought back my inner Howard Beale and the companion urge to pour my bourbon directly into my keyboard—I didn’t need another trip to the Genius Bar, so instead of punishing my information source, I begrudgingly clicked “unlike.”
After the initial story spread like Rod Stewart’s seed, The Wall Street Journal and CBS News did this antiquated thing called “vetting,” in which reporters check out the “facts” of a story—usually done before publication—and, wouldn’t you know it, there are witnesses who contradict Slater’s version. How much Slater will be discredited by the time this goes to press, I can only surmise. But even at this juncture, I could hardly be more disappointed if my kid were to become a Christian fundamentalist and take up golf.
For me, it isn’t just the possibility that this particular story has a less vicariously liberating side than initially portrayed, though that is certainly a knife to my left lung. I so love to see the little guy win, and it really sucks when the little guy turns out to be a cheat. But it’s the cumulative effect of these Boy-Who-Cried- Wolf incidents that leaves me hollow.
The revelation that the Slater story might be more than it appeared was immediately preceded by the uncovering of a similar hoax perpetrated by The Chive (thechive.com), in which a young woman named “Jenny” quits her job via dry-erase board, displayed in a series of photos. I didn’t find the Jenny joke compelling because I was too engrossed in the more organic, slapstick victory of Mr. Slater. But I fell for Balloon Boy in a big way. I watched from my office that day, horrified and near tears. It was just like watching a late-night Sally Struthers commercial for starving children: I knew I should turn it off, but I couldn’t. I just kept imagining it was my child in that silver, Mylar balloon contraption, spinning and hurtling across a blue sky. I very nearly sent those wicked people a donation.
And, of course, we know our government agencies aren’t impervious to such reporting shenanigans. The Department of Agriculture didn’t waste any time validating an out-of-context video clip of employee Shirley Sherrod making what appeared to be racist comments. They just took the carefully edited clip posted to the Interwebs by a right-wing blogger as empirical evidence that Sherrod needed to go. So bumbling was the reaction to the offending snippet that it made me long for the Bush administration. They would never have fired anyone based on a lie, and there’s plenty of proof of that.
I’m beginning to think we’re a society of Patsies; there’s too many gullible Charlie Browns. So much false information is dressed up to look like truth, and when we so richly reward the lowest common denominator (hi, Snookie!), why look any deeper? Why aim any higher? We live in an era of an ever-changing media clamoring to get the story first, instead of clamoring to get a story right. Our worldview is so defined by Photoshop and blogger pundits and the entertainment-izing of news programs that strive to keep our attention and feed our insatiable appetite for drama that it’s tough to decipher the presented reality from truth.
No matter where the fault lies, there’s something especially disappointing in the knowledge that Steven Slater may have acted disingenuously. Because what he did—or rather, the original story of it—was an unleashing of something primal that many of us suppress day after day as we go through the motion of our lives. We are reamed daily at our jobs, and by politicians, and church leaders, and bankers and by the airline industry, too. We are assaulted from every angle, and most of us put our heads down and muscle through because we can’t afford to blow. There’s just too much to lose.
But there is a deep satisfaction in knowing someone is ballsy enough to risk it all, a celebration in seeing a small part of yourself reflected in that defiant stick-it-to-the-man act. With his outburst, Slater offered a sense of vindication to those of us who only dream about doing it. His act offered a sense of attaboy! possibility. That he may have orchestrated the whole thing is deeply disheartening and leads me to think Jersey Shore might be a more accurate depiction of who we really are.