A while ago I listened to a This American Life podcast. This is not unusual – it’s one of my favourite podcasts, I would run off with Ira Glass’ voice, given half a chance. But this one was a really strong, engaging episode – it was Mr Daisey and the Apple Factory, and it had a lot to say about the practices that lie behind the technology that we in the west love so well (whether it’s Apple or anything else). It struck a chord with me. It worked, particuarly, because it was about Apple, who do project an aura of superiority, and because it was about and by a ‘normal’ guy discovering something he didn’t much like about a company he really did like. It was very good storytelling.
This American Life have now retracted the episode – and their next episode is going to explore why. In short, it’s been retracted because there are so many sizable errors and falsehoods in it that they can’t vouch for it. Beyond being annoyed with Mike Daisey for selling something that wasn’t journalism as journalism, and being impressed at the way This American Life are handling themselves, there’s a more interesting set of things to consider – about genre, and journalism – and about what kind of show This American Life is.
I mean – This American Life isn’t just about journalism. It is, famously, the place where David Sedaris made his name, and while David Sedaris makes me laugh fit to ache, anyone who thinks his stories are ‘true’ as in factual needs to rethink. There are, of course, differences – for a start Sedaris is pretty open about his merging of fact and fiction (which takes me back to these thoughts, on creativity and plagiarism). He’s also, honestly, writing with a different approach – his work doesn’t mask as investigative journalism, nor is he trying to make people take action and change the world – he’s trying to make people laugh (and, possible, give a little insight into the more bonkers side of humanity). Mike Daisey has argued that he was doing theatre, not journalism, and that his only regret is that he sold his story to TAL as a journalistic enterprise – but the subject matter means that it really doesn’t quite wash – it’s linked to a campaign to get Apple to change its practices, so it really does require factual accuracy.
I’m sure there is a coherent discussion somewhere about the sliding scale of when it’s ok to play with fact-fiction boundaries and when it’s a good idea not to. The nature of truth is a huge topic, and I am neither a philosopher, not planning on becoming one for the sake of writing this blog… Stephen Colbert coined the term ‘truthiness’ – which has a worrying overlap with this whole situation. Truthiness works because it has an element of well, truth. We truthily understand the truth of truthiness, because we make judgement calls about true and false all the time – and the vast majority of us probably have an instinctual awareness of why TAL had to retract the episode.
Perhaps the most annoying thing, for me, is that there is a truth underneath Mike Daisey’s story. There are problems with the way technology is created – if you care at all about social justice. Other people have written about Apple (see, for example, this NYT article) – and it’s not just Apple, of course. But by fictionalising bits of it, Daisey makes it that much harder for anyone who seriously wants to see changes in the production of fabulous and shiny gadgets to get listened to.