Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

The Passion of Mike Daisey: Journalism, Storytelling and the Ethics of Attention

I am telling you that I do not speak Mandarin, I do not speak Cantonese, I have only a passing familiarity with Chinese culture and to call what I have a passing familiarity is an insult to Chinese culture—I don’t know fuck-all about Chinese culture.

But I do know that in my first two hours of my first day at that gate, I met workers who were fourteen years old, I met workers who were thirteen years old, I met workers who were twelve.

Do you really think Apple doesn’t know?

In a company obsessed with the details, with the aluminum being milled just so, with the glass being fitted perfectly into the case, do you really think it’s credible that they don’t know?

Or are they just doing what we’re all doing?

From part four, “The Gates of Foxconn” from “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” by Mike Daisey

Since 1997, Mike Daisey has written and performed monologues, exploring topics that include travel, genius, megalomania and the nature of truth and fiction. In September 2010, he began performing “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs”, a monologue that explored the history of the Apple corporation, Steve Jobs’s peculiar wizardy, and the labor conditions in the Chinese factories where Apple devices are assembled. The monologue ends with a challenge to the audience: we are to understand the dark side of Apple’s greatness, the human toll of the goods we carry.

You will carry it to your homes, and when you sit down in front of your laptops, when you open them up, you will see the blood welling up between the keys. You will know that those were made by human hands. You will always know that. When you take your phones out outside to check the time, and the light falls across your face, you will know that it may have been made by children’s hands. You will know that.

From part nine, “A Virus of the Mind”, from “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs

At some point in 2011, Ira Glass, creator and host of public radio program This American Life, saw Daisey’s stage performance and was fascinated by the story he heard. It’s hard to know precisely what Glass heard, as Daisey improvises from a script when performing the monologue, but he has published the script online, and the excerpts I’ve quoted above come from that document.

Glass invited Daisey to appear on This American Life, where he offered an abridged version of the monologue, focusing on his travels in China and his visits to the factories of Foxconn and other Apple suppliers. Daisey’s story was the first act of a two act show. The second act included an attempt to fact-check Daisey’s account, a discussion of Apple’s attempts at labor transparency, and a discussion of corporate ethics and outsourced labor. The show aired on January 6, 2012, and rapidly became one of This American Life’s most popular episodes.

On March 16, 2012, Marketplace – another prominent US public radio show – ran a story by journalist Rob Schmitz which challenged the authenticity of Daisey’s story. Schmitz had reported extensively on electronics factories in China, and details of Daisey’s story rang false to him. So he did some fairly simple fact-checking of his own: he called Daisey’s translator, who he found through a simple Google search, looking for translators named “Cathy” in Shenzen. Cathy Lee, Daisey’s translator, contradicted many of the details of Daisey’s account, making it clear that Daisey had embroidered some details and fabricated others.

That same day, This American Life retracted the story they’d aired ten weeks earlier, devoting an episode to correcting their errors and confronting Daisey. The episode, “Retraction“, has now become one of the most listened-to episodes of This American Life.

I was one of the 900,000 people who downloaded and listened to “Retraction” the week it was released. I drove home from MIT on the 16th, poured myself a stiff drink and listened to the piece, exchanging reactions over Twitter with other friends who were listening. The collective sentiment of my friends who spent their Friday night listening to a journalistic retraction on public radio: it was agonizing.

Glass is angry and hurt, and is seeking a confession from Daisey that isn’t forthcoming. He tells Daisey, “I have such a weird mix of feelings about this. Because I simultaneously feel terrible for you, and also, I feel lied to. And also, I stuck my neck out for you. I feel like I vouched for you with our audience based on your word.” What we hear from Daisey is, most strikingly, silence. Ira’s questions are met with five, ten, fifteen seconds of dead air before Daisey responds, explaining his decisions. Rob Schmitz, confronting Daisey alongside Glass, describes the experience as “exhausting”. With exchanges like this one about meeting workers injured by neurotoxin n-hexane, it’s not hard to understand why:

Rob Schmitz: So you lied about that? That wasn’t what you saw?

Mike Daisey: I wouldn’t express it that way.

Rob Schmitz: How would you express it?

Mike Daisey: I would say that I wanted to tell a story that captured the totality of my trip. And so when I was building the scene of that meeting, I wanted to have the voice of this thing that had been happening, that everyone had been talking about.

Ira Glass: So you didn’t actually meet an actual worker who had been poisoned by n-hexane?

Mike Daisey: That’s correct.

I listened to the Retraction show again yesterday morning, without the benefit of a glass of rye in my hand, and came away with another set of impressions. The first time through, I’d been struck by the sheer discomfort of the conversation. Listening yesterday, I found myself drawn to Daisey’s certainty that his work had been sound, and that his mistake was allowing it to be taken from the stage and put onto Glass’s show. I kept thinking about this short exchange:

Ira Glass: I’m saying, since then, did you worry that somebody would talk to Cathy (Daisey’s translator), and she would contradict you?

Mike Daisey: No, I worried about it all the time. I don’t know if this is a wise thing to be doing, telling you into this microphone, and this conversation. But yeah. I mean, I was kind of sick about it. Because I know that so much of the story is the best work I’ve ever made.

I don’t think Daisey is being disingenuous or evasive in declaring “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” to be some his best work. I’m going to argue that we need to consider that idea carefully, that Daisey’s story is both a success and a failure. His story is one of a handful of recent stories that have drawn attention to the tensions between journalism, storytelling and advocacy, and posed an intriguing set of questions for people interested in the future of news. What Mike Daisey’s story brings into focus is the tension between journalism as “a discipline of verification” and the power of – and need for – compelling narratives.

In early June 2011, the blog, “A Gay Girl in Damascus”, announced that the blog’s author, Amina Abdallah Araf al Omari, the gay girl in question, had been kidnapped, presumably by Syrian authorities. While some internet activists mobilized to demand her release, others began questioning the authenticity of her identity. Through a long and detailed investigation, online and traditional journalists unmasked Amina Araf as Tom MacMaster, a married, middle-aged American man who’d adopted an online persona as a Syrian activist to draw attention to events in Syria. MacMaster argued that he’d had to create Amina so that people would pay attention to the crisis in Syria. Journalists responded that they’d taken the Amina character at face value because they understood the importance of attaching human faces to complex narratives, and because they were having such a difficult time getting on-the-ground accounts from Damascus.

On March 5, 2012, Invisible Children, an activist organization dedicated to raising awareness of international war criminal Joseph Kony, and the plight of children in northern Uganda, released a video titled Kony 2012. It rapidly became the most “viral” video of all time on YouTube, achieving 100 million views in six days. The video attracted criticism on at least three fronts. Some questioned Invisible Children’s financial motives, observing that the organization focuses primarily on awareness-raising and filmmaking, not on direct service on the ground in Northern Uganda. Others criticized the filmmaker’s decision to speak on behalf of Ugandans, rather than amplifying the voices of people affected directly by Kony and the violence in northern Uganda. Others, myself included, argued that the video oversimplified a complex situation and misrepresented the current situation in Uganda in order to attract more attention to their cause.

I don’t mean to suggest that these two incidents, plus Mike Daisey’s case, represent an emergent trend. I am certain that someone better versed in media history than I will find ample evidence of debates in the past about the borders between journalism and storytelling and between reporting and advocacy. But I’m intrigued by these conversations because the conversations about MacMaster, Kony and Daisey are some of the most passionate and inflamed I’ve participated in. If I judge from my comment threads, my post on Kony is the most controversial piece I’ve ever written, and my writeup of MacMaster follows close behind.

I had expected my Kony post to generate criticisms from supporters of Invisible Children, and I was not disappointed. I was somewhat more surprised by a set of critics – one who corresponded through a series of emails sent via anonymous remailer – who accused me of lying because my criticisms of Invisible Children focused on the content of their video and not their connections to evangelical churches and to right-wing donors.

The most interesting and challenging critiques came from friends who work in philanthropy, who argued that I was too quick to dismiss Invisible Children’s accomplishments. The organization quickly achieved something that’s often seen as impossible – getting American youth to pay attention to an international human rights issue. When I argued that Invisible Children was pointing to a crisis that was acute six years ago, but perhaps worth less attention currently than the Syrian government’s abuse of their citizens, a dear friend challenged me: if I really cared about Syria, I should learn from Invisible Children and launch my own campaign to generate attention. After all, isn’t Global Voices all about calling attention to forgotten parts of the world? Wasn’t my anger at Invisible Children really angry at my own failure to build the sort of audience for Global Voices that Invisible Children was able to command?

I spent a sleepless night thinking about my friend’s critique. I ended up concluding that the goals of a project like Global Voices are pretty different from those of Invisible Children. Global Voices is dedicated to amplifying the voices of people using social media in the developing world. It’s closer to a journalistic paradigm than to an advocacy one – indeed, the reason we have an advocacy arm is so we can separate that function, advocating for freedom of speech online and the release of imprisoned online writers, from our reporting functions. The conversation was a challenging one for me, because that line between advocacy and reporting is a very blurry one. When you call attention to events in a country like Madagascar, which receives very little media attention, you’re engaged in a form of advocacy, demanding more attention to a set of issues you believe are under-reported. And it’s possible to make the case that Kony2012 was a similar attempt to call attention to an under-reported situation.

I think the Daisey story is so fascinating and complex because his story occupies the blurry areas both between advocacy and journalism, and between journalism and storytelling.

One way to understand this second space of tension – between reporting news and constructing compelling narrative – is to look at a fascinating new book, “Lifespan of a Fact”. The book is essentially a long email exchange a long exchange, partially reproduced from their emails, partially reconstructed, partially fictionalized, between essayist John D’Agata and fact-checker Jim Fingal, over a 15 page essay Agata wrote about a boy named Levi Presley, who jumped to his death from the observation deck of a Las Vegas hotel.

An excerpt, published in Harpers (which rejected D’Agata’s essay for factual inaccuracies, leading him to submit it to The Believer, where Fingal worked) gives a sense for the flavor of the conversation. Jim finds a fact he’s unable to verify – the number of strip clubs in the city – and D’Agata explains that he changed the number because it better fits the rhythm of the sentence.

It quickly becomes clear that they’re at cross purposes. Fingal notes that D’Agata’s account is likely to become the definitive account of Presley’s death, and wants to ensure the facts in that account are correct. D’Agata makes clear that he’s committed to the larger “truth” of Las Vegas, artifice and the stories we tell ourselves. Jennifer McDonald, evaluating the book on the front page of the New York Times book review makes clear she thinks D’Agata’s argument is crap:

This book review would be so much easier to write were we to play by John D’Agata’s rules. So let’s try it. (1) This is not a book review; it’s an essay. (2) I’m not a critic; I’m an artist. (3) Nothing I say can be used against me by the subjects of this essay, nor may anyone hold me to account re facts, truth or any contract I have supposedly entered into with you, the reader.

D’Agata’s view of the essay as telling a larger truth than the individual facts represent seems similar, to me, to the stance Daisey is taking with his piece. The abuses factory workers in China face are all real, he argues. That he didn’t personally meet them all is something he needs to gloss over to make his narrative work as a dramatic monologue. Were he to tell some stories as his encounters, others as accounts that he read, the monologue would lose much of the dramatic impact it has. It would work better as journalism, but less well as storytelling and as art.

A simpler narrative is a more effective one. That’s one of the core arguments made by Jason Mogus in an excellent evaluation of the Kony 2012 campaign, titled “Why your non-profit won’t make a KONY 2012“. Mogus argues, “This is of course the #1 criticism of IC’s work, that they over-simplified (or manipulated) the issue, lacking nuance on the complexity of the situation. But the fact that they made this video for their audiences, not for their policy specialists, is the secret of their success.” He is probably right. Advocacy to a broad audience almost certainly requires simplifying complex narratives.

And this is what Daisey argues he’s doing, in dialog with Glass in the Retraction episode:

And everything I have done in making this monologue for the theater was bent toward that end, to make people care. I’m not going to say that I didn’t take a few shortcuts in my passion to be heard. But I stand behind the work.

My mistake, the mistake I truly regret, is that I had it on your show as journalism. And it’s not journalism. It’s theater. It uses the tools of theater and memoir to achieve its dramatic arc.

And of that arc and that work I’m very proud. Because I think it made you care, Ira. And I think it made you want to delve. And my hope is it has made other people delve. And my hope is it has made other people delve.

Daisey references two important concepts in that statement: the caring problem, and the ladder of engagement. My friend (and boss) Joi Ito offered the first term to explain the challenges he’s had paying attention to news from parts of the world he knows little about. Knowing you should care about a civil war in Syria or ongoing conflict in Somalia isn’t the same thing as caring. Daisey recognizes that you may not care about labor conditions in Shenzen and that he may need to “make you care” through the power of storytelling, in the same way that Kony 2012 worked to make you care through talented filmmaking and the endorsement of celebrities who saw and were effected by the film.

Once you care, Daisey hopes you’ll go further, climbing “the ladder of engagement”, a term widely used by advocates and activists. A savvy political campaign manager will ask someone who’s come to a political rally to put up a yard sign, and someone who’s put up a yard sign to host a campaign event for a candidate. Some fraction of supporters will “climb the ladder”, becoming more involved and knowledgeable, until they become one of the leaders of the campaign, planning new creative actions for others to participate in.

In responding to criticism of the Kony 2012 video, The Resolve, an organization that describes itself as a partner of Invisible Children works on many of the same issues as Invisible Children, but was not involved with producing the Kony 2012 video, invokes this theory to explain their support of the Kony 2012 video why they think the video was worthwhile:

We created a “ladder” of engagement, offering activists a range of options to go deeper on the issue. For most of the people who watched Kony 2012, the video was the first time they had heard of the LRA. This means that there is a vast new pool of people who could be part of that critical mass needed to influence U.S. and international policy towards the conflict. To make them effective activists, Resolve offers them resources to get better informed about the conflict, ranging from our blog posts to in-depth policy reports based on our field research.

Even if an initial message is simplified, some percentage of the people who watch the video will become engaged and learn more about the situation, expanding from a black and white picture to a more complex and nuanced one. Given the challenges of getting people to care about a situation like child soldiers in Central Africa, or dangerous labor practices in China, perhaps the best we can do is offer a simplified explanation and hope others will delve deeper.

This idea came up at Center for Civic Media a few weeks back when Judy Richardson, one of the producers of the acclaimed Eyes on the Prize documentary series about the American Civil Rights movement visited Center for Civic Media. Eyes on the Prize took a number of radical steps as a documentary – rather than putting historians on camera to talk about events in the past, the people who participated in protests, marches and meetings talk about their experiences and narrate those events. This complicated the challenge of telling a compelling story, Richardson argued, but it was the right thing to do, as the message of Eyes on the Prize was that the movement was a vast, complicated thing, not just the work of Martin Luther King Jr.

She noted her disappointment that films like Mississippi Burning, which was loosely based on the murder of three civil rights workers in 1964, have reached far larger audiences than her documentary. She understands the need to simplify the story, she says, but Mississippi Burning goes too far, turning the FBI into the heroes of the story. “You don’t take dramatic license that far. It would be like making a film about World War II, and honoring the Vichy government collaborators, not the French Resistance.”

The Richardson line – when villans are transformed into heroes – is one line we might consider in evaluating when a simplified narrative becomes too simple. What triggered my reaction to Kony 2012 was the sense that it was treading very close to that line in talking about the LRA without talking about the Ugandan government’s role in herding Acholi people into camps for their ostensible safety and the human rights abuses committed by the Ugandan army. Joseph Kony is certainly a villan, but it’s far from clear that Museveni’s government – which has systematically squelched democratic dissent, or his army – whose incompetency and corruption have much to do with Kony’s continued freedom – should be the heroes we end up supporting.

Sam Gregory, Program Director at WITNESS, an organization that helps people affected by human rights abuses produce videos to advocate for their rights, suggests a more strenuous set of rules:

Simple is too simple when oversimplifying the problem leads to modeling the wrong solutions or to counter-productive impacts for the people who are directly affected.

Simple is too simple if the initial action participants are asked to take is not followed by a next step in a ladder of engagement (and I would note that Invisible Children explicitly notes the video is a ‘first entry point’ to engagement).

Simple is too simple when it models a solution that misdirects an audience’s understanding of the systemic causes of an issue (two analyses here of this in the context of Kony 2012 are presented by Ethan again, and Conor Cavanagh).

Simple is too simple when a simple entry point does not allow viewers/participants to easily drill down and engage with more complexity (see Lana Swartz’s working paper on this potential for ‘drillability’ in transmedia campaigns)

Simple is too simple when it perpetuates stereotypes (for example, a ‘rescue’ approach) or reinforces the lack of agency in situations where agency has already been assaulted by the human rights violations themselves. At the root of human rights work is human dignity.

Simple is too simple for a single human rights video when it misstates facts, uses footage or interviews out of context, or when it breaches ethical ideas on representation, particularly when that compromises people’s dignity and safety.

Are these the right places to draw the lines? Am I being fair in putting Kony 2012 on the wrong side of some – not all – of these lines? I don’t know. I can tell you why I think the video is on the wrong side of some lines, but I don’t get to draw the line for you. And I’m writing this essay in part because I don’t know how to draw the line (for myself, not for you) with Mike Daisey. I’m sympathetic to his assertion that there’s a different line for advocacy than for journalism… which forces me to acknowledge that the controversy over the Kony 2012 video stems, in part, from what rules we use to evaluate it. In other words, I think it’s possible to admire that Invisible Children used social media brilliantly and made an evocative and affecting film while being angry that the film was manipulative and upset about the lack of Ugandan voices. Invisible Children were doing their job in advocating for their cause, and it’s possible that I’ve been doing my job in critiquing their work and trying to amplify Ugandan voices who are responding.

I think it’s possible to understand Ira Glass’s anger in part through this lens of oversimplification. What This American Life has done so brilliantly over its 17-year run is tell complex stories using real people’s voices. Stories like “The Giant Pool of Money” take on intricate and complex narratives – the mortgage crisis – by interviewing individuals involved with different aspects of the housing industry. We hear their voices, not the voices of the reporters. It would be far easier to have a reporter or an expert navigate this complex territory, but part of the genius of the storytelling is that we come to realize that the mortgage crisis wasn’t the act of a small group of sinister, shadowy bankers crashing the global economy, but the rational decisions of hundreds of thousands of people doing what made sense to them at the time.

But This American Life has also championed other methods of storytelling. As their “About Our Radio Show” page attests:

We think of the show as journalism. One of the people who helped start the program, Paul Tough, says that what we’re doing is applying the tools of journalism to everyday lives, personal lives. Which is true. It’s also true that the journalism we do tends to use a lot of the techniques of fiction: scenes and characters and narrative threads.

Meanwhile, the fiction we have on the show functions like journalism: it’s fiction that describes what it’s like to be here, now, in America. What we like are stories that are both funny and sad. Personal and sort of epic at the same time.

If there’s a place on the radio for the sort of narrative Daisey puts forward, we might think it would be This American Life. But Daisey’s work isn’t cleanly journalism or fiction. It might be “civic fiction”, a term coined by my colleague Molly Sauter to try to explain narratives like that told by Tom MacMaster, a narrative that’s not factual, but designed to address important stories that are hard to tell any other way. Ben Walker, on his radio show Too Much Information, may be the best practitioner of the genre at present, blending hard news, interviews, and fictional storytelling without warning labels, leaving listeners wondering what, if any, of his remarkable narrative, Occupy Siberia – where Ben travels to rural Russia to offer a workshop on social media and ends up starting a revolution – is true.

As much as Glass admires Daisey’s storytelling, it’s clear from how he frames Daisey’s monologue on This American Life that he’s not ready to blur the journalism and fiction lines: “When I saw Mike Daisey perform this story on stage, when I left the theater I had a lot of questions. I mean, he’s not a reporter, and I wondered, did he get it right? And so we’ve actually spent a few weeks checking everything that he says in his show.”

That factchecking in the original episode obviously left something to be desired. But once Glass moves from checking individual details (TAL reveals that Foxconn’s cafeteria may seat 4,000, not the 10,000 Daisey asserted!) to considering larger issues, it opens up a fascinating dialog. Glass interviews Ian Spaulding of INFACT Global Partners, an organization that’s worked with many hundreds of Chinese factories to bring their labor practices up to international standards. He questions Daisey’s assertions about child labor, arguing that it happens, but very rarely at international electronics manufacturers. But he acknowledges that Chinese workplace conditions are brutal, by western standards. At the same time, he argues that these situations are changing rapidly from bottom-up pressure – the labor market in China is very tight, and factories like Foxconn experience 10% monthly turnover, leading them to improve working and living conditions.

The “fact-check” turns into a discussion about whether it’s fair for the US to outsource labor to other countries without sending western labor standards abroad as well. This leads to the odd experience of Nicholas Kristof discussing an essay he wrote with his wife, Sherryl WuDunn – who’s from a part of China near Foxconn’s factory – that offers “Two Cheers for Sweatshops“. Kristof and WuDunn argue that the sweatshop era is a relatively brief one in a country’s economic development, and that the working conditions are significantly better than the alternative – rural poverty.

For me, this postscript was the most helpful part of the show. Mike’s story puts productively uncomfortable questions on the table: How much should we care about the people who make the devices we use? When we export jobs, do we have a responsibility to export our labor protections as well? What’s the balance between development and considerations of worker safety? Daisey’s story from Shenzen falls well short of journalistic standards for reporting. But in terms of provoking an interesting conversation on rich topics, it’s massively successful. Unfortunately, those rich conversations get eclipsed once the conversation turns into a question of whether Daisey falsified a story.

Again, it’s fair to ask whether the Kony 2012 video and the ensuing critique had a similar effect. I’m tempted to dismiss this possibility by arguing that Kony 2012 leaves fewer open questions than Daisey’s piece. But the fact remains that the video, the backlash and the ensuing conversation brought some unfamliar voices to the fore, like journalist and blogger Rosebell Kagumire, whose YouTube response to the Kony2012 video has received more than half a million views. It’s certainly possible that there’s been more mainstream media attention to Central Africa this past month than in an average year.

But this can’t be our preferred working method. For one thing, it’s brutal for the people who tell these provocative stories. Jason Russell’s tragic public breakdown has been attributed to stress from criticism of the Kony video. Chicago Theatre has cancelled a Daisey performance and other places he’s scheduled to deliver his piece are fielding questions about whether tickets will be refunded. Chicago Public Radio has announced that they’ll be investigating the fact-checking behind the original Daisey story. There has to be a better way to start complex, multilayered discussion than offering a simplified, compelling narrative, then battering it to pieces… right?

Why is this conversation about journalism and advocacy, simplification and complexity happening now?

We’ve seen a rise in the ability to create media and advocate for your cause and your viewpoint over the past decade. And there’s been a massive rise in content available to all of us – and an accompanying rise in ability to choose what we pay attention to – over the past two decades. The result is an increasingly fierce battle for attention. We may be able to find and publish information much more easily, but we’ve still got a limited number of hours in the day to pay attention to different topics, and advertisers, advocates, journalists and every cranky academic with a blog (and yes, I’m pointing to myself here) is demanding that scarce attention.

These questions about attention are what led me onto the odd academic/critic/activist path I find myself on today. It began with an activist question: “How do we get people to invest in technology businesses in sub-Saharan Africa?” That led to an academic question: “Why is so much news from Africa about conflict and so little about positive developments?” That led back to activism with Global Voices and back to academe with questions about how Global Voices could be more effective in amplifying voices and changing media narratives.

I’m wondering if stories like Mike Daisey’s mark a shift in this conversation about attention. The conversation has involved web publishers, advertisers and activists all asking how we compete successfully for small slices of attention. With stories like Daisey’s and Kony 2012, the conversation switches from the practical question of seizing attention to the ethical questions of attention. What’s fair play in demanding attention for a story or for a cause? How far can you simplify a story to gain attention? How much can you speak on someone else’s behalf? Perhaps the reason these conversations get so passionate is that they’re not just about the rules of different professions but about the basic question, “What can someone demand I pay attention to?”


I’ve been gratified by responses to this post, in comments and elsewhere, especially as many responses have pointed me to other interesting articles on these topics. Here are some of the pieces I’ve enjoyed that are engaging with some of the same topics I tried to address.

A great piece from Rebecca Hamilton, author, journalist and Darfur activist, on the limits of volunteer-based engagement and change. Very, very smart on questions of simplification, and offers the key insight that the frame you use to explain a situation to a broad audience may not be as useful in trying to solve the problem you’re addressing.

A thoughtful essay on the nature of fact-checking from former Atlantic fact-checker Atossa Araxia Abrahamian. It’s particularly helpful on the subject of “vigilante” fact checking, and posits the helpful theory that “we fact-check because we hate liars.”

Craig Silverman, cited in the previous Abrahamian essay as a “patron saint” of the contemporary fact-checking movement, points out that the book, “The Lifespan of a Fact”, is also not strictly factual, but a blend of correspondence and recreation of that correspondence. I’ve changed my post to reflect that fact… though I’m now wondering whether I need to start putting the word fact in quotes when in a dialog as complex and multilayered as this.

Alexandra Bradbury argues that there’s a need for fact – and ideology – checking not just in stories like Mike Daisey’s, but in more traditional This American Life shows, like a recent show on taxation and public goods, which she sees as uncritically anti-labor.

Alisa Solomon, writing in The Nation, offers some of the historical background I’d been hoping for, both looking at New Journalism and performance art.

Finally, I should have known better than to post on this topic without checking my friend Mike Annany’s blog. His post, “Doubting the Impossible: Mike Daisey, the Pragmatists, and Networked Ways of Knowing”, is a wonderful exploration of the nature of truth and of epistemology.

9 Responses to “The Passion of Mike Daisey: Journalism, Storytelling and the Ethics of Attention”

  1. Joe Crawford says:

    “I am certain that someone better versed in media history than I will find ample evidence of debates in the past about the borders between journalism and storytelling and between reporting and advocacy.”

    I hope so! I wish I remembered better the moment when I realized that the “editorials page” had a different purpose from the other parts of the newspaper. I was still very young (tween I think) and my Grandmother (avid newspaper reader) explained that the columns in there were not done in the same way that the other parts of the paper were. As a teen I remember coming across Truman Copote’s “In Cold Blood” and my teacher explained that it occupied a genre – it was something called a “non-fiction novel” – not quite history, not quite fiction.

    As we all go about telling our individual stories, and as the media landscape continues to fragment, we’re all learning about the uses and abuses of selling that story. Somewhere in all Daisey stories someone pointed out that the final season of the wire was concerned with a fabulist at a newspaper, and a cop making those dreams real — and why? an effort to get funding poured to the Police Department (and to sell papers). The desire to effect change — to channel funds and attention, or to sell journalism can and does distort our efforts to tell the truth.

    I can pull up the wikipedia entry for Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” and see: President Theodore Roosevelt considered Sinclair a “crackpot” and wrote to William Allen White, “I have an utter contempt for him. He is hysterical, unbalanced, and untruthful. Three-fourths of the things he said were absolute falsehoods. For some of the remainder there was only a basis of truth.”

    Culturally, we have a lot of tolerance for “personal truth.” When a person tells me they’ve felt the presence of the holy spirit, or that they experienced a chill at a time corresponding with what they later found out was a moment a family member died, or any number of spiritual or religious beliefs, we don’t tend to ask about the verifiability of those facts, but neither do we expect to act on those truths.

    Sorry, I got long-winded there — this is a fascinating issue, because it gets at some Philosophy 101 things that invite discussion — how do we know what is real, what is true, and how do we behave ethically in a complex world?

  2. R.K. says:

    No, I’ve had it with the Daisey crowd. If I’m being spun a story, I want to know before I hear the tale. Who gets to win the Keystone pipeline issue, the side with the better storyteller? Does the best storyteller get to win the fracking issue? Why don’t we demand truth?

  3. TMS Ruge says:

    R.K….

    Simple, because we can’t handle the truth. The truth is boring. The truth is factual, it lacks imagination, it is boring. The truth plain, sometimes isn’t sensational enough to move us. Facts matter in court. But the journey to the gavel is governed by the court of public opinion. The court of public opinion is fast, furious and can be controlled to effect by those with the skills to discard of nuance and feed the public opinion animal a serving of tantalizing half truths glazed to mislead.

    This is why sniper video from Syria of daily killings doesn’t move us. It is stack, bleak and desensitizing. it also disempowers us because it doesn’t provide us with avenues to assuage our need to do something (in order to ease our guilt. That’s why a like, share, donate button are the new guilt relievers. At least you did something. So now, go about your day, everything will be fine.

  4. Fascinating post, Ethan. I do, however, want to note one important point about the book, “The Lifespan of a Fact.”

    You correctly point out that part of D’agata’s message/argument shares similarities with that of Daisey.

    But I think you may overlook the most important similarity between these two works: both are sold as being factual and neither of them are. The Lifespan of a Fact is not “essentially a long email exchange between essayist John D’Agata and fact-checker Jim Fingal …”

    As I note here, the book is more fiction than fact: http://www.poynter.org/latest-news/regret-the-error/164447/the-lifespan-of-a-fact-blends-fiction-with-nonfiction-to-explore-nature-of-truth/

    The exchanges between D’Agata and Fingal in the book are not from actual emails. They wrote a book that uses the concept of the fact checking process as the narrative structure.

    “We absolutely re-created an argument that didn’t really take place the way it’s described,” D’Agata told an interviewer.

    Yet you would never understand that from reading the book’s promo materials or that Harper’s excerpt. Indeed, many reviewers have also gotten that wrong.

    Part of the reason for the confusion is both Daisey and Lifespan use the term non-fiction as part of their pitch to audiences: http://www.poynter.org/latest-news/regret-the-error/167234/mike-daisey-lifespan-of-a-fact-use-journalism-as-a-sales-strategy/

    Fascinating how Daisey and D’Agata say facts aren’t essential to overall truth, yet they both wilfully wrap themselves in the cloak of non-fiction/factual accuracy when it comes to selling tickets/books.

    All that being said, you pose some very important questions at the end of your great post.

  5. Patrick says:

    For people coming from the more fiction side to ambiguous narratives, this is a very old debate. Tim O’Brian’s novel The Things They Carried is a fictional account dog his time in Vietnam, that also fictionalizes the process of fictionalizing, telling how what happened, what he tells his readers, and what hetells his daughters, all differ. (the daughter is herself a fiction).

    Tennessee Williams wrote The Glass Menagerie where in the opening We are told that the narrator is “the opposite of a stage magician” because he gives us truth made out of untrue things.

    These are both labeled as fictional, and they are stories more about the personal than about policy issues, but they are pointing at some of the same things in terms of facts sometimes being inadequate to telling a true story.

  6. Jay Schiavone says:

    It seems that a major animating impulse is that people don’t like being fooled. Oprah excoriated James Frey for his fictionalized memoir. I don’t expect she was concerned that her viewers might have been misled about the horrors of addiction if they had read A Million Little Pieces. She felt she had been made to look foolish. Recall Margaret B. Jones went on On Point with Tom Ashbrook and sold him a bill of goods about her memoir about life in an LA gang. Within days, he too had to run an hour-long retraction show. But was he angry that people might get the wrong idea about gangs?
    Frey and “Jones” (she hid her real name to avoid detection, but was eventually exposed as a fraud by her sister) both attempted to go the straight narrative route, but their fiction work could not get published. People like true stories. But the truth is often boring, or doesn’t have good narrative qualities. Hence embellishment and fabrication. The fine line between reporting and storytelling gives way to the gray line separating journalism from entertainment. It would not occur to me that Mr. Daisey’s show has high standards of accuracy and faith to facts. He’s a performer. If he makes destructive false claims, let Apple, Inc. sue him. More dangerous is the news program, or worse, opinion roundtable that purports to undergird to the public discourse. Even when an outfit declares itself an arbiter of truth we see how an agenda insinuates itself (ugh, Politifact). Daisey’s proclamations are close to pure truth when measured against the veracity of Hannity or Limbaugh, but most public policy is determined by the claims of the latter two.
    And Ira Glass is not so pure that his program hasn’t promoted false or embellished wisdom handed to them by people other than Mike Daisey. Read Alexandra Bradbury for an example http://spaceislimited.wordpress.com/2012/03/25/this-american-life-what-kind-of-ideology/

  7. Jay Rosen says:

    Ethan: I would have a slightly different set of responses to the arguments and facts you lay out so helpfully here.

    I think the shift you identity–from how to Get Attention to the ethics of attention-getting–is an important one; if there’s anything good in the episodes you review it’s that we’re talking about deeper problems than “how-to.”

    One thing that would help us: we could start analyzing different “journalism situations” by the manner in which attention has been recruited. Meaning:

    Attention-granted journalism or documentary-making (the user volunteers his or her attention to the product) is a different animal from attention-gained (the producer persuades the users: hey, take a look at this.)

    Both are different from attention-grabbed (which we sometimes call “link-baiting” or “sensationalism” in which the audience is almost compelled to click.)

    Granted, gained, grabbed represent different attention ethics and economies in news. A key variable is trust. Attention-granted is a condition of high trust in the journalism producer. The result is loyal users, but fewer of them. Attention gained corresponds to medium trust. The result is occasional users, swelling when you hit it right. Attention grabbed is compatible with low trust. The likely result is uncommitted users (drive-by’s) who can make for impressive traffic stats but don’t really represent an audience “won.”

    A second point I would make is that “just the facts, Ma’am” and “this is the story of my trip” and “here’s what happened to me” as well as “I’m not making this up, it really went down this way…” are all forms of persuasionas much as claims to actuality. They are ways of getting us to accept a given story-teller’s account by attempting to persuade us that we’re getting “only what happened.” See my post on this:

    http://pressthink.org/2010/07/objectivity-as-a-form-of-persuasion-a-few-notes-for-marcus-brauchli/

    If Daisey persuaded theatre-goers to accept his account not as very well sourced “civic fiction” but as “this is what actually happened” story-telling, then he persuaded them of a lie, and he should be held to account for lying like that. Objectivity in journalism is itself a form of persuasion. It says to the users, “I don’t have a stake in this, I don’t have a view, I’m just telling you the way it is. So accept my account because it’s not a view from somewhere; it’s just… what happened.”

    Finally, what’s troublesome to me about arguments that excuse distortion, reduction, and corner-cutting with, “I’m trying to win attention and make people care” is that it encourages the producer of the work to treat the users as an object to be manipulated or “hooked” on the story for their own good, which immediately excuses the writer from treating people as equals: fellow citizens who can be persuaded by truth, facts, reason and proportionate response.

    In this connection I often find that the phrase “tear-jerker” gives an adequate account of how other people are seen when it’s permissible to spice up the story so as to grab their attention. A tear-jerker a form of content that manipulates human emotions so that we almost cannot help crying.

    It’s not that so much damage is done to the audience, the jerkees that way. The greater damage may accrue to the producer of the tear jerker who begins to see audiences as his helpless plaything. “Making them care” is a power grab. When you think you have been successful as it, as Daisey clearly did, you are on a precipice.

    Thanks for your thoughtful post.

  8. Ben Tremblay says:

    “Willful blindness” … is that an effective legal concept? I don’t know. But on the hippie bus in the summer of ’68 I realized it was core to my cohort’s quality as individuals. (Not everyone, of course. I’m talking about yuppies in general.)

    When someone gets attention for what they do, they tend to do it again. If they’re actually rewarded, they will act with ever more fervor and confidence. It’s just human nature.

  9. Thank you Ethan. I feel relieved these thoughts and conversations have risen to the surface now from such a respected pracitioner in the digital age.Yes these tensions have surfaced before over time and will do so again and again as new media and new generations and new issues come to the fore.

    I agree with Jay Rosen and would add that there have been , historically, many forms of factual narrative from older forms of media. Even just looking at documentary (and the borders with news) from film and television there have been experiments with diverse forms but all within a codified and highly regulated medium that is TV and cinema (and I only speak here about the UK which I know best). And also many forms of factually-based drama – an area I have spent hours , probably days, thinking about, arguing about and working within.

    Whether it is the anthropologist filmmaker wondering how far they are influencing the communities they serve or chart, or others contesting the same or the point of view film where the position of the filmmaker is known, or the “observational” which can pretend to be objective , “reality” where “reality” can be so constructed that sometimes it does feel like fiction – these forms just on the factual side have coeexisted with “pure” news and journalism over time.

    On the fiction or drama side factually-based drama, drama-documentary , drama reconstructions of “real” or historic” facts abound. They are all crafted to do a job – more often than not which is something to do with the filmmaker’s (or producer or creator ) own passions, needs (psychological, economic, creative) which they hope finds a resonance out there in the world on whatever platform.

    Having worked in issue-based documentary for some time my feeling is that we overstate the capacity of the piece of media itself to grab attention and “make” people do stuff. I do think it can really provide an opportunity to enable people to think differently and perhaps do stuff – after all that is what happened to me to kickstart my work in television. But while these mixed forms can be incredibly powerful they are not always win win or cost free as your examples show – they can have powerful impacts on the positive and negative sides and so a culture of critique and criticism and understanding of forms and agonising is the only kind of culture to have.

    Just reading your piece (and not having yet listened to or seen all the pieces you describe) I am sure the Daisey piece has struck a raw nerve for many many reasons – not least to do with the very personal relationships people have with their Apple products and the millions of people who have them. I need to return to this when I have heard it all but writing about Apple for a new book last summer it began to feel clear that when a company is pretty closed about many of its processes from the brilliant to the not so good , for whatever reason, then evangelists and persecutors step in easily with quite big effect.

    I would take the the idea of retraction as wholly healthy however uncomfortable. I can also completely understand why those in philanthrophy having had such a “success” in filmmaking terms or in audience terms may not get the valid criticisms. In their model of success they have triumphed – but that is because they have adopted a TV model where high audiences means success rather than a more nuanced measure which might be something about what impact the piece of media might have had, what did people actually do or think afterwards – now that would be interesting research!

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