Glittery geegaws of the plausible

Mike Daisey’s betrayal of This American Life’s truth – and my trust

By , Friday 16 March 2012 21.10 EDT

There are lies and there are lies and there are lies.

The Protocols of the Elders of Zion: Big Lie.

“OMG, your [homely] baby is beautiful!”: small social lie.

And then, there is the highly debatable third category: lies in service of the greater truth.

Ryszard Kapuściński’s The Emperor about Ethiopia’s Haile Selassie was either a masterpiece of narrative semi-non-fiction (a venerated genre the Poles call gawęda szlachecka) and cunning allegory of Communist power, or just a fabrication. Was Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood a virtuosic “non-fiction novel”? Or was it perhaps – by virtue of from-whole-cloth invention of quotes and dubious assertion of a deep relationship with one of the jailed killers – just fabulism?

John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charlie, the solitary rough-hewn journey through backroads America, should be renamed Travels from Hotel to Hotel With Charlie and Mrs Steinbeck. Then, there is Joseph Mitchell, the great chronicler of Lower Manhattan’s down and out. Old Mr Flood and many of his other indelible characters turned out to be delible, indeed. They were composites.

One by one, my heroes of literary journalism have gone wobbly, for the crime or not-crime of Photoshopping their reports. And now, today comes another body blow. The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, the riveting theatrical piece by monologuist Mike Daisey so indicting of Apple and other gadget manufacturers for their exploitation of Chinese factory workers turns out to be riddled with fabrications and narrative compositing. The misrepresentations were profound enough that This American Life, the public radio show that had aired a long excerpt of the performance, offered a retraction. Daisey himself promptly offered a belated asterisk:

“My show is a theatrical piece whose goal is to create a human connection between our gorgeous devices and the brutal circumstances from which they emerge. It uses a combination of fact, memoir, and dramatic license to tell its story, and I believe it does so with integrity.”

Funny; on the radio, he’d completely forgotten to mention the dramatic-license part. Poignantly describing an older laborer who, for the first time, saw an iPad switched on, Daisey whispered a description of the fellow brushing his hand over the screen and marveling at the “magic”. Silly me. I believed that had actually taken place – because, amid other assertions of observed fact, Daisey said it had. We have different notions of integrity, he and I.

Yet, his explanation had familiar echoes. On my radio program, I’d heard the “larger truth trumps nominal facts” argument eloquently articulated by the great Lawrence Weschler of the New Yorker:

“At the top of my standards are fairness, accuracy, creating something that is true to life, all that are very high in my standards. I’m just claiming that it is impossible to go out there as if you’re gonna laminate the world, as if you’re gonna take a Xerox machine and put it up to the face of reality and deliver it to your, to your readers. That’s ridiculous. Everything, everything is selection, is shading, is trying to figure out what ordering things should go in, and so forth, is, is imputing significance to a whole series of granular facts, and so forth. That happens all the time! And the people who I cherish are people who can tell me stories that illuminate the world for me in an accurate way.”

OK, stipulated. By the simple choices of journalism, facts in and of themselves do not constitute truth. They can be selected and arranged any which way, intentionally or unintentionally, to distort truth and turn it upside down. That is precisely how political consultants earn a living: assembling nominal facts to tell big, fat lies.

Nonetheless, the argument for what Stephen Colbert mocks as “truthiness” is hollow. Weschler’s position requires we trust his goodwill, that we trust Kapuściński and Mitchell and Capote and Steinbeck – and Mike Daisey – to embellish and invent responsibly. We should process the quotation marks on their stories in a different way – not as verbatim, but as something purer.

But, for God’s sake, how? Me, I can’t even read David Sedaris anymore, because the hilarious stuff he remembers from his idiosyncratic youth may turn out never to have, you know, happened. How do you earn such trust if not by disguising the underlying deceit? Whereupon, trading on that trust, falsely won, you venture beyond pretense into the realm of abject betrayal.

Betrayed is certainly how I feel right this minute. In the case of Mike Daisey, like someone passing along a damning tweet from Gaza, I myself had been his John the Baptist, telling most everyone I know about his extraordinary achievement. I had more than once uttered the words, “How could a performance artist have so scooped the whole world of journalism?”

Here’s how: by making stuff up. By reporting the presence of non-existent child laborers. By cutting a poison-chemical incident that occurred in one Chinese factory city and pasting it into another. By crafting a narrative not from the significantly impressive facts but from the glittery geegaws of the plausible.

Which is the most anguishing aspect of the whole episode. He has made me an accessory, not just by passing along his scandalous tale, but by exploiting my preparedness to believe him. Which is precisely how Big Lies work, as well. Like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, or Saddam’s supposed weapons of mass destruction. The Bush administration’s fictions about Iraq frightened America because they seemed to confirm the nation’s worst fears and suspicions. Mike Daisey may be no Dick Cheney, but how do I know?

I trust nobody to seek a greater good with trivial lies, because I cannot trust myself to know the difference. or

Photograph of Mike Daisey in “Barring the Unforeseen,” by Ursa Waz. or

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1 comment

    • Mike Nunn on March 17, 2012 at 9:04 am

    I loved ” Travels with Charley ” A nice vignette about how life in America was at that time. Of course I have always enjoyed Steinbeck and feel his “Grapes of Wrath ” was one of the greatest American novels ever.

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