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.
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:
- Mike Daisey is a fantastic performer and his shows are moving, powerful and good works of art.
- Apple is a great company that has had well documented labor issues.
- 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.