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Theater, Disguised as Real Journalism
Is it O.K. to lie on the way to telling a greater truth? The short answer is also the right one.
It’s worth examining that question now that we have learned about the lies perforating the excerpt of Mike Daisey’s one-man show on Apple’s manufacturing processes in China, broadcast in January on the weekly public radio show “This American Life.”
No one is suggesting that everything about Apple’s supply chain is suddenly hunky-dory, but the heroic narrative of a fearless theater artist taking on the biggest company in the world is now a pile of smoking rubble.
Mr. Daisey’s one-man show, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” closed its very successful run at the Public Theater in New York on Sunday. The show played a significant role in raising public consciousness, not just about the ethics of offshore manufacturing, but about whether those of us who fondle those shiny new iPads every day are implicated as well.
It was a fine bit of theater. It worked less well as a piece of journalism, which is how it was represented when it was broadcast on “This American Life.” The episode was a huge hit, downloaded as a podcast more than any other in the history of the program. But it fell apart after Rob Schmitz, a reporter from “Marketplace,” another public radio show, fact-checked the specifics.
When Ira Glass, the host of “This American Life,” and his colleagues found out that Mr. Daisey had not done the work he said he had, they put together an hour of very compelling radio retracting the piece in full, and in very specific detail.
Mr. Daisey, to his credit, appeared on the show for an awkward and occasionally excruciating interview, but was mostly evasive, arguing that some characters and events had been invented in service of a greater narrative truth. He said it was only when his theatrical piece was pushed through the crucible of journalism that it became false.
Mr. Glass said plainly at the beginning of the show that after Mr. Daisey failed to provide contact numbers for his translator, “we should have killed the story.” And he went to some lengths to explain that “This American Life” was not just about the story, but about the facts as well. Usually a calm and perpetually amused presence at the microphone, Mr. Glass’s voice conveyed quiet rage and regret. His voice seemed especially pinched at the end, when he said the show was financed in part by Reputation.com.
“I and my co-workers on ‘This American Life’ are not happy to have done anything to hurt the reputation of the journalism that happens on this radio station every day,” he said.
I don’t think they did. The story came up bad, they found out about it from someone else, and they amended it with an hourlong retraction that was straightforward and very powerful.
During an interview punctuated by brutal, long stretches of silence, Mr. Glass asked Mr. Daisey why he had not just come clean when the fact-checking process began.
“I think I was terrified,” Mr. Daisey said after a very long pause.
Mr. Glass: “Of what?”
Another halting pause by Mr. Daisey, followed by: “I think I was terrified that if I untied these things, that the work, that I know is really good, and tells a story, that does these really great things for making people care, that it would come apart in a way where, where it would ruin everything.”
It did. I am a longtime fan of “This American Life,” but I have never assumed that every story I heard was literally true. The writer and monologist David Sedaris frequently tells wonderful personal yarns on the show that may not be precisely true in every detail, but this was not a story about a family car trip gone bad.
Mr. Daisey admits to cutting corners, but “stands by his work,” in part because it moved people to care about other people’s suffering in a far-flung land. Unfortunately, the parts of his show with which his audience connected so viscerally were the ones that seem to have been based on nothing more than a need for drama.
That former worker who maimed a hand while manufacturing the iPad, then hovered over that magical device when Mr. Daisey handed him one? Remarkable. And fictional. The 13-year-old who worked the assembly line? The translator does not recall meeting such a person.
Writing about the implosion on The Atlantic’s Web site, Max Fisher said: “By lying, Daisey undermined the cause he purported to advance. That’s the real scandal.”
I take his point, but I’m more concerned about the suggestion that you have to cheat to come up with remarkable journalism that tilts the rink. As it happens, Charles Duhigg, David Barboza and Keith Bradsher, reporters who work at The New York Times, spent a great deal of time last year investigating Apple’s suppliers and published a series in January that may have contained a bit less drama, but landed hard. Apple subsequently announced an audit of its Chinese supply chain by an independent group.
It also stayed written: No corrections or retractions, just solid reporting that Mr. Duhigg described in a phone call as “independently sourced and independently confirmed.”
Even as Mr. Daisey found himself in the stockade, another nonjournalist turned big player in current events ended up in the news himself.
Jason Russell, the producer of a video titled “Kony 2012” that went viral on Twitter, YouTube and elsewhere — about Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda — had come under criticism for cutting some corners as well.
Word came on Friday that Mr. Russell had been detained by the police after he was found running around naked and yelling incoherently in a San Diego neighborhood. His wife, Danica Russell, said in a statement, “Because of how personal the film is, many of the attacks against it were also very personal, and Jason took them very hard.”
The easy lesson might be that journalism is not a game of bean bag, and it would be best left to professionals. But we are in a pro-am informational world where news comes from all directions. Traditional media still originate big stories, but many others come from all corners — books, cellphone videos, blogs and, yes, radio shows built on storytelling.
But there is another word for news and information that comes from advocates with a vested interest: propaganda.
It is worth mentioning that professional credentials are not insurance against journalistic scandal. “Marketplace,” the highly regarded business show from American Public Media that uncovered Mr. Daisey’s untruths, recently had to retract a first-person account from Leo Webb, who portrayed himself as an out-of-work former Army sniper who was also a minor league baseball player. Turned out he was neither a veteran nor a ballplayer.
There is nothing in the journalism playbook to prevent a determined liar from getting one over now and again. It is partly because seekers of truth expect the same from others. On the broadcast this weekend, Mr. Glass seemed stunned by Mr. Daisey’s ability to look him in the eye and dissemble.
“I have such a weird mix of feelings about this because I simultaneously feel terrible for you, and also I feel lied to,” Mr. Glass said. “And also, I stuck my neck out for you.”
I sent an e-mail to someone I know who is an expert on journalistic malfeasance to ask if, in a complicated informational age, there was a way to make sure that someone telling an important story had the actual goods.
“All the good editing, fact-checking and plagiarism-detection software in the world is not going to change the fact that anyone is, under the right circumstances, capable of anything and that journalism is essentially built on trust.”
I think Jayson Blair, who responded to my e-mail query, may be on to something.