Thursday, October 12, 2006

Airline crew gossip about celebrities goes viral!

And now for something completely different...

This is a story of viral journalism -- the news media analogue of viral marketing -- whereby stories are spread via a self-replicating process around the Internet. Only in this instance, it is viral journalism run amok.

As best I can tell, the story I am about to relate began on October 1, 2006. On that date, the New York Times published an article in its Travel section -- A New Kind of Dish Is Served by Flight Crews, by Jennifer Conlin. The 'dish' that the title of Ms. Conlin's article refers to has nothing to do with meal service; rather, it's the figurative kind of 'dish,' otherwise known as gossip.

The article begins:
Ever wonder what the cabin crews on planes think of the passengers they serve? If you want to find out, log onto, a Web site "connecting crew members worldwide," where flight attendants (or FA's) spout off on everything from the best and worst uniforms (British Airways is the big winner and easyJet's orange shirts are universally hated) to their least favorite passengers (mothers with badly behaved children, especially those who let "junior hit the FA button.")
The article goes on to relate tidbits that airline crew members had posted about their in-flight encounters with celebrities, "from the pope to Prince Andrew."

The article's mention of caught my eye immediately. I know this online forum well, because I have been a regular participant there for the past three years. I knew exactly which thread had supplied most of the material for Ms.Conlin's article.

The title of that thread is Celebrity Sightings. One of the longer-running threads on the forum, it was begun on April 24, 2001. The first line in the first post of the thread asks, simply, "Anyone have good (or bad) on-board experiences dealing with celebrities?" By the time Jennifer Conlin found the thread and wrote about it in the New York Times, it had more than 120 posts, many of which mentioned whole lists of encounters with the famous.

For whatever reason, we all know that people love to read celebrity gossip. Thus, it's not at all surprising that the New York Times article caught the eye of other journalists and editors on the lookout for a good story. The gist of Ms. Conlin's article has been excerpted, reworked, and republished widely by online media. The story 'went viral,' and tracking its spread quickly became a kind of indoor sport with some of the 'regulars' on

I don't know how Ms. Conlin selected the items she chose to mention in her article, but one of those was about Jennifer Lopez:
Jennifer Lopez gets bad reviews from two attendants. "She yelled at me because I could not make her double espresso and then told me my shoes looked cheap," said one.
Of all the one-liners reported by Jennifer Conlin in her New York Times piece, this one seemed to gain the most currency once viral replication began. As of this writing, I must have seen at least 15 clones of the original article, and every one of them includes the J. Lo mention.

Let's pause here for a moment and think a bit more about that 'viral' metaphor. This story has become 'viral' in its replication and spread, to be sure. But it's viral in another way as well: it's mutating!

Here's an example from The Sunday Times in London:
When Jennifer Lopez allegedly made a rude remark to an airline flight attendant, the stewardess posted an account at, a website that encourages professional flight crews to let off steam about passengers behaving badly.
Encourages flight crews to let off steam about passengers behaving badly? No, that's not the philosophy of the forum, nor the spirit of the Celebrity Sightings thread.

The Times article was mild, compared to several others that have surfaced. Running the story under the eye-popping headline, 'J.Lo throws hissy fit on plane,' a South African publication called Tonight said:
Jennifer Lopez allegedly insulted an airhostess - because she couldn't make her a speciality coffee mid-flight. The Latin diva is said to have flown into a rage after she asked for a double espresso and was told that they couldn't make her one.

J.Lo, famed for her outrageous demands, took out her frustration on the
stunned stewardess, hurling a torrent of hurtful insults at her.

The unnamed hostess is quoted on website as saying: "She yelled at me because I could not make her a double espresso and then she told me my shoes looked cheap."
The identical story appeared on eCanada Now, but running a more subdued title, 'Jennifer Lopez Insulted an Air Hostess.' The Daily Telegraph in Australia published an abridged version under the title, 'Vile High Club - J.Lo's air rage.' The Aussie version added this lead sentence: "YOU best better be able to make Jennifer Lopez a double espresso or be prepared for a spray."

All Headline News reporter Maira Oliveira editorialized a bit in her version of the story:
Jennifer Lopez may have the booty shakin' part down but that doesn't mean she can stick her nose up in the air.

We already have one "STFU" Mariah Carey - we don't need two of them. The Latina actress recently had a titter-tatter scrawl on flight with a stewardess after she didn't get her daily shot of espresso.

Jennifer Lopez reportedly lost her diva-like composure when she requested a double expresso and was flat-out rejected.

J.Lo was left shocked in disbelief that one would dare deprive her of her caffeine rush and began insulting the defenseless stewardess.

The stewardess said, "She yelled at me because I could not make her a double espresso and then she told me my shoes looked cheap."

Real classy move there, J.Lo.
She said it. I didn't.

Had enough yet? How about just one more? This one is my favorite mutation. It appears on a website called The Conservative Voice under the title, 'J.Lo Not Charged Following Altercation with Flight Attendant.' I'm not making this up! Here's what it said:
Singer/actress Jennifer Lopez allegedly had an altercation with a flight attendant in mid-air when she was told she could not have a double-shot of expresso.

According to J.Lo's press agent, "She requires a daily shot of expresso."

Jennifer Lopez reportedly lost her diva-like composure when she requested a double expresso and was flat-out rejected, according to AP.

J.Lo was left shocked in disbelief that one would dare deprive her of her caffeine rush and began insulting the flight attendant.
(By now my friends at who are reading this are rolling on the floor!)

I hope I've illustrated something about viral journalism with this piece, for that is what I meant to do. There's one more thing I'd like to mention. Save for Jennifer Conlin, the writer of the initial story in the New York Times, it is very apparent that none of the others I've cited have visited to read the thread that was the source of the quote about Jennifer Lopez. If they had, they might have noticed a few things, starting with the fact that the post was made by a male flight attendant -- not a 'stewardess' or an 'air hostess.'

Moreover, that nugget was posted on the forum by a male flight attendant on March 5, 2003 -- three and a half years ago!!. Most versions of the story that have proliferated since the original one came out make it sound as though the exchange happened on a flight last week!

I know that the story isn't about anything that's going to alter the course of world history, but don't journalists make even cursory attempts to check facts these days? -- especially before they begin further embroidering their stories?

Maybe I'm telling on myself: I'm a sworn-to-check-my-facts-and-cite-my-sources scientist, not a journalist. We can only hope that journalists in 'serious' fields -- you know, science, economics, international relations, aviation!! -- practice a higher standard of reporting than those reporting on entertainers.

So often when we read stories about outrageous behavior, we look at one another and chuckle, "You can't make this stuff up!!" Then again, maybe 'they' do make it up!

Sources: A New Kind of Dish Is Served by Flight Crews - New York Times
Revenge of the tipless classes - The Sunday Times, UK
J.Lo throws hissy fit on plane - Tonight, South Africa
Vile High Club - J.Lo's air rage The Daily Telegraph, Australia
J.Lo Attacks Stewardess For Not Getting Her Espresso - All Headline News
J.Lo Not Charged Following Altercation with Flight Attendant - The Conservative Voice

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