Monday, March 19, 2012

Trivia: Ira Glass or Mike Daisey?

I have a little trivia question for everybody in light of all the columns and blog posts being written about the Mike Daisey controversy.


Who said the following:
"It seemed best for the story if this were kept a little vague, I thought it would be lousy and undermining and killjoyish if—at the end of a story—a radio host came on and said 'that wasn't true.' Seemed nicer and more artful to simply raise the possibility that it might or might not be true. I figured: the audience is smart. A little goes a long way."

If you guessed Mike Daisey, you would be...wrong!

It was Ira Glass.

In 2008 Jack Shafer wrote a piece for Slate about a This American Life episode that aired a story originally told at the popular storytelling event The Moth.  The storyteller in this case was none other than Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers and other bestsellers.

The story Gladwell told was funny and witty, but also contained parts that were at best unverifiable, and at worst completely made-up.

Shafer's reporting is interesting as it is almost a miniature version of the controversy that has arisen over excerpts from Mike Daisey's theatrical performance of The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs that were also broadcast on This American Life.

However, unlike the tenor of the "Retraction" episode of This American Life, in which Ira Glass grills Daisey over fabrications and constantly assures listeners that TAL is journalism with the highest standards, the moods of Gladwell and Glass in the Shafer article seem to be the opposite of the positions of Glass and Daisey.

In the Shafer piece, Gladwell seemed hesitant to the idea of the story running on This American Life and says that he was assured it would be aired with a disclaimer clearly stating parts of it were made-up. Whereas, when contacted by Shafer, Glass offers the quote with which I started this post.

Yes, back then, Ira Glass chose being "artful" over being factual. This is almost precisely the ground that Mike Daisey is retreating to in this current controversy.

And if you want a double irony, the Moth story Gladwell told and Glass chose to broadcast, (apparently knowing there were fabrications in it,)  is about playing loose with journalistic standards.

Of course, Daisey's case is different in that his piece is alleging a corporation's unethical activity and he is specifically using it as a piece of advocacy.

I just wanted to point out that Ira Glass and This American Life do not appear to have a consistent policy or even a consistent attitude towards vetting and disclosure on their program.


Thomas Garvey said...

I think over time Glass is going to get more blowback over this than he quite realizes. Like most journalists in my experience, his moral rectitude only gets exercised when someone lies to HIM, personally - which of course Daisey did (probably his stupidest move in this whole stupid affair). As I've pointed out elsewhere, another Glass favorite, David Sedaris, is routinely accused of making things up. Other "journalists" approved by the left have likewise been fabulists -Tom Wolfe has been accused of fabrications, and Hunter S. Thompson simply hallucinated things and published them. When it comes to "verbatim theatre," the record isn't much better; 60 minutes pointed out that Anna Deavere Smith, for instance, distorted the views and affect of her Jewish characters in her seminal work, "Fires in the Mirror." It has come out that Truman Capote made up much of "In Cold Blood." Woody Guthrie lied repeatedly about his own biography. The list of people lying as part of first-person performance is a long, long one. What's at play in Daisey's case is the discomfort Glass's audience is experiencing over having to tell the truth to themselves about Apple and the products they love - which are, of course, not counter-cultural symbols of freedom, but instead commodities assembled under sweat shop conditions in a "communist" dictatorship, in which workers lack basic rights. The Ira Glass crowd doesn't want to look in the mirror and face their own hypocrisy, and the essential truth of Mike Daisey's performance. Not that I blame them; they look like idiots.

Scott Walters said...

Well said, Art and Thomas! Here is one of the dumbest Ira Glass quotations from the retraction: "The normal worldview is: somebody stands on stage and says this happens to me, I think it happened to them." Really? What next: an expose of "The Lion King" because lions don't really talk?

Patrick Gabridge said...

I agree that TAL has never seemed that much about straight journalism, the "just the facts" school of thought. But if you look at this particular story, they were trying to be factual and journalistic. It seems like they were excited about the idea that this was a big story, the kind that could make some changes. Or, as Tom said, at least try to get people to look harder at the industrial-labor system that they support through their purchases.

It seems to me that Mike got caught up in the excitement of having a big platform, and he didn't want to do anything to mess that up. So he messed it up, in a really big way. You can complain all you want about Ira Glass being inconsistent, but it's hard to sympathize with Daisy lying during the fact-checking process. FACT checking. If someone comes to me and starts Fact Checking one of my plays, 1) I know they want to know what's factually true and what's not 2) I'll know what is and isn't true. (and tell them) He knew what they wanted, and he lied about it.

I feel like he's screwed things up for playwrights a bit, because he makes it look like theatre folks don't get the relationship/difference between story telling and journalism. I write historical plays, and they're plays first, not history lessons. But I can use my work as a spring board for discussion about the historical facts. However, if I wanted to (or was required to), I could write a piece that does stick straight with the facts. This fiasco ends up messing with the credibility of a whole bunch of us.

Thomas Garvey said...

I don't "sympathize" with Daisey; I don't deny he lied, and trust me, as someone who has been on the receiving end of his thundering, high-and-mighty attitude, I really should be only too happy to see him brought low. Only - well, honestly, Patrick, what can I say? You shouldn't believe what people tell you! You shouldn't believe Mike Daisey, or Spaulding Gray, or David Sedaris - or Mark Twain, while we're at it. You shouldn't believe what anyone on stage tells you - not literally, not even if they say it's non-fiction! So I understand that it's just pathetic watching Daisey contort his self-regard into some sort of justification for his actions - and yet, at the same time, I realize the powerful effect his actions had. I'm not sure that's canceled out by his personal duplicity.

Patrick Gabridge said...

Sure. I buy that. The impact of the initial story was positive, and might continue to be. It's just a shame he lied when he didn't have to, and has done damage in other ways.

And as for fabrications and exaggerations in stage performances--who cares? We know it's part of the game. Maybe that's why nobody seems to care that Fox News is completely lacking in objectivity--it's part of the show. But if part of the force of your argument is "this is what really happened" and it didn't, and you know it didn't, that ends up being a problem for the speaker's credibility, and undermines that ability of listeners to find out facts about the world. Maybe, you might say, it's better that we all learn that we can never trust anything anyone says. But I'm not sure.

Thomas Garvey said...

Okay, let's slooooow down! I think Mike Daisey's sins are rather different from those of Fox News. What I'm arguing for with Daisey is a more sophisticated response to the "impact" of supposed "first person" authenticity. If he had simply made up his facts - if Apple was not actually mistreating its workers - I'd have had quite a different response. Although sure, if the people who watched Fox News had the attitude, "Hey, this is just bullshit, it's not affecting my vote, I'm watching it for the theatrical impact!," then maybe I could view Fox as more benign (although hardly entirely benign). But of course the people who watch Fox News really do believe it's true.

tdryan34 said...

I agree that not all of TAL seems concerned with fact checking and journalistic integrity, but I think comparing David Sedaris fabricating or embellishing parts of a story about his Father from his childhood is quite different than Mike Daisey fabricating or embellishing parts of a story about him traveling to China two years ago. The purpose of many of Sedaris' works is to entertain, many times i've found myself questioning how true the stuff Sedaris writes is, but as a reader, it doesn't really take away from the entertainment value if it is fabricated. Daisey's Apple story is simply not as interesting or powerful unless the audience beleives it is his actual experience.