So clean house! Make a clean sweep of malice and pretense, envy and hurtful talk. You’ve had a taste of God. Now, like infants at the breast, drink deep of God’s pure kindness. Then you’ll grow up mature and whole in God.
1 Peter 2:1-3
Ian and I like to listen to This American Life together sometimes. It gives us something outside of our normal experience to talk about. Usually we stream an old episode, often one Ian heard while I was off biking and thought would interest me. A couple weeks ago we did that for This American Life’s most popular broadcast ever, Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory.
Oh, it was compelling! So compelling. Mike Daisey was a consummate storyteller, with pauses and intonations exactly right (this is what happens when your voice is your living, I suppose). The descriptions of the work and living environment in electronics factories; of his encounters with underage workers, injured workers, abused workers, people who had been turned into cogs in a machine; the interactions between him and his interpreter — all deeply moving. You finished the episode asking yourself if your device was really worth the lives of the people who produced it.
Nary a week later, the news broke that This American Life was retracting that episode because of “significant fabrications” that compromised the integrity of the story. We listened to their “Retraction” broadcast, and frankly, This American Life impressed me. They took responsibility for their story, did their best to discover the facts and present them accurately — with the help of a separate NPR reporter not associated with This American Life — and then gave Mike Daisey a forum for discussing his actions.
Daisey made it very clear that, at points, he lied to This American Life’s fact checkers. For example, he intentionally deceived them about his interpreter, who he said had a different name and was unreachable. In an email asking for fact confirmation and including an explanation of how important true, accurate facts were for the show, Daisey blithely agreed. Then there’s the monologue itself, which contained a number of lies.
The thing I find really interesting (beyond the exemplary way This American Life responded) is Mike Daisey’s stretching of the idea of truth. In the first interview after this news broke, Daisey seems conflicted. Listening to his responses hurts, because you can hear in his voice the honest struggle he was going through in replying. At one point, Ira Glass asked him a question, followed by the longest intentional radio silence we’d ever heard as Daisey sought for words to reply.
Then, later, Daisey came back for a second interview. He’d had a couple days to think about it, and he wanted to clear some things up. But the “clearing up” he did sounded like justifications and spin control. He didn’t exactly retract his previous statements, but he said that he regretted putting his monologue on a journalistic show like This American Life when it was theater. He claimed that theater didn’t have the same standards of truth as journalism, which somehow was supposed to make the lies in his monologue okay.
It ultimately came down to a definition of “true.” Ira Glass clearly held one definition, a fairly rigid one that required as close a reflection of reality as possible. You tell what really happened, and no more. Mike Daisey’s definition, on the other hand, clearly involved a great deal of flexibility. He had heard of workers being poisoned by n-hexane, so he’d “meet” some of those in the monologue, even though he didn’t actually meet any such workers. Or he’d heard of underage workers in factories, so he’d “see” underage workers at the gates. In short, it sounded like he included some of what he expected to see, whether or not he actually did witness it. The monologue strayed into the realm of fiction, but he presented it as all facts, things that he himself had witnessed but without the inconvenience of having to actually witness them.
Interestingly, Daisey didn’t see it as fictionalizing when he fabricated vignettes for his monologue. He used these fictions to tell a larger story, and that justified the lies, a la V for Vendetta — “Artists use lies to tell the truth.” The issue is that he presented these lies as truth in the hopes of moving his audience. It worked for a while… until those lies came to light, when all the truth in the monologue was overshadowed by those lies. (Here’s an interesting blog about this.)
This made me realize that we willingly tell and accept lies all the time. I just read a book called NurtureShock in which the authors discuss research about kids telling lies. The research indicates that kids learn to lie from their parents. We may not even see it as lying, but any time a statement doesn’t mirror reality, even inadvertently, kids see it as a lie. Kids start lying to their parents by age 4, and it only goes from there (better not to think about the amount of truth told by teenagers!).
Eventually we come to accept bending the truth as part of life. It’s all right, if nobody’s hurt. We say we value truth, but as Mike Daisey has clearly demonstrated, we only value it to the extent that it will achieve our ends. When truth doesn’t do what we want, we’ll readily fall back on half-truths or fictions. I won’t pretend I’m any different, because I’m not. Just the other day I lied to avoid an awkward situation, and I only noticed because I’d just read this book and had truth and lies on my mind. So much for all those admonitions from Mom to tell the truth.