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Mike Daisey, Apple, and Our Culture's Crisis in Truth-Telling

Mar 28 2012
Are "emotional truths" acceptable if they lead to greater awareness? How we answer matters a great deal.

Last week the popular NPR show This American Life did something completely unprecedented in the history of the program. It retracted an entire episode.

This decision has garnered media attention for two reasons. First, This American Life (TAL) is a journalistic program that prides itself on factual integrity. Though it contains editorializing, it has also won awards for its probing research into the truth.

Second, the retraction drew attention because this particular episode was the most downloaded episode in the show's history.

The episode in question featured an actor named Mike Daisey, who has been performing a one-man show titled "The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs," which recounts his time in China investigating Apple's production factories. His show is an exposfamp;copy; of the worker abuses he discovered there, and TAL featured excerpts from the show. Its airing was eye-opening for many, and resulted in heightened attention on Apple's human rights policies and practices. Following the flood of goodwill toward Apple upon the passing of its CEO, this story marked a change in the tide.

Perhaps Apple, the company we know and love, is no different from all the other heartless international corporations out there. That seemed to be the lesson of Daisey's story—until last week, that is, when we learned that Daisey had duped us all.

As it turns out, Daisey fabricated much of the story, which is a messy compilation of his own real-life experiences, the experiences of others, information he gathered from the news, anecdotal exaggerations, and flat-out lies.

Once this truth was uncovered, TAL found itself in a difficult position. Responding with transparency and humility, TAL devoted an entire episode to retracting the story. Host Ira Glass confessed his grave mistake and invited Daisey onto the show for a follow-up interview.

In the course of its "Retraction" episode, Glass held Daisey's feet to the fire, but Daisey's response was both frustrating and weird. It is tough to know whether Daisey was blatantly lying or swallowed up in denial, but he was unwilling to admit he had lied. He regretted allowing the story to be aired on TAL, but insisted that there was truth to it. After all, the episode had motivated listeners to care about human-rights violations. It was truth rendered in an artistic medium.

Since TAL aired its retraction, Daisey has become even more belligerent, clinging to his narrative of "artistic truth." Though his story might be unacceptable by journalistic standards, he believes it is more than fitting for the stage. For Daisey, truth seems to be amorphous and flexible, so there are different ways of communicating it. (This week, finally, Daisey apologized for the story, writing on his blog that he had "failed to honor the contract I'd established with my audiences over many years and many shows.")

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Mike Daisey, Apple, and Our Culture's Crisis in Truth-Telling