The Sciences

The Seduction of Narrative

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorMar 19, 2012 8:40 AM

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Last November, somebody who is now at the center of a media storm said this:

The way our media is currently constructed, that story isn't being told in a way that actually reaches and connects with people, and has a consequence. Most of us are very ignorant of what is going on.

Who do you think might have said this and what is that story about? Global warming? Rural poverty? The war on drugs? It was Mike Daisey, explaining backstage in a New York theater, why he undertook to tell a story that he believes journalism wasn't equipped to tell. That story, about his experiences investigating a factory in China that makes iphones, was adapted in January for the popular This American Life radio program. On Friday, This American Life retracted that show and ran an extraordinary segment  that unravels the fabrications in Daisy's tale, which were recently uncovered by another reporter. As Max Fisher lays out in The Atlantic, here's the unfortunate truth that Daisey has undermined:

When Mike Daisey lied to national radio audiences on This American Life, lied to the 888,000 people who downloaded the podcast (the most in the show's history), and lied to who-knows-how-many theater audiences over two years of performing his one-man show The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, he wasn't wrong about the Chinese labor abuses that go into making iPads and other beloved American gadgets. He wasn't wrong that Chinese workers are often subjected to horrific conditions, wasn't wrong that Apple's supervision of its contractor's factories has been problematic, and wasn't wrong that we American consumers bear an indirect but troubling moral responsibility for these abuses. Most importantly, Mike Daisey wasn't wrong that it is possible for Chinese authorities and Apple to substantially improve labor conditions -- without making their products any more expensive or less competitive -- and that American consumers can help make this happen. But he was wrong that embellishing his story would help, that bad behavior in service of a good cause ever does.

That's one take home lesson (which apologists for Peter Gleick's recent deceit seem tone deaf to) for those who champion any cause. A second cautionary lesson involves the use of storytelling to advance a cause. In his analysis of the second This American Life episode, David Carr observes:

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.

This is known as the means-justify-the-ends rationale. Carr also hints at something ("I am a longtime fan of This American Life, but I have never assumed that every story I heard was literally true.") that Jay Rosen pokes at:

Is it possible to fall too deeply in love with "stories?" Where [host] Ira Glass did not go in his Retraction but should have. http://bit.ly/y5lqZJ

At his Tumblr blog, Rosen notes that Glass could have examined why he went ahead with the initial broadcast lauding Daisey's work, even after some red flags went up. Rosen offers some insight into this:

You could almost say that the [This American Life] show fetishizes the "story" as object. I think Ira Glass could have dug a little deeper into why he and his team made that fatal error and broadcast the segment even though they could not fully check it with the [Chinese] translator...If they had done that, they might have begun to question whether it is possible to fall too deeply in love with "stories" and their magical effects; whether that kind of love erodes skepticism, even when you are telling yourself to be skeptical; whether Ira and his colleagues in some way wanted Daisey's stories to be 100 percent true, whether this wish interfered with their judgment, whether there isn't something just a little too cultish about the cult of "the story" on This American Life.

A less charitable and somewhat similar critique of Glass has also been offered up in this interesting post by Nathanael Edward Bassett. And I am only scraping the surface of what's been written of the Daisey scandal. (Two other essays I found excellent can be read here and here.) But for my money, it is Carr who gets to the heart of what matters most when he asks at the outset of his NYT column:

Is it O.K. to lie on the way to telling a greater truth? The short answer is also the right one. No.

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