Lies

You need not take a journalist’s oath to tell the truth. You need only be born to a mother such as mine, who told me and my sister often–very often–that “there’s nothing worse than a liar.” It worked on us. My sister became a minister and I became a journalist.

Mike Daisey became a storyteller, a performer, a bald-faced liar whose lies only betrayed the cause he cares about. I just listened to the devastating — devastatingly honest — retraction This American Life issued for Daisey’s stories — his jumbled fiction, his trumped-up tales — about Apple’s factories in China. The most humiliating moments were those filled with silence — which public radio editors usually snip out, to make people sound surer, smarter — when Daisey couldn’t fabricate his next lie.

The worst of this episode to me is Daisey’s insistance — and he’s hardly the first — that he need not be held to a standard of truth and he need not be expected to deliver facts because he is not a journalist. Now journalists might enjoy the notion that they hold a monopoly on truth. But, of course, this idea is just a bullshit layer cake.

Isn’t telling the truth the norm in our society? Don’t you expect anyone you know — friend, family member, coworker — to tell you the truth? If they don’t, aren’t you at least disappointed? If caught in a lie don’t you expect your credibility to be diminished? Isn’t there a cost to lying in society?

So how could that norm be canceled for public figures, for politicians who insist we’ll have death panels or for performers on stage who think the spotlight forgives lies?

I hope not and I don’t think so. But perhaps we haven’t made the price of lying for them high enough. So they think they can get away with it to accomplish what they want to accomplish. I’m given hope that This American Life and a Marketplace reporter, Rob Schmitz, held Daisey to their standard of truth, and that fact-checking of politicians and pundits has become a fad online. I’d say that’s a possible good use of crowdsourcing energy: Wikipedia editors who are now bored because they have written about everything possible would do well to turn their attention to our public figures.

When anyone — performer, politician, blogger — says he has a license to lie because he’s not a journalist, he’s lying.

  • gregorylent

    unstated is that almost all “news” is fiction, insofar as it has a spin, a limited pov, an agenda, a constructed narrative.

    • http://archlever.blogspot.com/ Jeff Dickey

      And, the way the world used to work, that was fine. We’re all human beings, including especially reporters; we can try to filter out the biases we’re conscious of, but the really important ones slip by us, and too often by our editors.

      Back when every major city had several different newspapers, a certain amount of bias (while still remaining essentially truthful) was a good thing. It set the stage for public debate and discussion of issues that mattered.

      With the lethal concentration of “media” “markets” under a vanishingly-small number of corporate gatekeepers, different ideas are no longer aired in mass media. (And no, the Web is no real substitute for the majority of the population.) And so, instead of debate and confrontation, we get gossip and paparazzi. Where, a mere 50 years ago, most American adults knew who their Congresscritters were and could read at what was then called a “high-school level”, now people are more likely to know the most recently-marketed celebrity’s bra size and poodle’s name than even be able to get the _continent_ right when asked to point out where their boys and girls are fighting and dying for the corporate cause.

      Under the circumstances, OWS is a measured, reasonable, overly polite reaction to the status quo.

  • http://twitter.com/davidgillespie David Gillespie

    All reasonable points. The most disappointing thing is not that what is a stunning piece of fiction was represented as fact, but that the issues we know to exist at these factories are now going to be brought into question. The undoing of Mike Daisey’s story does not undo the conditions under which our most prized gadgets are brought into this world, and that story still needs to be told.

    • Soledad Wells

      You make the most important point, David, and Jeff echoes it too in his comment that Daisey’s lies “only betrayed the cause he cares about.”

      All liars eventually do this. It is a huge hindrance to their being able to release the better angels of their nature. They simply cannot do so because eventually their lies undermine every good thing they work for.

      This kerfuffle (and I use that word deliberately) over Daisey’s untruthful storytelling is deeply distractive from the issues that were lit up like tinder by his original piece on This American Life.

      In my mind, it’s without a doubt that the impact of his original piece caused Apple to really move on their corporate response.

      Because a lot of Apple employees listen to This American Life. So do these employee’s friends and colleagues. And, of course, plenty of Apple’s customers listen to TAL.

      Daisey’s piece really got to them precisely because it came through this vector.

  • Greg Kemble

    I don’t approve of what Daisey has done, either to TAL (which he acknowledges) or in this performances (which he tries to defend). But I’m not sure I buy this black and white judgment of “lying.” And I’m not just talking about the category of literature we call “fiction,” which in most cases we would likely agree is not really lying, probably because author and reader agree to the conventions of storytelling.

    But there’s a lot of writing that isn’t strictly fiction, per se, yet relies in part on lying. The Gonzo journalism of Hunter S. Thompson is an extravagant version. But more subtle is the work of someone like Tim O’Brien, whose claim is (among other things) that some things are impossible to tell the truth about; words fail. “How to Tell a True War Story” is a great exploration of this situation.

    Again, I’m not defending Daisey in either the TAL nor his performance. I’m just not crazy about the black-and-white notion that not telling the truth is simply–and unacceptably–lying.

    • http://wwweducommunicate.org Ian

      Tim O’Brien is a fiction writer and The Things They Carried, in which that story/chapter is published, is a work of fiction. O’Brien makes that clear. Daisey did not.

      • Greg Kemble

        I’m not defending Daisey. And yes, O’Brien makes it clear that his work is fiction.

        Only it’s not fiction, exactly; it’s based on actual experiences he and others had (and didn’t have) and his struggle to tell the “truth” about those experiences.

        “How to Tell a True War Story” (from *The Things They Carried*) theorizes this and makes a lot of startling and compelling claims about the impossibility of (yet the necessity for) telling the “truth” about something as traumatic and complex as war.

  • http://www.dogwalkblog.com Rufus Dogg

    I dunno if we aren’t being too hard on Mike Daisey. Fox News does this all the time with what they call news and nobody seems to care all that much. That being said, I think Mr.Daisey’s biggest sin is not that he lied or stretched some facts to fit a narrative, but that he allowed journalists to continue representing his story as a factual account.

    All “real life” stories are boring. Compressing the timeline is a skill that differentiates a great storyteller from a crappy one. Mr. Daisey knows how to tell a story; he has honed that craft. The facts would have complicated the narrative. Is his story true? Probably. Is it factual? No.

    I take some defense for Mr. Daisey in a passage in Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own.

    “Lies will flow from my lips, but there may perhaps be some truth mixed up with them; it is for you to seek out this truth and to decide whether any part of it is worth keeping.” (there is also a lot of other quotes about the relationship between truth and fact in that little book. You should read it again if you haven’t in a while.)

    I think we are more angry at ourselves by being duped by Mr. Daisey than we are at Mr. Daisey for fabricating some of the facts. But it is far easier to blame him for his misdeeds than ourselves for our gullibility.

    • Andy Freeman

      > I think we are more angry at ourselves by being duped by Mr. Daisey than we are at Mr. Daisey for fabricating some of the facts. But it is far easier to blame him for his misdeeds than ourselves for our gullibility.

      Speak for yourself. I’m not angry at myself for being duped, because I wasn’t.

      However, I am angry at folks like you for your credulity. You’ll believe anything that confirms your worldview.

      As to Ms. Woolf, she’s basically saying “I’ve mixed some grapes into a pile of shit, comb through it”.

  • http://finoreilly.com fin

    I think hope may be the appropriate response. I find it ironic that this piece of theatre masquerading as journalism, which I was not aware of, led to probably the most jarringly honest radio show I’ve heard.

  • http://sophistick.tumblr.com Chris Strauber

    Daisey could have accomplished his ostensible purpose with the published facts. What he actually saw was plenty. What he felt like he needed to do to create a story out of them is an entirely separate issue. A novel with the scene involving the injured worker and an iPad he’s never seen turned on would be just as powerful an image. Feeling a need to present that as truth, and to garner publicity based on it, is much more pathological than artistic.

  • http://mrliterati.com Nathanael Bassett

    The more I think about it, the more empathy I have towards Daisey because it’s so difficult for me to associate This American Life with what most people understand to be journalism. Especially in this time of citizen journalism, Glass inscribes such a degree of production into TAL that it easily becomes radio theatre, if not radio drama. It may not be wholy truthful, but it is a logical progression for a storytelling, narrative driven media product. I tried to work through those thoughts in my own post about it: http://bit.ly/zaYqH7

    • http://www.dogwalkblog.com Rufus Dogg

      Your blog post on Ira Glass is exceptional. His “journalism” is edited and he is skilled at compressing the timeline in the search for meaning rather than truth. That is not journalism. It is high-quality radio theatre, performed with a point of view and based on real people and happenings .. sorta of like how we wish our grandparents could all tell their stories.

  • http://www.johnsutton.us John Sutton

    Jeff, it seems like you’re giving This American Life a pass. Why?

    Daisey might be a bald-faced liar, but This American Life didn’t even begin to do proper due diligence in checking the facts of his story, beginning with corroboration of these ‘facts’ with the translator, who was easily found.

    In my view the big fail goes to This American Life’s sloppy journalism. Even more painful than Daisey’s silence was This American Life’s framing their retraction as the unwitting victim. Oh, please. Give us a break.

    Listening to excerpts of Daisey telling his story it seems clear from the tone of his delivery that his story is fictitious and it’s hard to believe seasoned journalists were taken in. But then again, maybe not.

    Is it any wonder the media is hemorrhaging respect?

    • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

      John,
      Did you listen to the episode? This American Life agrees with you and said it screwed up with its due diligence. Its retraction is a model for admitting mistakes.

      • http://LouisHochman.com Louis C. Hochman

        Today is This American Life’s Tylenol moment.

      • http://www.johnsutton.us John Sutton

        I did, Jeff. The whole miserable thing. At this level, with stakes so high an apology is not good enough. At the professional level mistakes like this should not happen. Ever. If it were my call there would be vacant spots on the masthead right now.

  • Frank S.

    Here is Daisey’s righteous journalistic scolding of tech bloggers just four months ago. Watch the short videos ‘Why Tech Writers Are Hacks’ and ‘Wired’s Cover Story on Foxconn Was ‘Pathetic’’.

    http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2011/11/07/mike-daisey-on-david-pogue-steve-jobs-technology-journalism-video.html

  • http://www.ignitechange.net Craig | Personal Change Life Coach

    Hi Jeff. I think you’ve hit on a big point about the cost of lying. It’s too low. Like you said, you’re mother made you believe that lying is the worst thing, but now there really is a lack of shame. Politicians get caught lying all the time and it hardly affects them. In fact, they get promotions, tv shows and the public forgets quickly. I think that the shame factor needs to be greatly increased in order to have this behavior dramatically reduced. Thanks for the post

  • http://talktraffic.org Margie Jennings

    Yes, jarringly honest. What is so sad is that he truly believes this is his best work. What a terrible waste of talent.

  • Flint

    There is lying – Knowingly making a false statement of fact; misrepresenting the truth (spin, politics, marketing, lawyers); misstating facts because of sloth, ignorance or resource constraints (journalism); advancing an incorrect hypothesis in good faith (science); and white lies (no honey, that dress doesn’t make you look fat);…the rewards for effectively managing your relationship with truth in this society are huge and the rewards for integrity way to few.

  • Morris

    Unfortunately, I think that a lot of society has become de-sensitized by lying. It is used not only to get ahead, but to make someone seem superior. We see it in the GOP race, we see it on television shows, and sadly we see it in people who claim to be ‘journalists.’ Those held to such high standards who are caught lying don’t face consequences. They may receive a slap on the wrist, a quick suspension, but nothing that would institute a lasting effect. Journalists need to be held to these high standards, and should face extreme consequences if found fabricating what they call facts. This is the only way that journalists can enhance their credibility and honor the field they have chosen.

  • JoeBob Obvious

    Mike Daisey, the inexplicable rising “theater star” oft-quoted for his “observations” about corporate malfeasances, has just been outed by PBS’ “This American Life” as a liar. His monologue rant against Apple, “The Agony & Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” has been revealed to be filled with BS, stuff he made-up.

    Mike Daisy was an actor desperate for attention even when he foisted his first “monologues” in Seattle at the Open Circle Theater. Maudlin stories about his fat, his family and his pathetic “romantic” life weren’t filling enough seats, and lardy, sweaty, shrill actors have a fat chance making a living via traditional avenues, playing fictive characters in “plays” or “movies.” His solution was clever–pick a hot topic–and use it to attract attention to his “work.” First time out was to pick on Amazon.

    By choosing to fill his “theater” work with stories about brands, he could co-opt the brand’s fame–a theater marketer’s dream, replete with almost self-writing press releases that themselves create news by masquerading as announcements of heroic, out-of-the-box “investigations” by an otherwise unremarkable, grossly obese “actor.”

    Daisey could have written a “theatre” monologue about an actor so morbidly obese that he had no prospects in film, TV or theater, but his “character” would be then a loser, no hero, in a tale of failure. He HAD to find a way to cast himself as a dashing leading man, despite the fat, sweat and chicken voice, and faking himself as a brave, investigative “truth” finder was a stroke of genius–who might begrudge him this little fantasy, especially since he’d only besmirch corporate brands? He knew his audience: theatre fans, ie a dependable smattering of liberal, knee-jerk gossips already suspicious of corporations, Israel, capitalists, etc. By naming his fictive leading man “Mike Daisey” and by not qualifying his work as “fiction” (and that is the word and definition you’ll find he avoids in all his tremulous replies to PBS’s Ira Glass, for by larding his now-exposed lying as “theater” he hopes to squeak by–all theater is assumed to be “fiction,” no? No? Were he to sub-title his work, for example, in this way: “Steve Jobs – a fiction” he might deflate his marketing angle–would folks come?!–but most importantly, he would destroy his personal illusion whereby) he creates a grand fantasy in which his fictional hero “Mike Daisey” saves not only poor, abused children and the crippled, he saves “us,” the world, and he gets to privately thumb his nose at us as well?

    Why would he do that? Because I imagine he assumes most of us look at him and without the heroics, just see a fat, strident man. “You assumed I am just a smug, grossly sweating, obese, actor doomed to minor character roles,  horribly undisciplined as evidenced by my apparent inability to respect a meal or exercise plan and thus in complete betrayal of my actors’ “craft” (wherein “actors” treat their bodies as “instruments” and thus physically train and regiment toward accomplishing “range” with their instruments), but you are mistaken–I am a hero who toils in the darkness to find “truth.” You have misjudged my sweat and fat, especially the sweat, as it spills from the heroic effort to bring you truth.” That’s Daisey’s subtext, an illusion designed for himself first–if we accept that, the rest is…gravy.

    Tag it as fiction, not only is the actor revealed, an unattractive, limited craftsman fated to be typecast as a “glutton” in films like “7even,” so is his “theater,” an odd animal believed by Daisey to exist outside the comprehension of those who respect honesty, revealed to be just another self-aggrandizing screed, a charlatan’s circus act with little aspect of “art” after-all.

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  • Greg Kemble

    Well, Adam, first let’s establish that there are types of “not telling the truth” that we wouldn’t call “lying.” Ian pointed out that The Things They Carried is labeled “fiction”; I wouldn’t call that lying. Making an honest mistake is not lying. Telling my kid that the leprechaun built a lego ladder and escaped from his leprechaun trap isn’t lying.

    O’Brien might say (it’s complicated–if you haven’t read the story I mentioned, you might enjoy it) that sometimes it’s impossible to tell the truth–to capture the contradictory “truths” about war, in his example. Yet the alternative of silence is not acceptable either, because people tell dangerous lies about war. So we “Tell a True War Story” that doesn’t rely on things like “happeningness.”

    And if that sounds complicated, or contradictory, or impossible… well, that’s because it is…