Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Finding truth in a digital s#!t pile

Did you listen to last week's This American Life on NPR? If you didn't, then you may have heard a little bit about it somewhere in the news over the last week. 

TAL is one of those shows that I don't listen to regularly, but when I finally do sit down to listen to the episodes that have been saved to the old podcast, I can easily kill four hours just catching up. It is that good.

Last week, they retracted one of their most popular shows ever, Mr Daisey and the Apple Factory.

They originally aired a story about Mike Daisey's visit to China and his experience at Foxconn, a factory which produces some of your favorite Apple products. Daisey returned to America with a dramatic one man show about the abuse he witnessed of the workers and their sad living and working conditions.

He lied.

Now, there are elements of the story that are true. If you haven't listened to it, I don't want to ruin it for you, because it is one hell of a ride, from begin to end... particularly the segment where Ira Glass (host of TAL) interviews Mike Daisey and asks him to separate reality from fiction.

The whole debacle brings to light the trouble differentiating journalism from theatre.

You can hear in the interview Ira's combination of irritation and embarrassment. Mike Daisey's embellishment of the truth ruined the integrity of the program... a program that yes, is presented dramatically (and very entertainingly) but still tries to live up to journalistic standards of making sure all the facts are straight.

Even if the stories are about crazy landlords or spending the night at the actual Fire In The Sky location (both great stories, still available for download, I believe) - the facts are checked and the truth remains intact.

From Daisey's point of view, he hasn't really lied at all. He expanded upon and completely fabricated parts of his story to create an emotional arc; to obtain an "honest" emotional reaction from himself and his audience. As an actress, I have a problem with this. Yes, there have been moments on stage while I am in character that have been more real than anything else in my life. It is special because it is a shared experience; one that I shared with the other people on stage and out in the audience. But, when I am in the "real world", I know it is just theatre.

I know it isn't true. My emotions may have been real, but I wasn't really an emotionally disturbed school teacher having a breakdown or a singing whore losing her job (although some people may disagree with me on both accounts).  It's fiction. Wonderfully moving fiction, but fiction nonetheless. To claim that because something provokes a genuine emotion makes it fact, is not only willfully ignorant, it's pretentious as all get out.

And that is sort of the crossroads that Ira and Mike come to at the end of their interview. Mike stands by his story as "truth" in a theatrical sense, but acknowledges that isn't true in a journalistic sense. To sum up Ira's point, as I heard it, if you say something is true and it isn't, then it isn't true in any sense, journalistic or theatrical. Outside of the light that has recently been shed on this story, there has been no indication from Mike Daisey that this one man play was anything other than a (dramatically told) work of non fiction; a truthful account of his real life experience.

There is a bit of interaction between them that kind of gets back to the point I was trying to make a few paragraphs ago:

taken from the transcript of the story on TAL's web page
Mike Daisey: I am agreeing it is not up to the standards of journalism and that’s
why it was completely wrong for me to have it on your show. And that’s
something I deeply regret. And I regret that the people who are listening, the
audience of This American Life who know that it is a journalistic enterprise, if
they feel misled or betrayed, I regret to them as well.

Ira Glass: Right but you’re saying that the only way you can get through
emotionally to people is to mess around with the facts, but that isn’t so.

Mike Daisey: I’m not saying that’s the only way to get through to people
emotionally. I’m just saying that this piece, in how it was built for the theater,
follows those rules. I’m not saying it’s the only way to do things.

And yet, it certainly does seem that the only way you can get people to pay attention to "the news" is to mess around with the facts, just enough that you can evoke an emotional reaction out of the audience; Not just stretching the truth, but by flat out lying. Check your favorite news station. See just how many of their stories have been retracted or have been proven to be totally false and misleading. It is so disheartening.

Even on their "opinion" programs (ugh), the truth really takes second place to the dramatic rainbow of half baked theories and manipulative "musings"  presented in an hour/half hour long program. We believe these people are telling us things that are factually true, because they look right in the camera and never once say, "This is totally made up, you guys" and because they are on your trusted news site. But they can dodge out of being indirectly responsible for how you fashion your world/political/social views by the fact that they don't have to live up to journalistic standards. Standards that, it would appear, seem to be dwindling everyday.

Someone who is great at capturing the problem, and the insane hilarity, of opinion based "non fiction" shows, is Phil Hendrie. So, I've mentioned him before and I don't want to give away his secret, but all it takes is one quick google and you are in on the gag. He presents these "guest callers" (mercy, the post is laden with quotation marks - or "quotation marks") on his radio talk show that are so incentive, so emotionally manipulative, that they have driven real callers to call in to set these "people" straight on their story, without even knowing whether or not the story is true or TOTALLY MADE UP. He has done this for years and people still haven't caught on.

But hey, maybe the fault doesn't just lie with people taking advantage of how reactionary human beings are. Perhaps, with our ever expanding technology, there are simply too many sources claiming credibility to wade through to know which is the real deal!

Great googly moogly, no wonder our generation is so alternately cynical and nostalgic to the point of sentimentality. We can't trust anyone and we appear to long for the time that it seemed that there was at least one voice that was telling the truth.

But with so many voices out there, how are we supposed to know what the hell is true anyway?

Does this make me an "old" because I blame the cable and the internets? I thought that blogging kept me on the edge and in with the youthful crowd; but frankly, even great great grandparents can blog  to their heart's content about... tea trays? The war?

Here's the truth. I am overwhelmed, world of information. Overwhelmed! Just when I start to get things sorted out, you go and have an information tornado just so you can crush my truth trailer, and, like any good southerner, I stand out in the yard refusing to believe that whirling funnel of voices is really gonna affect me!

Sigh. I just don't know. If you need me, I'll be drinking my tea and listening to NPR, which, I should mention, still presents the news at the top of every hour, god bless them.

*I should also mention that you can subscribe to This American Life's podcast for free on itunes, purchase archived episodes or listen to their episodes on their website (or, of course, you can catch the show on your local NPR station). And you should. You really should.

**D'oh! And it would appear my bf also discussed this very topic on his most recent podcast! Great minds... spend way too much time together.

1 comment:

Mike Boody said...

And I discussed it very poorly on my show; you did here what I was trying to do verbally. Thanks babe!