The Territory of Truth

THE TRUTH has taken quite a beating lately.This past weekend, like most of my friends in journalism, I had many go-rounds reading about, listening to and, of course, talking about the blow-back about a segment that American Public Media’s This American Life ran back in January.

The piece, “Mr. Dasiey and the Apple Factory,” was an excerpted version of monologist Mike Daisey’s one-man show, “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” that focused on Apple’s manufacturing processes in China. On Friday, Ira Glass, the host of This American Life, aired an excruciating, deeply affecting retraction of the story after locating Dasiey’s translator in China — which Daisey said couldn’t be done — a key red flag, Glass now admits.

The retraction, which unfolds in three parts and is the focus for the show’s full hour, is forensic in nature, a CSI for journalists. And, it’s painful — the post-mortem factcheck and Daisey’s response — to listen to. The dead air, the evasions, the qualifications.

Over the last 72 hours many journalists and bloggers have weighed in on the meta drama swirling around what essentially amounted to radio drama. I was particularly moved by David Carr’s piece in the New York Times which posted late last night.

A snip:

“I’m more concerned about the suggestion that you have to cheat to come up with remarkable journalism that tilts the rink. As it happens, Charles Duhigg, David Barboza and Keith Bradsher, reporters who work at The New York Times, spent a great deal of time last year investigating Apple’s suppliers and published a series in January that may have contained a bit less drama, but landed hard. Apple subsequently announced an audit of its Chinese supply chain by an independent group.”

That’s precisely what I’ve been meditating on — this idea that the truth needs drama in order for us — readers, theater-goers, the public at large — to feel connected to it, moved by it, enraged or pushed into action because of it. These defenders of “truthiness” seem to think the facts alone are too “flimsy” or will be ignored if they aren’t “dressed up” in some dramatic fashion.

Last night, in a Facebook comment string, one acquaintance attempting to get into Daisey’s head suggested that perhaps his move was one fueled by a chance to be on the show. It was that attempt at an explanation that unlocked something, my larger worry, particularly resonant now that I”m working with students who seem to have a much more “loose” idea about the territory and borders of truth.

I find myself much more concerned in a larger sense about how the word “truth” keeps getting bent, twisted and reworked to fit the moment or the medium, or as the Facebook acquaintance suggests, “an opportunity.” As a journalist, I find the thought incredibly troubling. If a story, at its root is compelling, why does it need to be dressed up?

All this coincided with reading an engrossing review in the New York Times of “The Lifespan of a Fact” by essayist John D’Agata and his fact-checker, Jim Fingal. Eerily similar territory was covered, familiar defenses of bending (or eschewing) facts in order to tell a more “real” or rather, more “affecting” story were laid out in defense:

Jennifer B. McDonald sets up the playing field her Times review:

Fingal signed on for what he must have thought would be a straightforward task: fact-checking a 15-page article. In the other corner is D’Agata, who thought he had made a deal with The Believer to publish not just an article but a work of Art — an essay already rejected by Harper’s Magazine because of “factual inaccuracies” — that would find its way to print unmolested by any challenge to its veracity. “Lifespan” is the scorecard from their bout, a reproduction of their correspondence over the course of five (or was it seven?) years of fact-checking.

During the process, according the McDonald’s review, D’Agata cites “rhythm,” the number of “beats,” and “more interesting” as reasons for reaching for something beyond the borders of fact– in other words the something that isn’t the truth, the very thing that people turn to news organizations expecting to find. Daisey did the same thing in his defense of his piece. It was particularly difficult to listen to when he contacted Glass a second time to continue the discussion and defend his piece as truth — not an embroidering of it.

As journalists, one of my reporter friends always says, all we have is trust. When we walk into a room and hope that someone will tell us his or her story it’s that understood trust that unlocks the door for us. We are trusted to carry back the truth — or as close to the truth that we can get.

Whenever we stand in the ashes of an act like this — from Stephen Glass to Jayson Blair (who is quoted in Carr’s brilliant kicker), my first thought always is: Why not call it something else then? We have all these recently minted terms to re-categorize — or annoyingly hybridize — the most mundane things from food to celebrity couples so why not call this new category of (or genre, if you will) semblance of truth something else: “Neotruth” or “NearFact” or reach back and go retro for something that just might fit: Fiction, which it is, and leave the truth and fact-gathering to people who don’t think it’s all that menial or prosaic to stack a particularly striking collection of facts together and build an affecting story without worrying about lack or color or off-rhythms or not enough beats or perhaps most importantly — not worrying about looking over your shoulder, waiting for the next shoe to drop.


2 thoughts on “The Territory of Truth

  1. it’s kind of a daisy chain, really. stories need drama, so true stories need to highlight the drama inherent within them. highlight does not mean heightened, as in artificially boosted.

    mike daisey’s claim that because he is a dramatist and not a journalist does not let him off the hook, and quite frankly i don’t find his storytelling to be all that compelling. i have not seen the entire show, only seen and head snippets, but his delivery leans heavily on emotion in a way that hits on false notes to my ear. where other monologists would reach for the emotion within their own experience — a subjective approach to personal journalism, if you will — daisey takes his experience as a base from which to play off the emotion of the audience. it’s a subtle trick, but by telling a “true” story infused with “drama” the audience comes to believe what they have been told as gospel.

    decades of slipping journalism standards allowed for this to happen. the audience is as much to blame as anyone.

  2. yes, you’re right regarding the “drama” and spectacle. also rolled into that is the “presentation” aspect. It’s been such a focus of newsroom discussions for some time now. while we were in the middle of several redesigns in the 90s, reporters really saw the shift of importance of art over the words (and where a story might be placed because of good art). i even had to rewrite a lede so that essentially the nutgraf would appear within the first three lines on the cover with the lead art (which was running quite large — more than half the page). It was the first time that art dictated my story’s shape. it was to attract the reader. that shift was the beginning of a whole new wave of decision making. By the aughts, “stories” became “content” and well, we know the rest….

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