Truth, art

The internet has been abuzz since “This American Life” retracted Mike Daisey’s Apple manufacturing story on the grounds that it contained “significant fabrications.”

In response, Daisey issued the following statement:

“I stand by my work. My show is a theatrical piece whose goal is to create a human connection between our gorgeous devices and the brutal circumstances from which they emerge. It uses a combination of fact, memoir, and dramatic license to tell its story, and I believe it does so with integrity. Certainly, the comprehensive investigations undertaken by The New York Times and a number of labor rights groups to document conditions in electronics manufacturing would seem to bear this out.

What I do is not journalism. The tools of the theater are not the same as the tools of journalism. For this reason, I regret that I allowed THIS AMERICAN LIFE to air an excerpt from my monologue. THIS AMERICAN LIFE is essentially a journalistic ­- not a theatrical ­- enterprise, and as such it operates under a different set of rules and expectations. But this is my only regret. I am proud that my work seems to have sparked a growing storm of attention and concern over the often appalling conditions under which many of the high-tech products we love so much are assembled in China.”

I in no way want to diminish the enormous gaffe by Daisey and “This American Life” both. It raises some really important ethical questions. But I also think Daisey’s defense is interesting because it differentiates between the rules for storytellers and the rules for journalists. Journalists have a very clear obligation to tell the truth, all the time. For storytellers, memoirists and non-fiction writers, it’s a little different. They can take creative license, tweaking words and facts and anecdotes, in order to arrive at a better articulation of a true idea.

Journalism, done well, employs all the practices of good storytelling and the rigor required by fact checking. “This American Life” is an interesting venue for this to play out because it’s easy to forget that what they do is journalism. When I think of “This American Life,” I think of an outlet renowned for its great storytelling. The thing is–the stories are true.

Remember Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea? How about James Frey, who wrote A Million Little Pieces? Both authors published highly acclaimed and widely-read books, and both were heavily criticized when the public learned that they’d fabricated some of their material. My question to you, blog readers: how does this impact the quality of their works? Are they any any less good?

I took a literature class in college called “Truth and Other Fictions.” We read writers who blurred the line between memory and the present, between truth and lies, reality and constructions. The human mind is pretty complex, and sometimes, if you tell yourself something over and over again, it can become true. If you think this is interesting stuff, here are some further musings on the intersections and disparities between art and fact.

Mikey Daisey is scheduled to perform at the Flynn in Burlington on March 31st. I’ve been meaning to buy my ticket all week and will certainly do so this evening. Because, true or no, Mike Daisey tells a good story.

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20 Comments on “Truth, art”

  1. Two Cents says:

    They are not “less good”, they are “less true”.
    And from there, it depends on what kind of story you intended to get.

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  2. JDM says:

    I can’t imagine anyone taking them seriously, again.

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  3. oa says:

    “They can take creative license, tweaking words and facts and anecdotes,”
    That wasn’t what this was. He made up things, whole cloth. And put them forth on an NPR documentary radio program. What a load.
    Also, James Frey and the cup of tea guy aren’t merely lying bozos and grifters, but have something noble to say about the human condition? If I tell myself I can jump off the Empire State Building and live often enough, I will? Hoookaaaay.
    Brian, before you buy that ticket to the medicine show, google the words “fool” and “money.” I believe there may be a relevant quotation out there someplace in cyberlandworld…
    And yes, this is oa, saying I agree with JDM. Have a good weekend, J-Man!

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  4. oa says:

    Aaagh! Sorry. Sarah wrote this, not Brian! Mea culpa. Error. Error.
    But the sentiment is the same, so is it not true?

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  5. Paul says:

    TAL is journalism, seriously? It is a great show but do they really go out and make sure the fact check every story the way a journalist should do (not that many do these days, there is no way they could publish as fast as the do if they really check it out!)? For example the great story of standing for days holding onto a truck in an effort to win it. There is no way that any of the stuff the guy described that he did or felt was actually checked out with other sources. Those are just first person narratives not journalism.

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  6. TomL says:

    Well-written subjective memoirs, that are clearly intended to be the author’ subjective tale of a real event, are valuable for what they tell us about the author, and how he / she was affected by the events. TE Lawrence’s (Lawrence of Arabia’s) Five Pillars of Wisdom is such a book.

    But Mike Daisey’s piece (and Greg Mortenson and James Frey’s books) are purported to be the objective ‘truth’ about events, each with the goal of changing policy. This is deceptive and wrong – it makes us more skeptical about any journalistic claims of objectivity. Sure, pure objectivity is impossible, but it is a goal to reach for, and there are ethical practices that result in more reliable reporting. Sounds like This American Life tried to fact check but nevertheless got burned; it is laudable that they will do a show on what happened.

    On a related note, Jon Krakauer’s expose on Mortenson is fascinating and necessary but sad .

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  7. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    I guess that since oa can’t properly attribute the writer of the blog we can never believe oa again?

    Come on! Everyone makes mistakes. The way to judge is to see how the individual/group deals with the mistake they made. Do they attempt to deny the mistake. to cover it up, to lash out at the person who tries to correct the mistake?
    Or do they publicly acknowledge the mistake and attempt to correct any damage that mistake made.

    This American Life has been among the very best shows in any media form for a very long time. This mistake doesn’t diminish that.

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  8. Pete Klein says:

    If you are looking for truth, read fiction.
    If you are looking for journalism, what you usually find is a bunch of “he said, she said.” This is the result of “both sides to every story” and you get to pick which one you like.
    As always, let the buyer beware.

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  9. PNElba says:

    Daisey’s excuse falls within the realm of the “Limbaugh is a comedian/entertainer” excuse. Maybe I’m a fool, but when I listen to “TAL” stories about people/friends, I assume they are factual.

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  10. jill vaughan says:

    If it’s not one hundred percent true, state that. I love creative non-fiction- but it MUST be labeled as such. At a time when so much depends on decisions we make, there’s no room for fuzzy thinking. Idealogical blindness, twisted facts, or shadings of the truth allow us to accept whatever seems good to us- it becomes a habit to draw conclusions based on what seems true or reasonable. If adherence to truth is not absolute, we have nothing left to build a moral core on. Shakespeare- very familiar quote- “To thine own self be true, and it shall follow, as the day the night, that thou can’st be false to any many”. Tough stance, but necessary, I believe.

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  11. Will Doolittle says:

    The air will often go out of a “good story” when you learn it isn’t true. We seek to know things about the world, and true stories teach us. It’s a betrayal of readers, or listeners, to present something as true that you know is false. That’s not to say that what you present as true is always true, but you’re trying to get there. It’s great to have great quotes or anecdotes, but the pact you make as the writer with the reader is, everything you include is true. Otherwise, the whole exercise is worthless.

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  12. Sarah Harris says:

    Hello all,

    Sarah Harris here. Thanks for your discussion. I was kind of pondering that nether space between fact and fiction aloud here. I haven’t stopped thinking about it all weekend, and after listening to This American Life’s episode about the retraction of Mike Daisey’s story, here’s what I’ve been thinking since:

    There’s a need for proper labeling and proper outlets. I think the type of work that Daisey does is valuable and has a place, but it must be billed as creative work that occupies the grey area between fact and fiction. To not label it as such is deception by proxy.

    As I kept listening through the program, I felt disappointed and sad. Airing an untrue story on an outlet with such wide reach as This American Life has huge implications — for the show, for Daisey, for Apple, for the public. I was a This American Life listener before I began my career as a journalist. I was sad that the show I really admire had to do the hard work of admitting to a major failing. I was sad that Mike Daisey made such a huge mistake that will have enormous implications for his career. It just seemed like it was all really hard, and that somewhere along the line, it would have been easier to just tell the truth.

    And I was worried. How does this all translate to my work as a reporter for NCPR?

    I’m at the beginning of a journalism career. I’ve always liked writing and storytelling, but have had to learn the rules of journalism as a young professional. The more reporting I do, the more I realize how essential those rules are. There are a lot of people’s lives that hang in the balance of the material we report. We make a pact with the public to provide information that is accurate and true. We provide false information, we violate your trust. The consequences can be far-reaching. And then our whole enterprise, as Will Doolittle so correctly says, “is worthless.”

    What do I take away from all this? That a good narrative must ALWAYS be secondary to reporting the facts. That description and embellishment are two different things, and the latter has no place in our business. And that, as someone who’s actively doing reporting work, I need to be fastidious in my editorial choices and steadfastly committed to truth.

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  13. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Sarah, I hear stuff on the news regularly that isn’t true but is accepted as truth. Our schools teach a version of history that plays up a certain narrative while ignoring reality but if a child puts the truthful answer on the prescribed test they will have it marked incorrect.

    The media move through the news landscape like a herd of heifers chasing a sand hill crane. The curious heifers trot head on at the crane but the crane flaps away just beyond their reach. If they chase it like a fox, or a coyote, or an owl they are told that their method of chasing is wrong.

    Sometimes the news gets the facts right but the truth wrong. Sometimes the media chases the story but the story remains just beyond their reach. Don’t get the idea that what they teach in journalism school is the same as it has always been or will always be.

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  14. Walker says:

    “…like a herd of heifers chasing a sand hill crane.”

    What, are you trying for metaphor of the year?

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  15. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    No, I just saw that once and it seemed appropriate. But I’ll take the award if you’re offering.

    Of course, I could be making the whole thing up.

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  16. Walker says:

    Sandhill cranes are very cool, and well worth following head on.

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  17. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Happy 1391 to everyone here at the In Box!

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  18. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Today is New Years Day in Persian tradition which dates back to Zoroaster/Zarathustra who was born what is now eastern Iran or western Afghanistan and is the founder of Zoroastrianism – the pre-cursor to much of the Judeo/Christian/Islamic belief system.

    Ironic that Zarathustra had a much more sophisticated view of truth than we do. Perhaps there is something to learn from him.

    From Wikipedia (Gathas are sacred hymns composed by Zoroaster):
    In the Gathas, Zoroaster sees the human condition as the mental struggle between aša (truth) and druj (lie). The cardinal concept of aša—which is highly nuanced and only vaguely translatable—is at the foundation of all Zoroastrian doctrine, including that of Ahura Mazda (who is aša), creation (that is aša), existence (that is aša) and as the condition for Free Will, which is arguably Zoroaster’s greatest contribution to religious philosophy.
    The purpose of humankind, like that of all other creation, is to sustain aša. For humankind, this occurs through active participation in life and the exercise of constructive thoughts, words and deeds.
    Elements of Zoroastrian philosophy entered the West through their influence on Judaism and Middle Platonism and have been identified as one of the key early events in the development of philosophy.[24] Among the classic Greek philosophers, Heraclitus is often referred to as inspired by Zoroaster’s thinking.

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  19. Sarah, thank you for the back-tracking comment you posted here Monday afternoon. I think you’re right on. It’s a hard lesson to learn, but the alternatives are either to be a dangerously bad journalist or to find a different career, such as fiction writing.

    I worked one summer in college at a cemetery in Plattsburgh, supposedly digging graves and mowing grass, but mostly sitting around, drinking coffee and shooting the breeze with the rest of the crew. The best part of the job was the stories those guys told – amazing stuff, but obviously not, shall we say, entirely true. Then I became a newspaper reporter and got burned at least once when I repeated, in print, a colorful story someone told me about a deceased local businessman. The son of that businessman was terribly hurt, and I had to hear him out and then write a retraction. It was a painful lesson.

    But as wrong as it was, I didn’t make that story up or knowingly try to deceive, as Mike Daisey did. That kind of thing is simply corrupt. Journalism, as an institution, is based on credibility and is therefore, unfortunately vulnerable to such schemes. We have to weed them out as best we can to protect people’s trust in all the journalists out there doing their jobs honorably. Every Jayson Blair, every Mike Daisey, hurts us all, just as every pedophile priest hurt the Catholic church.

    -Peter Crowley, Adirondack Daily Enterprise

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  20. Also, I think Jill Vaughan’s quoting of Polonius in “Hamlet” is a perfect message to Mike Daisey and anyone else who gets fuzzy on this stuff.

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