When someone claims they are serving a higher truth, perhaps it’s because they’re lying to you.
That’s proven to be the case with a spate of recent journalistic and documentary works. Most recently it was monologuist Mike Daisey, whose one-man-show, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” was the most downloaded segment of the radio version of This American Life. In his performance, which he has done in theaters around the United States in addition to performing parts of it on the radio program, he describes his trip to China to look into working conditions and child labor at factories making parts for Apple products. The piece was exposed as full of fabrications by Rob Schmitz, a reporter in China for the radio business program Marketplace. Sunday This American Life ran an hour-long retraction of the story. Schmitz told why he suspected Daisey – only police and military are allowed to carry firearms in China, workers in the factories could never afford to visit a Starbucks, where Daisey claimed they met. Daisey told staff at This American Life that the cell phone for his translator – the only source the program could check facts with – no longer worked. Then he told them that he had changed her name in the performance because he didn’t think she wanted to be mentioned in it. Schmitz was able to find her in a single Google search, by the name that Daisey called her in the piece – he had never actually changed her name. Charles Duhigg, a reporter for The New York Times who has written extensively about the factories that Daisey claims the media doesn’t care about, told TAL host Ira Glass that the issues that Daisey talked about are real, even if the incidents that Daisey described are fabricated – Duhigg and another Times reporter, David Barboza, have reported a number of the problems, such as in this story about the human costs built into an iPad, or one looking at how pressure from the public (to which both the Times and Daisey certainly contributed) is bringing about changes at Foxconn, the plant that Daisey visited. But Daisey didn’t want to share that credit, and, before he brought his show to New York and This American Life, he claimed that “there’s no journalism” in Shenzhen and The New York Times just reprints press releases from Chinese executives. A simple search of the Times archives shows plenty of coverage of Foxconn. This American Life, which claims to have fact checked Daisey’s piece as best they could without his translator or notes, should have been aware of questions about the credibility of his piece. One reviewer challenged his honesty as long ago as last May.
There’s been intense media coverage of the episode, which is fitting given that Daisey’s story got a lot of coverage when it was believed to be truthful. David Carr, in Monday’s New York Times, and Jack Shafer, a Reuters reporter who was on PRI and BBC’s radio program The World Monday, and a number of other media reporters have compared the Daisey episode to the Kony 2012 documercial that, during the past two weeks, became the most viral video ever. I was glad to see this, as I think part of the problem with the Daisey episode, the makers of Kony 2012, and a number of other recent incidents of deceptive and misleading journalism and documentaries, is the desire of their makers to be entertainers first and truthful storytellers second.
The 30 minute Kony 2012 video focuses on bringing to justice Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, which nearly two decades terrorized Uganda, kidnapping children to serve as soldiers and sex slaves, but now moves between the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic, and South Sudan. I commend Invisible Children for their dedication to ending Kony’s reign of terror, and I’m saddened to learn that the face of Invisible Children, Jason Russell, has apparently suffered a nervous breakdown that left him naked and vandalizing cars last Friday near his San Diego home. But his public meltdown fits, in a Brittany Spears way, with the method that his organization has produced spectacles and courted celebrity. Russell, the face of Invisible Children and the Kony Documentary, has repeatedly told the story about how he wanted to make musicals and just fell into advocacy and humanitarianism. So it’s not surprising that most of the charity’s resources go into making films – there are more than 200 of them on their Vimeo page – but they have played so fast and loose with the facts in the name of entertainment that most of the viewers of the charity’s “documentaries” are misinformed of what country Joseph Kony is in (he hasn’t been in Uganda for six years), how many child soldiers he has in his army (Kony 2012 cites tens of thousands of children turned into soldiers or sex slave, which may be accurate, but the Lord’s Resistance Army numbers no more than a few hundred today), and what’s being done, and can be done, to stop the bloodshed. Many of Invisible Children’s films, most of them elaborate productions with expensive special effects, never even mention Africa, Joseph Kony, or child soldiers, although that is allegedly what they are raising money to address. Invisible Children has taken down some of the more ridiculous videos, but one of the most troubling is still on YouTube – the Global Night Commute Musical.
The Night Commute musical bothers me on any number of levels. Jason Russell sings “We’re on a mission put Uganda deep inside your mind.” One of his partners responds “It needs attention and a dance to make it sparkle and shine.” The song and dance trivializes the crisis in Africa, and, despite the claim that their goal is put Uganda deep inside our minds, that lyric is about all the attention the crisis gets. The video is more than seven minutes long, but it hardly mentions Uganda. Aside from one young African in the documentary footage showing in the high school at the beginning of the video and a photo stuck on a t-shirt, it shows none of people they claim to focus their work on. In fact, the only people of color in the performance, and I’m not sure there are any black people in it at all, are dancers in the background behind the three Invisible Children organizers’ special-effects-ridden moves. The fact that a charity spends much of the funds it raises on a video that it hides when it draws criticism doesn’t bode well for the organization’s transparency, and, indeed, there’s been steady criticism of Invisible Children’s inability or unwillingness to show how they spend the funds they raise. And, with the unprecedented attention that their Kony 2012 video has drawn to the charity, if not to the Lord’s Resistance Army and its child soldiers, it is critically important to scrutinize what Invisible Children does with the wave funding that their viral marketing campaign is pulling in, particularly since some of that money would certainly go to other causes served by more established charities with longer track records and more transparent operations.
The criticisms of the Kony 2012 video that seems to have rewritten the rules of charity fundraising are many. They tell the story through Russell and his five-year-old son, and, like Mike Daisey, make it appear that Russell is stepping forward because nobody else is. When Russell’s toddler says his father “stops the bad guys,” I’m sure it was touching to dad, but to leave it in the video seems terribly self-aggrandizing. And telling the plight of Africans through white Americans insults many people in both nations working on the problem, just as creating an army of largely white youths in the developed world to free black child soldiers in the developing world is offensive to many who work in international aid and development. The Ugandan army that Invisible Children wants the U.S. military to help capture Kony has been accused of many attrocities themselves. The military situation in Uganda is one of myriad gross oversimplifications of the Lord’s Resistance Army and its part in a very complex and horribly violent part of the world. Military actions against Kony in the past have resulted in ratcheting up the violence in the region. Ugandan Journalist Angelo Izama writes in a New York Times opinion piece that the devil really is in the details here, and Kony is only part of a much bigger problem. Do we really want teenagers misinformed by a documentary pressuring for military action? The United States has gone to war before because of misinformation and deceit and I don’t recall it working out very well.
Many aid workers, NGOs and policy makers fear that the Kony2012 video could make things worse. Joseph Kony often retaliates against innocent villagers when the LRA is under military threat or international pressure, and other aid organizations and NGOs working in the DRC and CAR may also face retaliation from Kony and the LRA in response to the new wave of attention. It’s entirely plausable that the Kony2012 campaign could lead to more bloodshed. (That’s not to say that the charity hasn’t done some good – the radio network they set up to monitor the LRA’s whereabouts and warn villages of potential attacks is a great idea that appears to have had some success.)
Invisible Children claim they simplified their message and left out or fudged a few facts to more effectively draw attention to the plight of the child soldiers kidnapped by the LRA. That may be true, but their misrepresentations could, in fact, hurt their cause rather than help it. That is certainly the case with Mike Daisey, whose deceptions will make it far harder for legitimate, honest journalists to report on the situation in Chinese electronic factories, and make it easy for those scrutinized to shake off criticism as just another lie like those told by Daisey. Daisey probably doesn’t have a problem hurting the work of reporters – he responds to criticism with the same kind of attacks on the “mainstream media” that Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh do.
Daisey’s claim that he was serving a higher truth is almost identical to John D’Agata’s, the “lyric essayist” and Iowa writing professor who, when commissioned to write a story for Harpers about a teenager who jumped to his death from the Stratosphere in Las Vegas, changed so many facts about the incident that Harpers killed the piece. It was picked up by The Believer, but the line between fact and fiction was so blurred by D’Agata that it led to a long battle between the author and his fact checker. The book The Lifespan of Fact, which also partially fictional, details their dispute over the content of the story. D’Agata routinely falls back on the argument that he is distorting or misrepresenting factual truth to serve a higher truth, occassionally articulately, but often with great quotes like “It’s called art, dickhead.”
I’m a big fan of This American Life, but I was disappointed in the retraction episode. TAL had a number of big red flags that they ignored – Daisey not being able to find the translator that another reporter found with a single Google search; Daisey’s claim that he had changed the translator’s name in his piece, but hadn’t told anyone until he was pressed by TAL, because he didn’t think she wanted to be in his performance; not being able to go over Daisey’s notes. It seems to me that TAL made no attempt to speak to single source in Daisey’s story. What Ira Glass described as fact checking struck me as backgrounding – double checking dates, times, facts and figures that had already appeared in numerous news stories. And even that was lacking, as challenges to Daisey’s credibility had been on the web for at least six months before his performance on This American Life. What I would have liked to hear is a bit less of Ira Glass grilling Daisey, as satisfying as that was, and another segment of someone questioning Ira Glass about TAL’s fact checking and journalistic standards.
Other outlets have done large retractions when deceptive journalists embarrass them. When Jayson Blair gamed the New York Times, Dan Barry wrote a multi-page takeout, which started on the front page, looking at how Blair deceived the paper and how the paper screwed up. Two of the paper’s top editors were fired over the incident. The New Republic corrected every story that Stephen Glass made up and devoted many pages to explaining what he had done, how they fell for it, and what they were going to do about it.
Perhaps it’s unfair to hold TAL to the standards that newsier outlets are held to. David Sedaris has been criticized for exaggerating his stories on This American Life and elsewhere. These, however, are personal stories about him, his family, and his friends, and probably should have different standards than an investigation into the working conditions at a major corporation.
Which leads to one of the biggest problems with Daisey, Invisible Children and their ilk – the claim that it’s ok to lie, because they draw so much attention to a problem. As popular as “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” was – I completely fell for it on the radio – I think it’s yet another level of dishonesty for Daisey to credit the attention the Chinese plants are receiving to his performance. The Times terrific, front-page piece on the plants was the result of months and months of reporting that started back when the suicides occurred at Foxconn – before Daisey knew jack about where his Apple toys were made. Many other outlets have done real reporting on this issue, put in the legwork, fought for access, gathered real facts, done due diligence, and had great impact. To claim that an entertainer can go there on a two-week vacation, make up a bunch of BS for his theater piece, and then pat himself on the back for “raising awareness,” erodes the value of real reporting. I think the same thing is true for Invisible Children and John D’Agata – it’s easy to have theatrical drama when truth is optional. For me, Daisey said it all when he commented that he fabricated parts of his story because he “wanted to be heard.” It wasn’t about the working conditions in the factories, but about drawing attention to his own work on stage. In the end, he turns the Chinese workers, both real and fictional, into slaves to the story that he wants to tell.
Daisey’s is an actor who wants a reporter’s credibility without doing the legwork or being beholden to facts, just like James Frey (whose made-up memoir about addiction deceived Oprah and, ironically, was a subject in one of Daisey’s earlier monologues), Michael Finkel (who made up a character in a New York Times Magazine story), Jayson Blair (the New York Times’ reporter who fabricated multiple stories) , and Stephen Glass (who fabricated more than a dozen stories at The New Republic.) Like the New York Times and The New Republic, This American Life’s credibility was damaged by a fabulist. The radio program, however, hasn’t gone nearly as far as the other news organizations to explain how a fraudsters lies could slip by them. Poynter, the journalism training outfit, lists questions they would have liked Ira Glass to answer and, in the Columbia Journalism Review, Lawrence Pintac, dean of the Washington State University School of Journalism, comes down hard on Glass’s program’s fact checking process. Both are worth reading, but, the ending of the Poynter piece has a hell of a kicker – noting that three wild stories that the radio program presented years ago were provided by another Glass – Stephen Glass, The New Republic staff writer who completely fabricated many of his stories in the magazine.
There’s a fine movie about that episode, which devastated what was once referred to “The In-Flight Magazine of Air Force One.” At the end of the film, Peter Sarsgaard, playing Chuck Lane, the editor of The New Republic who dug up Glass’s deceptions and fired him, is arguing about how a reporter could get away with fabricating so many stories. His answer?
“Because we found him…entertaining.”