The revelation that the story Mike Daisey told This American Life (and anyone who would listen) is not true, reminds me of the recent literary hit, “The Lifespan of a Fact.” It’s a meta-conversation between a fabulist journalist and his fact-checker about a non-fiction essay that’s not completely accurate. The first sentence conflates several events as having happened on the same day, and as a New York Times review explains:
D’Agata’s response to these discrepancies, as Fingal kindly calls them at first, is basically: Who cares? It sounds better to say that all these events happened on the same day than it would to hobble the opener with lumpy qualifiers. “The facts that are being employed here aren’t meant to function baldly as ‘facts.’ The work that they’re doing is more image-based than informational.”
Which seems to me to be exactly what’s happened with Daisey. As Rob Schmitz, who uncovered Daisey’s fabrications, writes,
What makes this a little complicated is that the things Daisey lied about seeing are things that have actually happened in China: Workers making Apple products have been poisoned by Hexane. Apple’s own audits show (PDF) the company has caught underage workers at a handful of its suppliers. These things are rare, but together, they form an easy-to-understand narrative about Apple.
An easy-to-understand narrative is also what we got from Invisible Children, and it catapulted their woefully inaccurate video to a 100 million views. But it was clear all along—or it should have been to any intelligent person—that the Kony 2012 video was a piece of propaganda. Until This American Life gave Daisey’s story its imprimatur, propaganda is hopefully how intelligent people saw Daisey’s one-man show.
So I actually feel sympathetic for Daisey when he says, “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” Of course, sympathy won’t get you excused. Once he started working with journalists, Daisey should have known the standards of theater or propaganda no longer applied.
What is heartening to me is that he was caught and exposed. Even as the precautionary and prophylactic practices of our journalistic institutions sometimes fail, the reality of our globalized and networked world mean that factual mistakes won’t last for too long. In another era, Daisey’s account would have gone down in history as truth. Today too many people are watching, and they have an incentive to debunk and cheap access to all the tools to do it. Silver lining found.