Flashbang journalism: Mike Daisey and the NPR retraction

After listening to the “Retraction” piece on This American Life (it’s episode 460, I believe), I was absolutely blown away. I was first blown away, firstly, because I had originally heard the piece on the radio and was blown away by that. Double blow-away. Too much to handle.

But this episode is significant because it’s not a new story; it’s a bare-boned breakdown of one of the worst faux-pas’ in journalism: fabrication. If you don’t know, there was a story that ran back in January on This American Life based on Chinese factories that manufacture Apple products (cue the reactive groan and nasty gut feeling within every person who owns one of those products with the bitten-apple logo that signifies everything capitalism and consumer) that became the show’s most downloaded episode ever. It’s a very moving piece, and very dramatic. And that’s very indicative of This American Life, the story-telling style of journalism. But what was so significant about this newest episode was the fact that it revealed something glaring about that original story on Apple factories: that is was, for all intents and purposes, a lie.

Now, a lot of what Mike Daisey (the guy whose theatrical show was excerpted as fact on the January episode) told Ira in that first episode about the Apple factories has been proven to be true and has occurred. Yet, what was most important wasn’t the “greater picture” that Daisey was trying to paint through his act tainted with elaborate statements and stretched observations, but that he deliberately lied in his portrayal of his observations of the factories in China to Glass during the segment in January.

Now, Daisey’s free to do whatever he wants on the stage. I understand. The standards that journalism holds itself to don’t necessarily apply in theatre. It’s art. I get it. But when this art begins to intertwine with journalism as it did on This American Life, that’s when problems begin to arise. Daisey created some minor (and major) lies in his story, and he deliberately said that these things were fact when he spoke to Ira — even during the fact-checking stage.

When you listen to the piece, you can hear the sadness in Ira’s voice as well as the (perhaps exaggerated) regret in Daisey’s. It’s very moving.

“I simultaneously feel terrible for you and I also feel lied to,” Glass says at one point.

Later, Daisey gets as close to an apology as ever.

“I really regret putting this show on This American Life,” he said. “And it was wrong for me to misrepresent to you and to Brian that it could be on the show.”

There are many things that I thought about after listening to the hour-long piece. (And if you’re wondering, it really is worth listening to the entire hour. It’s goes by in what feels like 5 minutes.) Here’s a (relatively) digest-able version.

1. What role does truth play in storytelling? Can journalism be prose without stretching the truth? How does it go about doing that? Where do you draw the line?

As written in a reactive piece in the New York Times, “Daisey admits in the monologues that he once fabricated a story because it connected with the audience. After telling this lie over and over it became so integrated into the architecture of his piece that it became impossible to remove or perhaps to distinguish what really happened.”

2. Is it worth it, as Mike Daisey says, to create a story like this that may have truthful inaccuracies and discrepancies when it reveal a greater issue that might be true in another situation or factory or place?

3. It’s interesting that a very narrative story is needed to attract attention — would a more news-oriented structure made it less appealing?

4. Would Daisey changing the title of his piece from “real” to “fiction” to dilute the impact, and therefore the response, of audience members? What does this mean about our reactive culture in the U.S.? Is shock therapy really the only way to get us to act?

5. How much fault should be put onto Ira and This American Life for not pursuing the translator/more fact-checking/being more skeptical? How powerful, really, is the overarching blindness that comes from people being drawn into a really good story?

Moreover, there is multi-faceted fault when thinking about this awkward situation.

1. Mike Daisey. That’s obvious.

2. This American Life. There could have been better fact-checking. But Glass acknowledges this, and really does feel betrayed by Daisey. It’s just a shame that it all had to come out during post-publication sleuthing.

3. Apple. Razor-thin profit margins and negotiation benefit of Apple as a client, flexibility of the Chinese manufacturing system — they’ve created an unhealthy environment for workers, consumers and the supply-demand system as a whole. Everything is made in China, so next-door communication between factories (like bolt-makers) is easier than dealing with manufacturing in U.S. and other far-away countries.

So, Ira concludes, “Should I feel bad about this?”

“Our system in the U.S. used to hae bad working conditions, but we passed laws to improve conditions and introduce protections for workers so these conditions wouldn’t ever hit our workers here ever again. But what has happened is we’ve simply exported — like we have with the products — this pressure to compromise working conditions for economic success via encouraging high quotas and cutting profit margins in foreign countries. And as we continue our demand-supply system, this process of getting the most product for the smallest input will continue,” Times reporter Charles Duhigg describes in “Act Three” of the new “Retraction” segment.

“Do you feel comfortable knowing that iPhones and iPads could be manufactured in less harsh conditions but that these harsh conditions exist because of an economy that you are supporting with those dollars?” he continued. “You are actually one of the reasons why it exists. If you made different choices, if you demanded different conditions if you demanded that other people enjoy the same work protections that you yourself enjoy, then those conditions would be different overseas.”

This is pretty sobering. Yeah, not a great thing to think about.

Alas, another not-quite-positive thing to think about is what I really took out of this! What is that? Something that I have decided to call “flashbang journalism.” I don’t know why I chose “flashbang.” It just came to my head, because, like a flashbang, stories like this seek to draw the immediate attention of whoever the target is. It’s like we need shock therapy to make 5,000 — and even more to make 50,000 — people take action, or at least “like” a YouTube video. Through elaborate prose and enticing details, Daisey drew everyone in — Glass, the listeners, his audiences. It’s a shame that it had to be so blatantly inaccurate. It’s also a shame that Daisey didn’t ever say, “I’m sorry.” He fessed up, but really stuck to his story. I have been seeing this trend pop up as of late, particularly most recently with the Kony 2012 campaign. The Kony campaign introduced this 30-minute video that dramatized (or didn’t dramatize, I’m in no position to categorize) the atrocities committed by the African Lord’s Resistance Army’s brutal leader Joseph Kony. The Kony campaign has attracted controversy about its paintbrush coverage over a very complex issue. The truth of the reality behind the Kony issue was criticized by many as being put on the back burner.

Has truth been compromised for a good story?

What I thought was most interesting from this series of responses to Mike Daisey’s portrayal of his story to NPR is the fact that such a dramatized story drew the attention of so many listeners. Why did his story create such a huge response? Why did the Times’ series about Apple factories not get as much exposure? Do we need to dramatize human rights issues — and important issues in general — to get a big response from U.S. citizens? Our country is a very reactive country. But this could become a flaw if we continue to only react to bright descriptions and heightened inflections. We’ve begun to digress from truth and focus more on the sentence structure. Structure is important, this is definite. I’m a very long-winded (obviously), literary person. I’m not sure what it means that a theatre-oriented story garnered more responses than a lengthy series on the same issue (it’s probably because of our short attention span online and love for a good story, but that’s a whole other 10-mile-long blog post). But I think we need to sometimes focus less on how our pen moves across the page and more on what we’re actually writing.

David Carr also wrote a very insightful response to the debacle, where he also mentioned the reoccurrence of the dramatization of reporting of human rights (or not-so-reporting).

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