I come to blogging through Podcasting. As a podcaster, I’ve tried to model what I do in interviews on the work of Terry Gross and Ira Glass, who have a way of making an emotional connection with their interview subjects and their audience by getting people to be themselves and talk about what matters to them most. This emotional resonance and sense of intimacy is what makes their shows so compelling. So, naturally, when I saw This American Life was putting out a special show and retracting a previous show, I was pretty shocked. The fact that it dealt with the Mike Daisey show on January 6, and Apple made it even more compelling.
It turns out that Mike Daisey’s theater piece about Apple and the production factories in China is not traditionally true. It rings of Truthiness, as Stephen Colbert might say, the appeal to emotions and gut feelings in political discourse, without a lot of concern for actual facts or situations. In other words, the rhetoric stands, it’s just reality that differs and has a problem. Daisey’s piece confabulates actual experiences with news articles, with information from protesters “who knew someone who once had a brother who was harmed” sort of stuff. In the theater, this amalgam of facts coated with opinion and impression makes for a moving piece, but it is not, as is often presented, a true set of experiences, just the flavor of some of them mixed with a lot of other ingredients.
This has lead to quite a kerfuffle. Daisey is trying to defend himself and his art, which he knows has moved people and political discussion. Because Daisey is not, say, a comedian, where stretches of truth are part of the humor and understanding. We never think Rodney Dangerfield was really going to sell his wife, when he says – Take My Wife- Please!- or assume every joke is more than grounded, somewhere in the past on truth, just like the best family stories that get better and more amusing with every telling, until they become more legend than fact. But unlike family stories that may be equally riveting, Daisey has portrayed his “own experience” as more factually based, and we have taken it as closer to the truth than we should. This is where the problem lies.
In the current climate, we are all looking for something to believe in. We’re ready to believe certain stories, and when people serve them up, we’re willing to bite, hook, line and sinker. How else can you really explain continued questioning of the President’s birth or religious affiliation, other than people willing to believe whatever they’re told, even in the face of hard facts to the contrary? We have more “news” stations that mix opinion and fact to the point we can no longer reasonably and easily tell the difference between the two.
As newspapers and journalism have been hard hit by the changes in digital media and production, as instant news has taken precedent over reflective and accurate news, I feel we’re just starting to realize what we’ve lost in the process. Truth is being gradually superseded by truthiness, and until now, I think we’ve taken for granted what’s been lost.
Citizen journalism can be incredibly compelling and important. Take some time and look at Small World News where Brian Conley and his crew have travelled to political hotspots and outfitted local people with cameras and equipment to report what is going on in the area from the viewpoint of someone living in that area- including Egypt, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Mexico. Seeing the viewpoint from the ground up instead of from the Government -down is incredibly important to understand exactly how life functions in other parts of the world foreign to us. It’s not pretty or comfortable, but it’s not supposed to be, either.
But citizen journalism is not always done by people who are trained as journalists, like Brian, or who understand things like fact-checking, sourcing, ethical responsibilities and more. Anyone with a blog , video camera and internet connection can be empowered to have their own broadcast station, for good and for ill. The truth, or lies can just as easily come out of that same source. You could even consider Al Quida’s missives as citizen journalism, reporting and advocating for their own causes, even though we happen not to agree with what they’re saying. In this same vein, is what Mr. Daisey has done any different- taking the truth or facts as he sees them and recasting them to suit his own purposes?
I hope that this incident leads to a greater appreciation for journalists and what they do- what they do report, and how much they choose not to, because it can’t be verified properly. The BBC has a terrific article that sums up this point nicely, and is worth a read. The biggest problem is when the journalist, citizen or otherwise, is no longer objective but beholden to a point of view or editorial requirement that predetermines the outcome of the stories, based on financial or relationship objectives. If tech reporters are beholden to companies for information, and if they are not seen as friendly, they don’t get the information they need, are the “facts” actually more spin that truth? Is this not what has happened in the banking crisis, where hype has been taken as truth over fact?
We’re entering a new age where journalism has walked a line between entertainment and reporting. Daisey may be the example we all need to make sure that line is more clear than ever, and we may finally appreciate the difference between truth and truthiness. At least I hope so.