Mike Daisey, "This American Life," and you: Who is responsible for the truth?
In a nutshell: Mike Daisey describes himself as "Actor, author, commentator, playwright, and general layabout." He took a trip to China to see how Apple products are made in a factory at Foxconn, then wrote a monologue about it, which he delivers off-broadway in a show called "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs." Ira Glass' "This American Life" is a non-fiction radio program that tells stories about people (I've written about Ira before.) "This American Life" broadcast a piece with Mike Daisey about Apple and China on January 6.
Eventually, NPR reporters in China raised questions about the story. Much of it was not true. Incidents that Daisey described never took place, or were extrapolated from news stories of which he had no firsthand knowledge. His translator, whom "This American Life" finally located despite Daisey's attempts to obscure her identity, reveals what he made up, and where he stretched the truth. Glass dedicated his whole program this week to what they got wrong, how, why, and what is still true -- he pulled no punches in his apology. That program is absolutely worth a listen. I've embedded it below.
What are we to make of this? Who is responsible for the truth?
The frontlines of truth are in the mind of you, the reader. In today's world we have sources like The New York Times and ABC News, that we generally trust with facts. This is because of the standards they use and their reputation depends on those standards. But make no mistake: the "story" you read is a story -- it is written to engage you. Some facts are included, some facts are not, those choices determine the story. Balance is an interesting and slippery theoretical concept. Luckily, in a world that includes Google News, you have access to many points of view.
Generally, though, you can count on those facts. "This American Life" and NPR have a reputation for getting the facts right. This is why Ira Glass put together a whole show in this retraction; his reputation and NPR's are on the line.
What about opinion?
Forrester reports include two elements: facts and opinons. If we get the facts wrong, we fix it. If you have a problem with our opinions, tough. But any reader will find it easy to tell which is which.
News stories are supposed to be facts. But they are filled with opinions as well. Often, those opinions are given in the form of quotes from knowledgeable people (sometimes, those are analysts). But again, the journalist chooses those quotes. Often, reporters call me and ask my opinion, and I can see they are trying to confirm their prejudices, and if I say something that confirms them, I get quoted. My favorite is the "However, analysts say . . . " which is pernicious -- they generally talked to one or two people, confirmed their idea, and then can put it in print without even identifying who supposedly agreed with them. (A quick Google News search shows the words "Analysts say" appear in 14,000 news stories in the last 30 days.)
Of course, once you get past traditional media it gets far worse. Fox News and MSNBC cherry-pick facts and mix facts and opinions far more than less slanted media. Bloggers range from high ethical standards to no standards at all. We have all learned this, and we need to teach it to our children.
I believe Mike Daisey violated people's confidence twice. First, and he disagrees with this, his off-broadway show is a sham. When you tell a monologue in the first person, even in a theatrical setting, people believe it is the truth. His idea that the truth is flexible in the context of a monologue is wrong. We know "based on a true story" means that playwrights or story writers for television or movies have dramatized events. "The Social Network" is not the actual story of Facebook. But a monologue told in the first person is not a play.
Second, and he admits this, he should not have agreed to present his dramatized version as fact on "This American Life." Glass's mistake was to believe him, and he has paid the price for this.
What are the lessons here?
First, there is such a thing as truth. Second, even in normal situations, truth shifts depending on who is telling the story, because of the choices they make. Third, always consider the source -- this may the only remaining differentiating factor for conventional news media. And fourth, with all the resources available to you online, it is your responsiblity to seek out more viewpoints. The truth will out. But only if you, the reader, do a little more work.
Graphic: Actor's Guild of Lexington