Media and True Stories

When I was in grad school in Scotland, I used to tell my classmates that if they wanted to understand the culture of the United States, they should listen to the podcasts from two radio shows: A Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keillor; and This American Life with Ira Glass. The former is an old-fashioned radio variety show that captures the essence of that quirky, somewhat innocent, but deeply hospitable, traditional culture of the heartland. The latter captures the stories of everyday Americans who are struggling through disenchantment to find a new source of meaning, goodness, beauty, and truth. By listening to the two, one can get a sense of the dual nature of American culture, and the tensions that currently animate it.

This American LifeI still listen to both programs, and this week’s show on This American Life was electrifying. It was a little unusual, in that the whole show was devoted to a retraction of a story they had previously aired about the working conditions at the Chinese factories that build Apple’s most beloved gadgets. The original story was told by Mike Daisey, an actor and activist who wrote the monologue The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, in which Daisey purportedly describes his own experiences of visiting these factories and talking with the workers.

The monologue, as well as the story he told on This American Life, lays out a number of shocking accusations: at the gates of the infamous Foxconn factory, he talked with a group of underaged workers who were 12-14 years old; he met with workers who had been poisoned by n-hexane, a powerful neurotoxin that is used to clean iPhone screens; he showed an iPad to a man who’s hand had been destroyed by the machine used to make the case; he saw the inside of worker dormitories that had bunk beds stacked to the ceiling and cameras that observed their every move; and he saw the guards at the factory gates brandishing guns to keep prying eyes away. All of this was capped off with the chilling rhetorical question: “do you really think that Apple doesn’t know?”

Unfortunately for Mr Daisey, the Chinese correspondent for the popular business and finance show Marketplace, Rob Schmitz, heard this story and had a hard time reconciling these claims with what he had observed and reported on over the last few years. Yes, Apple’s Chinese suppliers had routinely violated Apple’s own labor practice standards, the working conditions are notoriously harsh, and there had been a few terrible accidents, including the n-hexane poisoning. But several of the details in Daisey’s story just didn’t seem probable. Only the police and military are allowed to have guns in China, so corporate security guards brandishing firearms would be highly unlikely, and Schmitz had never seen such a thing before. There have been problems with underage workers in Chinese factories, but Apple in particular had been fairly aggressive in stopping that practice at their suppliers, and it would highly unlikely for an underage worker to openly admit to being so to a strange American with a Chinese interpreter.

After some quick searching, Schmitz found the interpreter that Daisey used while in China. Schmitz sent her Daisey’s monologue and asked her if she could corroborate the details. She replied that most of the details were at least exaggerated, if not completely fabricated. They had gone to the gates of Foxconn, but didn’t encounter any underage workers. They had met some disgruntled employees who were trying to form an illegal union, but there were only a couple of workers there, and none of them had the injuries he described. The guards at the gates did not have guns, and Daisey was never allowed in the dormitories, so he couldn’t have known what they looked like.

Mike DaiseySchmitz and Ira Glass confronted Daisey about all of this, and to their dismay, Daisey admitted to representing various stories he had heard only second-hand as if he had seen or heard them himself. His reasoning was that it was all “true” and that he represented these events that way for theatrical purposes. He thought that relaying his experiences accurately would “unpack the complexities” in such a way that it would make the narrative arc more confusing and less effective.

The confrontation between Schmitz, Glass, and Daisey was certainly worth listening to, but the part of the show that I found most interesting was how Glass tried to grapple with Daisey’s claims that his story could be considered “true” in a theatrical context, but not in a journalistic one. Daisey admitted that he took “a few shortcuts in my pasion to be heard” but that he was proud of his use of “the tools of the theater and memoir to achieve [the story’s] dramatic arc…because it made you care, Ira.”

In other words, Daisey is claiming that a “true” story in the theater is one that makes you care, not one that is accurate in a literal sense. Daisey then expressed regret because he brought that story into a journalistic context, a context where what counts as a “true” story is significantly different. Exasperated by this, Glass chided Daisey that he was kidding himself if he thought that his audience understood this distinction. Glass himself attended the show and concluded “I thought it was true because you were on stage saying ‘this happened to me.’ I took you at your word.”

All of this raises an interesting question: how, if at all, does a medium affect what is considered a “true” story? (The term ‘medium’ is notoriously slippery, but I’m using it here in the same sense that Daisey was using the term ‘context’.) Can a story be true in the medium of theater, and then become less or untrue when it is moved to the medium of journalism? Does what counts as a true story differ between journalism and history? Do you assay the truth of a story differently when you hear it in the theater, on film, in journalistic print, or in academic discourse?


5 thoughts on “Media and True Stories

  1. Rosie Perera

    Very interesting points to ponder. Of course it has long been held that sometimes truth can be communicated more readily through the medium of fiction than through declarative statements, particularly when it involves confrontation. A classic example is the story that Nathan the prophet told to King David in 2 Samuel 12. Was the parable “true” in a journalistic sense? Probably not, or at least it doesn’t matter. What matters is the bigger Truth that was communicated through it: David had sinned against Uriah the Hittite (and against God).

    The problem with Daisey’s creative truth-telling is that he didn’t choose the appropriate venue for sharing his drama. On This American Life, absent any disclaimer prefacing the episode, people expect journalistic truth, not theatrical truth.

    I wonder if the makers of Kony 2012 made the same sort of mistake?

    1. Rosie Perera

      A good follow-up article to the Kony debacle, which could probably equally be applied to Daisey’s story:

      “Invisible Children have shown us the almost limitless, instant — and by that I mean wondrous — potential for engaging the world that our new media tools allow. But Invisible Children has also shown us the price we have to expect to pay for that: an almost limitless, instant — and by that I mean thoughtless — response. It’s been enough, apparently, to break Russell, someone whose intent, whatever you thought of his methods, was merely to shine a light on one of the world’s more forgotten, and nastiest, conflicts. Will anyone be brave enough to try to do the same again?”

      1. David Stearns Post author

        Many of the articles I’ve been reading about Daisey’s story and TAL’s retraction have made that parallel to Kony 2012 (which I haven’t watched). It also reminded me a bit of Michael Moore’s films, which seem to stretch the truth at times to make a theatrical point.

        For the final segment on the TAL show, Glass had the NYT reporters who broke the initial story about labor conditions Apple’s supply chain. I was surprised that neither Glass nor they were the least bit reflective about the term “fact” they kept throwing around. It reminded me of historiography debates, which is perhaps what I should write about in my next post.

        TAL was also not terribly reflective about the ways in which stories on their other programs might not be completely, literally, true. David Sedaris was (or maybe still is) a common contributor, but one would hope that his purportedly autobiographical stories are not entirely true!

  2. Brian Wixted

    The problem of ‘theatrical truth’ what ever that is, is of course an important problem here and we know – as David your post on ANT shows – truth at some levels needs to be problematised. But at the same time we should not loose sight of the bigger picture. Global supply chains (not just in electronics or with Apple in particular) from a moral standpoint do present significant challenges. They provide work and incomes for those that didn’t have them before and this is not inconsequential, but the conditions are often pretty bad. We often then are beneficiaries, through lower cost goods, of lives spend in some hardship.

    i remember reading parts of a biography in the 1980s of an Japanese auto plant worker which told the story that the publicity about those plants at the time was not completely true.

    Messengers often make it to easy to make themselves the target but I wonder if modern society also finds that this is a way of alleviating their own guilt. I watched the Kony 2012 video on the weekend and for me the tactics are interesting but I wonder if the criticism has more to do with the fact that we have generally not cared very much about this issue for so long that we don’t enjoy having our own part of the sin recognised.

    1. David Stearns Post author

      Yes, the sad part of this whole story is that Daisey has clouded the very issue he was so passionate about raising. The reporters from the NY Times that were at the end of the TAL show did a nice job of explaining that conditions really are very harsh, and occasionally life-threatening, and we should acknowledge our complicity in this. North American economies went through a similar stage (e.g., factory towns like Lowell and industries like meat packing) but at some point we decided that these kinds of conditions were unacceptable. We now have to decide if we are going to “export” that belief through economic coercion, or argue that it’s a necessary (but hopefully temporary) phase for all developing economies. In either case, we should be aware of the total costs of any device we choose to adopt, many of which are externalized to another culture and ecosystem.


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