On Truth, Daisey and This American Life

The news: Mike Daisey presented a story from his one man show about Apple’s labor practices as journalistic fact to This American Life (TAL). It was a mistake. Daisy has apologized and This American Life spent an hour this week explaining what happened and why.

One popular and superficial response is: truth is binary and lies were told, and everyone should be ashamed. This is a convenient but empty answer. It dodges the tough, sloppy truth about truth lurking in this story about stories.

In the Coen brothers film Fargo, the opening titles say “Based on a True Story”. This is not true.

In the move Apollo 13, based on an actual true story, Gene Kranz, the actual flight director, is shown in the film saying “Failure is not an option”. He never actually said this.

While we know movies are entertainment, how much of the world do you know mostly from movies at TV shows you have seen? You know it’s Hollywood, but yet much of what you think about history, or life in general, might very well come from entertainment, rather than truth. I’d guess most adults consume more works of fiction than non-fiction across all media in their lifetimes. If so, do we base most of our lives on fiction? Is that good? Bad? Neither?

Look at your resume. Is it true? Is it the same truth your coworkers and bosses would write about your work history? Do you gloss over things? Combine facts from different events? Leave important events that don’t fit the story you want to tell out? Sure, you are not a journalist, but what ethical responsibility do you have in your own writing about your own life to a potential employer?

I’m not advocating lying. What Daisy did on This American Life (and apparently on other shows) is wrong. He had every chance to express what license he took as a performer in his storytelling, and to make a clear distinction between art and reporting.

Instead I’m saying most of what we offer each other as truth is only partially true, and partially untrue, since we don’t include all of the truth. If your resume included all of the truth in an accurate and unmanipulated form, it would be infinitely long. We look to the skill of storytelling as a tool to compress and shape the truth to effectively convey something. In studying the history of history, or the history of facts, its clear what defines a fact is messy. There’s never a singular truth. Like the film Rashomon, truth is like a diamond with many facets and angles, each true in its own way:  American history reads very differently if written from the perspective of the native Americans. The history of the enlightened ancient Greeks reads differently if told by their slaves.

Journalists have stricter rules about truth than filmmakers and artists, but they fall victim to similar challenges. They want their stories to be read and books to be sold. The headlines they use on websites or covers of magazines are sensational more than truthful. And even if profit were not a motive, no person is objective. Before the most noble journalist in the world takes on a story, they have their own hidden biases and points of view that are impossible to eliminate. The line of ethics is when a journalist knowingly denies due diligence on checking facts and betrays the reader’s trust – or discovers after the fact a betrayal has been made and fails to work to correct the mistake.

Many journalists, organizations and bloggers bury these mistakes. They report them days later in minutia and footnotes. Or they never bother to look for or report them at all.

This American Life’s entire episode documenting the problems with their own reporting should be commended for making clear the errors that were made and accounting for them. I can’t think of the last time a major network, newspaper, or TV show spent an entire episode explaining how they messed up. This American Life should, of course, also be criticized for making the mistakes in the first place. But shock and outrage about it are naive  – it wouldn’t be hard to find similar errors of fact in stories reported every day, as CNN, FOX, MSNBC. blogs and twitter report stories so fast that fact checking is impossible. Skepticism of all news is warranted, especially news reported as fast as technology allows – it will unavoidably contain errors, both intentional and not.

Mike Daisey identified his primary mistake – he should never have expressed his story as journalism. And This American Life should never have accepted it as such.

In the end 3 things were true before this, and are true now:

  1. Mike Daisey is a fantastic performer and his shows are moving, powerful and good works of art.
  2. Apple is a great company that has had well documented labor issues.
  3. This American Life is an excellent program that for years has set a high standard for amazing, quality works of reporting, non-fiction storytelling and journalism.

The recent scandal changes none of these things. Yes, Daisy’s and TAL’s reputation are worse and Apple’s is better, but not significantly. Not to a skeptic.

Writing and reporting of any kind have risks. The best lesson here is to remind us all as readers and consumers to always ask questions of what is true, regardless of the source.



17 Responses to “On Truth, Daisey and This American Life”

  1. Peter Merholz

    You’re being naive about Mike Daisey. His *whole piece* is predicated on the idea that he performed *journalism*: that he interviewed countless people, stood outside the gates of the factory when other reporters would not, used a translator to get at heart of the matter. His entire monologue is predicated on this appearance of journalism (sources, interviews, investigation), so when it comes out that much of what he ‘reports’ never happened, it should fundamentally change your/our notion of him as a storyteller.

    This is not to say that abuses are not going on. Or that Mike Daisey isn’t able to spin a good yarn. But it is to say that, in this instance, Mike Daisey crossed an ethical line, one that simply hiding behind the label of ‘storyteller’ should not absolve.

    1. Scott Berkun

      I can accept that – Actually, I have to accept that, as I’ve only heard excerpts of this particular show.

      Why a storyteller (Daisy) would need to convey that much journalistic credibility for a monologue, when there is so little need for it given the artistic license granted to theater, is strange. If TAL hadn’t pursued these facts, the more he claimed journalistic standards, the more likely it’d be someone would have taken him to task on the facts. For TAL’s sake, it’s much better that they brought these issues to light rather than someone else.

      1. Joe Snuffy

        You keep misspelling his name. It’s Mike Daisey, with an ‘e’.

        Also, I assumed, while watching Apollo 13, that Tom Hanks wasn’t actually in space even though the movie wanted me to believe he was. I also realized that Ed Harris wasn’t actually Gene Kranz. Mike Daisey, however, tells people that he is the same person as the person in the stories.

        1. Scott Berkun

          Joe, I agreed with exactly your point:

          “I’m not advocating lying. What Daisy did on This American Life (and apparently on other shows) is wrong. He had every chance to express what license he took as a performer in his storytelling, and to make a clear distinction between art and reporting.”

        2. pudge

          But Scott, you’re wrong. *This is not about* the difference between art and reporting. If you tell lies about actual people and organizations with the malicious intent to turn your audience against those those people and organizations, that is wrong no matter the context.

          His mistake was not in pretending this was journalism — and it was journalism, actually — it was in telling malicious lies.

  2. Joe McCarthy

    I’m reminded of an interesting article in Slate four years ago, about a Moth segment that aired on This American Life: The Fibbing Point: Separating bunk from fact in Malcolm Gladwell’s performance at a New York storytelling forum.

    And, more recently, I’m reminded of an “apology” by a famous and rather vitriolic radio talk show host which included disclaimers about being an “entertainer” and highlighting the “absurdity of the absurd”.

  3. Mark Jaquith

    Are you aware that Daisey took many of these invented and exaggerated stories and presented them as fact on numerous talk and news shows? Not talking about his show as art, but talking about things he claims to have witnessed that he now has admitted to be untrue. If he wants to make art about Chinese labor conditions, that’s one thing. I’m even willing to give license to faux-journalist-as-artistic-performance, even when it’s not 100% clear where the truth ends and the fiction starts (take the Daily Show, which plays with this concept). Daisey represented his monologue as truth. There was no hint that it was anything other than truth. There were no Jon Stewart style jocular absurdities that might indicate that he was inventing people, events, and facts. That’s troubling.

    But as soon as he got off that stage and started telling the same lies to news shows as fact, he became, unambiguously, a liar. He is a liar. He said things that weren’t true, in a context where people expected him to be representing the truth. He invented people, excursions, events, and facts. And if you listened to the TAL retraction show, it’s patently obvious that he’s still lying. The behavior is pathological. He can’t even admit plainly that he lied. He uses euphemisms to try and avoid saying that he lied. He’s so convinced of the message he’s trying to convey that he can’t admit that he’s lying in order to convey it in a more emotionally potent way.

    Here’s the fallout:

    1. Apple’s suppliers’ conditions aren’t nearly as bad as Daisey represented. Foxxcon and Apple look better as a result.
    2. If anything Daisey has made it harder to correct the issues that do exist, because the entire situated has been tainted by his lies.
    3. This American Life screwed up by not investigating more thoroughly. They took him at his word, and he lied to them.
    4. This American Life has, in my estimation, more than made up for their mistake by their thorough and self-deprecating investigation and retraction show. I respect the show more for having owned up and done so in such an open way.
    5. Daisey has done huge and long-term harm to his credibility. He is not just someone who lied, his is and continues to be a liar, unable to even admit openly and plainly to lies which his conflicting statements make obvious to everyone else. He has shown himself to have very low respect for himself, for journalists, and to the audiences thereof.

    If this were just about his monologue, it would be troubling. He abandoned all pretense of theatrical license when he told the same lies (to numerous journalists, not just TAL) outside of a theatrical context.

  4. James A. Donald

    This is the truthyness defense. You are arguing that works denigrating Chinese working conditions may not be true, but are truthy.

    But they are not truthy, in that such tales deny and obscures the big important truths: that the US is lagging technologically behind China, that living standards in china are rising extraordinarily fast, that pretty much everything in China is newer and shinier and more high tech than pretty much everything in the US, and that businesses in China cannot afford to piss of workers because they are competing urgently for a limited supply of workers.

    In practice the truthyness defense is always invoked for stuff that is not truthy, stuff that instead of humorously exaggerating the big important truths, denies them.

    1. Scott Berkun

      No. I’m not defending Daisy at all. Poetic license in a work of art should not be confused with first person accounting of real events.

      I am saying that truth isn’ t binary. Journalistic standards help keep our notions of truth closer to objective truth, but we can never get as close as we assume.

  5. Sean Crawford

    I am not convinced that This American Life “screwed up.” …

    Journalists “ride for the brand” of journalistic ethics. They are not hired guns who need to be fact checked.
    Like you and me, they don’t have to say, “Scout’s honour,” for they are always on their honour, just as we are.
    In my city the two daily newspapers, one tabloid and one broadsheet, to the best of my knowledge, have no fact checkers.
    It’s like how a healthy army does not fact check its commissioned officers, expecting them to be gentlemen.

  6. Ben

    I saw Daisey’s performance a few weeks back and it was fantastic. In no way did I think everything was real. He performs it as theatre, swinging from on situation to another, using a lot of melodrama and contrast to prove and make you feel his point. Your post is great to explain the differences; I think he shoudl’ve made it clearer to TAL that it wasn’t journalism.

  7. Marion

    Much ado about a little bit of something i.e. This American Life groveling about its error. I’m not convinced that there are not serious infractions in China of what the US workers (and those from other nations)would consider aborrent conditions. The drywall incident comes to mind. Imported from China,dry wall emitted foul odors, and residents of homes built with it complained of bloody noses, and migraine, and disintegrating walls, etc. Tainted batches of heparin killing US citizens! Toxic toys! Come on! The Daisy story has errors, SOME errors in terms of Daisy actually seeing what he claimed, etc. and unfortunately it corroborates the claim that manufacturers in China don’t do the nasty things that I suspect they do do. If Chinese manfactuers can send bad dry wall, tainted medicine, toxic toys to the rest of the world, what makes us believe that they don’t abuse their workers, the working conditions, the age of workers employed etc.? No, Daisy makes a point. Acknowledge his point! Acknowledge the errors! Don’t grovel, “Ohhh, we are so sorry. We made a terrible mistake reporting this story. BOOOHOO!

    APPLE can bring its manufacturing back to the US!

  8. pudge

    Comparing this to Fargo, which was not pretending to talk about actual people or organizations, or Apollo 13, where the made-up lines didn’t make Kranz look worse, is nonsense. Daisey’s lies were intentional and malicious, designed to make the situation look worse than it is.

    Now if Apollo 13 had shown Kranz having sex with farm animals, you would have a more reasonable comparison. And if Apollo 13 had done that, it’d have been roundly criticized, boycotted, and panned.

    Yes, in storytelling, truth is not binary. But intentional misrepresentation of the facts to manipulate your audience into detesting the object of your lies? That is unacceptable in any context.

    1. Scott Berkun

      I did say this “I’m not advocating lying. What Daisy did on This American Life (and apparently on other shows) is wrong. He had every chance to express what license he took as a performer in his storytelling, and to make a clear distinction between art and reporting.”

      I also didn’t compare Daisey to Fargo. I did mention a bunch of examples of how sloppy truth is, including what we write on our own resumes.

      1. pudge

        But you are saying that this is the difference between art and reporting, implying that doing this in his show is OK, but on TAL is not OK. That’s just not the case.

  9. Phillip Hunter

    It’s interesting that the commentary here has focused on whether Daisey is being lambasted strongly enough instead of the challenge of living in a culture which primarily rewards big emotional claims too quickly.

    And I have to add to the overall premise that we, in general, operate in ignorance of just how tenuous our grasp on truth really is. It goes well beyond our preference for self-glorifying narrative. Between our faulty senses, cognitive biases, and complete inability to share perspectives, it’s almost silly that we cling to the idea that there would be a single experiential truth for any given situation.



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