Seeking the truth in an ‘American’ controversy


Story highlights

"This American Life" ran retraction of Mike Daisey's story about Apple factories

Daisey said his story isn't journalism, it's theater

Various authors have fabricated material

Idea of "truth" becomes more difficult to pin down in Internet age

CNN —  

So Mike Daisey stepped over the line. So he combined bits of fabrication with his facts about the Chinese factories that make Apple products. So he converted some research into first-person experience. So he led “This American Life” to believe that his piece, “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory” – adapted from his one-man show, “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” – was journalistically sound.

What’s the big deal?

To many in Anthony DePalma’s “News Literacy” class at Seton Hall, there wasn’t one.

The students “weren’t that upset,” says DePalma, a former New York Times reporter who’s a writer-in-residence at the New Jersey university.

“The idea that there might be different versions of the truth – a larger truth, or an emotional truth – they seemed OK.”

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The question of whether someone can play fast and loose with facts in the desire to convey a larger truth – especially when advocating for a cause – looms large on the media landscape. If you stir the pot, gain attention and traffic, convince others of your viewpoint and value, does the end justify the means?

Though Daisey – a storyteller and performer – regretted having his piece on “This American Life,” he maintained that, at bottom, his story wasn’t journalism and therefore he didn’t have to obey those rules.

“It’s theater,” he later told “This American Life” host Ira Glass.

The public radio program didn’t buy Daisey’s view and devoted its entire show last weekend to retracting his report. Neither did a number of journalists and media commentators, who lit into Daisey for his errors, conflations and out-and-out “lies,” as a Gawker headline put it.

“By lying, Daisey undermined the cause he purported to advance. That’s the real scandal,” wrote The Atlantic’s Max Fisher.

But for DePalma’s class, the line appears blurrier. They assumed Daisey was being an advocate for his beliefs, and if he had to break a few rules, so be it.

“They’re used to information coming from nontraditional sources – not from CNN or The New York Times – but maybe from their friends, or from a website that’s telling them what they already believe,” says DePalma, who admits to being surprised at the class’ casual reaction. “That is all part of how advocacy has changed and our attitudes towards it have changed.”

Remember the Maine?

Such fast-and-loose blends of fact and fiction are as old as storytelling – and the difference between the two hasn’t always been made clear.

Daniel Defoe published “A Journal of the Plague Year” – purported to be a first-person account of the 1665-66 London plague – in 1722 under the pseudonym “H.F.” It was originally assumed to be fact. Instead, it was historical fiction masquerading as reportage; Defoe would have been 5 when the plague hit.

On the other hand, a number of works of advocacy – Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” and John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” for example – were novels. And authors have often hidden their lives in fiction: Countless works, including Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” and Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar,” are thinly disguised autobiographies.

When there’s an assertion a work is nonfiction, however, trouble awaits – and with the modern craze for the “real” in the form of memoirs, reality shows, “based on a true story” and the like – there has been plenty of trouble in recent years.

One of the more famous cases involved James Frey, who published his memoir, “A Million Little Pieces,” in 2003. Two years later, Oprah Winfrey selected it for her book club, sending its sales skyrocketing – only for the The Smoking Gun to reveal the book’s fabrications.

An abashed Frey apologized to Winfrey and spoke to CNN’s Larry King about the controversy in early 2006.

“There’s a great debate about memoir and about what should be most properly served, the story or some form of journalistic truth,” Frey told King.

News organizations haven’t been immune to bending the truth. Until the early 20th century, newspapers were often partisan organs promoting parties or causes, and they weren’t above ginning up controversy to boost circulation. In 1898, after the USS Maine exploded in Cuba – then a Spanish colony – the New York newspapers of publishers William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer led the drumbeat to the Spanish-American War. It helped sell a lot of papers, even if Hearst’s famed quote to illustrator Frederic Remington – “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war” – is now believed to be a myth.

Nowadays, the line between entertainment and news gets ever thinner, says DePauw University journalism professor Mark Tatge, driven by corporate mergers, the search for traffic and profits and – above all – the proliferation of news sources on the Web.

“There’s entertainment and then there’s news, and over the last 25 years the two have merged,” he says. “And the biggest change is that everybody is a content producer. Everybody has a megaphone and everybody has a voice, and as a result of that, people want to put their own spin on things.”

Some people have used their megaphone shrewdly. In 2010, conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart, who died earlier this month, posted an edited and incomplete video of a speech by Agriculture Department employee Shirley Sherrod. After several mainstream news outlets picked up the video, the ensuing controversy cost Sherrod her job, even after it was revealed that selective editing had distorted Sherrod’s views.

“The tools out there are pretty sophisticated,” says Tatge. “They excite people to do things, or get them all stirred up about things, that they had no business doing.”

But given the speed of modern media, people are also quick to move on. Last year, Republican U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona made a speech on the Senate floor saying that abortion was “well over 90% of what Planned Parenthood does” – a statistic so off the mark that later in the day, his office released a statement that Kyl’s remark was “not intended to be a factual statement.” The Twitterverse and comedian Stephen Colbert had a great deal of fun at Kyl’s expense, but Kyl’s original line was soon forgotten.

And then there’s the “Kony 2012” video. The advocacy group Invisible Children put together a shocking film about Ugandan war criminal Joseph Kony that swiftly went viral two weeks ago – but soon attracted criticism for the film’s heavily skewed presentation, the accuracy of its statistics and the transparency of its sponsoring organization. Lately the attention has gone from Kony to “Kony 2012” director Jason Russell after he exhibited bizarre behavior in San Diego on Thursday.

The desire to drum up emotion is a strong one, says Edward L. Queen II of Emory University’s Center for Ethics in Atlanta – and there’s less shame in getting caught.

“I think the traditional limitations on such behavior – social control and social distaste – have dissipated greatly,” he says. “And that lack of societal distaste with people that play fast and loose with reality is an exacerbation of an all-too-human tendency.”

He bluntly boils down the issue.

“The problem is today’s social norms are basically the social norms of adolescent males, not of adult human beings.”

Food for thought

Perhaps as a way of stoking controversy, in recent years a number of pop culture works have deliberately played with the very concept of truth. The documentaries “Exit Through the Gift Shop” and “Catfish” left moviegoers wondering whether it was the audience who was being played; in its last scene, the MTV reality show “The Hills” revealed its backdrop to be a studio set, a wink at the audience who thought much of the show was staged.

Just last month, essayist John D’Agata – who has been vocal about blurring the line between fact and fiction – and former fact-checker Jim Fingal published the book “The Lifespan of a Fact,” which includes an article D’Agata wrote several years ago and an alleged correspondence about the piece. The book, which was promoted as featuring a seven-year dialogue between the principals, has since been revealed to be its own house of mirrors, as many of D’Agata and Fingal’s conversations – which are about the nature of truth – were recreated for the book.

Some of this art is thought-provoking, but when it comes to blending news and entertainment, the creator runs the risk of alienating the audience, says Queen.

“Our social functioning is dependent upon social trust. Journalism, any type of relational enterprise – the professions, government and even business – depend upon maintaining social trust,” he says. But since we tend to take trust for granted, he adds, it’s easily eroded if one side starts feeling conned.

Queen’s no pessimist: Every generation has been convinced the world is going to hell, he says with a chuckle. But in recent decades, he says, we’ve been undergoing significant social transformations that he finds disturbing: the belief that everything can be monetized, the lack of outrage and a “kind of hardening of individuals … that sees everything as entertainment or something to laugh about, or that everything is a zero-sum game, [or] a callousness towards other people’s suffering.”

It doesn’t help, says DePauw’s Tatge, that the news media regularly scores poorly in public opinion polls about trust. A 2011 study by the Pew Center for People and the Press recorded negative opinions about news organizations higher than ever on several measures. (Even at that, the news media was more respected than government or business.) And the sheer amount of information out there is mind-boggling.

Facts about Foxconn workers, who make products for Apple, were part of the controversy.
Wen-Chun Fan/CNN
Facts about Foxconn workers, who make products for Apple, were part of the controversy.

“The technology and the speed at which information is being transmitted and consumed has far outpaced the standards or the literacy of the people who are consuming it,” he says. “We’re not a very media-literate society, even though we have so much media.”

There are countermeasures, however. Information that goes out quickly can also be checked quickly or disseminated widely. Frey’s fabrications were revealed by the The Smoking Gun, which found a wide audience. Daisey’s story, too, is testament to that: his assertions were researched by reporters from The New York Times and Rob Schmitz of public radio’s “Marketplace.” Schmitz’s story ran as part of last weekend’s “This American Life” report.

And then there are courses like DePalma’s, which seek to expose students to a wide range of sources and reasons for trusting them – or not.

If he has a concern, it’s that his undergraduates – who can instantly reference sources on their smartphones – are susceptible to the presentation of a shiny, well-polished object.

“It’s hard for them to distinguish between hard journalism and something that appears to be journalism,” he says.

He noted a recent example: His class watched a clip of Daisey on the somewhat dry “PBS NewsHour” and then a clip from his one-man show. “They were sort of awake for the first part, but they were riveted by the second,” he says, “because he is an entertaining performer.”

So, do errors and fabrications destroy an overarching reality? Does emotional connection triumph in the end? Where does the truth lie?

Consider this: On Sunday, the five-month New York run of “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” ended, as previously planned. The audience knew about the controversy; it knew about “This American Life,” and Daisey’s statements, and the whole nightmare.

At the closing curtain, Mike Daisey received a standing ovation.

Said one woman who watched the show: “He really makes you think.”