By now, the news cycle, as it does, has very nearly turned full circle on the Mike Daisey incident. It’s interesting to note that the time required for a thing like this to cycle through the media mill has gone down to about three to five days. That being the case, of course, I thought it might be interesting to do my own post-mortem on this bizarre and, to me, infuriating event. To those of you who don’t know what happened, in brief, the facts are these:
Mike Daisey, a monologue actor and writer, wrote a stage piece titled The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, in which he detailed a trip he took through the seamy underbelly of the Chinese supply and manufacturing chain of Apple Computers. The monologue was picked up by the NPR radio program This American Life, which, after fact-checking the claims Daisey had made, found it suitable for an entire episode of their acclaimed radio program, with excerpts of the stage performance followed by a interview between host Ira Glass and Daisey about the brutal industrial serfdom he witnessed in China at the hands of Foxconn Technologies Group, an Apple supplier based in Taipei, Taiwan, and with factories across Asia, the Pacific, and Latin America. It was one of This American Life’s most highly-regarded and highly-downloaded broadcasts.
It was also a lie.
In the end, it turned out that many of the claims that Daisey had made were exaggerations or fabrications, many people he claimed to have met were either composites based on news stories or people he’d met at other times, or things people told him they had heard about; at least one is now believed to have been invented entirely by Daisey for dramatic effect.
For This American Life, the whole thing was a titanic journalistic gaffe. The episode was taken down from their website, and they devoted the entirety of last week’s show (dated 3.16.12) to retracting the episode, debunking Daisey’s claims, interviewing Daisey himself, and rightfully putting him on the spot. Daisey ultimately came back with a variety of excuses for his misrepresentations and lies. When asked why he tried to conceal the identity of his translator (in order, he later admitted, to keep her from contradicting his claims) he came back with this timeless gem: “I did think it would unpack the complexities of, of like how, how the story gets told.” And ultimately, after much qualification using the passive voice, he evaded responsibility for what he’d done by claiming it was theater and not fact, and that he had to take shortcuts “in my passion to be heard.” In essence, he felt that what he was doing was so important, that in his pursuit of “making people care,” not being truthful, or even treading the line of truthfulness, was okay.
What then, do I have to say about all of this? Does it outrage me as a believer in objective reality, the immorality of fraud, the need for an acceptance and respect for and duty to the truth? You bet. But I’m hardly surprised by this. It’s just another sign of the times.
The mixing of lies with the truth is hardly new. In fact, it’s probably as old as mankind. But its open acceptance in our society, to the extent that it meets with, at a minimum, passivity, and at worst with tacit approval, is something I think is very much a new development, one which goes far beyond the public rage of Yellow Journalism of the turn of the last century. Our society, in the West, has spent forty years glorifying the “movement” and the “activist,” a cultural slide that has encouraged, simultaneously, a diminution in the faculties of critical thinking and rational debate. If you’re going to be an activist, in a modern sense, you have to accept that your ends justify your means. If you’re going to join a movement, in a modern sense, you have to be willing to lay aside your own ideas of right and wrong and go with the flow. Is it any wonder that there’s so much indifference about this kind of thing? We’ve been training students in colleges and graduate schools to be indifferent, to accept at face value that lying and bending the truth is okay when it serves an accepted political or social purpose.
What nobody has been paying a huge amount of attention, to, it seems to me, is that when lies are mixed with the truth, the truth is damaged far more than the lies. When you use bad means to achieve ostensibly good ends, the bad influence of the means corrupts the goodness of the ends, and the result is uniformly negative. Sure, Daisey is a performer, not a journalist. Sure, people should always take what he says with a grain of salt. But he cannot go on stage and say “I saw it, I’ve been there,” with the direct and clearly-stated implication, confirmed later by his actions and words outside the theater, that he is speaking truth, and then hide behind artistic license when it all goes bad. That’s not only disingenuous, it’s fraudulent – and it’s immoral. Wanting to “make people care” is not an excuse.
The crux of the whole situation, is not just the appropriation of the right to lie, nor the need for apology and the reluctance to issue it. The real core issue at stake here is that American media journalism has itself become a form of consumption entertainment, typified by programs like This American Life. The program has a singsongy, colloquial voice, as though you’re having a conversation with an activist hipster in a coffee shop in Brooklyn, and he’s trying to “break it down” for you to convince you of something, while at the same time saying “Yeah, but make up your OWN mind, man.” I love the program, but putting monologues, theatrical displays, book excerpts and the like on the same wavelength as economic, political and legal investigative journalism was always asking for trouble; and boy did they get it. As a result, I think we can expect to see more of this kind of scandal on This American Life and other programs like it, the programs which tread that razor’s edge fact and fiction and try to have it both ways. In this sense, This American Life can almost be said to have invited this scandal, by their tendency to take up tendentious, advocacy-oriented news stories, emphasizing the story and playing more selectively with the news. In fact, it’s rather surprising this didn’t happen sooner.
Nor is this a partisan issue – the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck on the right, or even Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert in the “radical middle,” had best be on their guard. Or more accurately, their viewers should be: finding the truth is getting harder, and with so many people giving up and taking the soft option instead of sticking to intellectual rigor, telling lies from the truth is only going to become more difficult. The media will give you what you demand of it, and people are demanding the least common denominator. When once we’ve accepted that our news is, and perhaps always has been, a consumption good, caveat emptor. Critical thinking skills are continuing to atrophy in this country, leaving us all vulnerable to being sold short in the intellectual marketplace.
In the end, though, I don’t blame This American Life for being duped. They simply did what any of us would do: they believed what they wanted, or at the very least were predisposed to believe. In issuing so full a retraction, in putting Daisey on the spot for his lies, they did entirely the right thing. Well, almost. If you listen to the episode, you’ll find one thing missing, one thing that This American Life interviewers have time and again tried to worm out of interviewees in the hot seat, something they’ve devoted entire programs to demanding of others:
They never apologize.