Apple Factory Storyteller Mike Daisey Claims He Lied In Service of "Higher Truth", But Instead He Hurt His Cause
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There are lies and there are lies and there are lies.
The Protocols of the Elders of Zion: Big Lie.
"OMG, your [homely] baby is beautiful!": small social lie.
And then, there is the highly debatable third category: lies in service of the greater truth.
Ryszard Kapuściński's The Emperor about Ethiopia's Haile Selassie was either a masterpiece of narrative semi-non-fiction (a venerated genre the Poles call gawęda szlachecka) and cunning allegory of Communist power, or just a fabrication. Was Truman Capote's In Cold Blood a virtuosic "non-fiction novel"? Or was it perhaps – by virtue of from-whole-cloth invention of quotes and dubious assertion of a deep relationship with one of the jailed killers – just fabulism?
John Steinbeck's Travels With Charlie, the solitary rough-hewn journey through backroads America, should be renamed Travels from Hotel to Hotel With Charlie and Mrs Steinbeck. Then, there is Joseph Mitchell, the great chronicler of Lower Manhattan's down and out. Old Mr Flood and many of his other indelible characters turned out to be delible, indeed. They were composites.
One by one, my heroes of literary journalism have gone wobbly, for the crime or not-crime of Photoshopping their reports. And now, today comes another body blow. The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, the riveting theatrical piece by monologuist Mike Daisey so indicting of Appleand other gadget manufacturers for their exploitation of Chinese factory workers turns out to be riddled with fabrications and narrative compositing. The misrepresentations were profound enough that This American Life, the public radio show that had aired a long excerpt of the performance, offered a retraction. Daisey himself promptly offered a belated asterisk:
"My show is a theatrical piece whose goal is to create a human connection between our gorgeous devices and the brutal circumstances from which they emerge. It uses a combination of fact, memoir, and dramatic license to tell its story, and I believe it does so with integrity."
Funny; on the radio, he'd completely forgotten to mention the dramatic-license part. Poignantly describing an older laborer who, for the first time, saw an iPad switched on, Daisey whispered a description of the fellow brushing his hand over the screen and marveling at the "magic". Silly me. I believed that had actually taken place – because, amid other assertions of observed fact, Daisey said it had. We have different notions of integrity, he and I.
Yet, his explanation had familiar echoes. On my radio program, I'd heard the "larger truth trumps nominal facts" argument eloquently articulatedby the great Lawrence Weschler of the New Yorker:
"At the top of my standards are fairness, accuracy, creating something that is true to life, all that are very high in my standards. I'm just claiming that it is impossible to go out there as if you're gonna laminate the world, as if you're gonna take a Xerox machine and put it up to the face of reality and deliver it to your, to your readers. That's ridiculous. Everything, everything is selection, is shading, is trying to figure out what ordering things should go in, and so forth, is, is imputing significance to a whole series of granular facts, and so forth. That happens all the time! And the people who I cherish are people who can tell me stories that illuminate the world for me in an accurate way."
OK, stipulated. By the simple choices of journalism, facts in and of themselves do not constitute truth. They can be selected and arranged any which way, intentionally or unintentionally, to distort truth and turn it upside down. That is precisely how political consultants earn a living: assembling nominal facts to tell big, fat lies.