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Oh, Media

So apparently, after a week of almost nonstop work (because picking up a part-time job on the side when you're working 50 hours a week is cool) and unusual (for me) amounts of social interaction, I suddenly and unexpectedly have a Saturday to myself. And I guess I'm spending my Saturday thinking, once again, about... the media. (Because all I ever talk about is work and NPR. I am such a hipster-yuppie guys, I am so sorry).

Short background, for people who don't spend 8 hours a day tuning out their office with various NPR podcasts: Back in January, This American Life aired an excerpt from a monologue about Apple's production standards in China: Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory. Yesterday, they retracted the story and this week's episode is an hour-long story on... the retraction (oh, TAL, way to be meta). And there are so many layers to this, and so many issues... and so many people spouting wholesale nonsense on the internet at large, possibly just because they don't like TAL in the first place, or just hated Mike Daisey (which, okay, I did too. But I also kind of hated the Kony 2012 guys. It's just so... White Man's Guilt Will Save the World. So in that way I guess yesterday was all about... oh look, Jason Russell has acted out a metaphor for exactly this*... viral pseudo-journalism schadenfreude? (* Most of the news sources yesterday said that Russell was cited for "masturbating in public" though that seems to be gone now as it wasn't ever confirmed by the police. I would retract my metaphor, but it works anyway, just not as poetically. Facts, guys!)

But anyway... In a way, the retraction feels like it's overkill--the story that was originally aired stated that it was excerpted from a stage production. For whatever reason that, to me, signaled that it was more on the side of creative nonfiction than standard journalism... but that was never explicitly stated. And the reason for this, it turns out, is because Mike Daisey pushed the story to the producers as journalism. Mostly, it seems, because he was sure it wouldn't get on the radio otherwise, and he really wanted to get the story out there.

I want to say that's admirable, but I mostly want to punch him in the face. Because the thing with journalism--that, interestingly enough, doesn't apply to creative nonfiction--is that a journalistic piece is built on trust and it gets treated as one whole package. If one part of it is wrong, people treat it like it can't be trusted at all. Which is not a shortcoming on anyone's part... because journalism works based on the idea that facts have been checked and the source can be trusted. If you want to tell a story--if you're concerned about the narrative arc of something, if you want fine-tuned control of a story's impact--that's when you go to creative nonfiction. You acknowledge that what you're trying to do is get at the feeling of the thing, rather than the indisputable facts.

The problem here, that I think frustrates me the most, is that the parts of the story that were true, even if Mike Daisey didn't personally experience them, can now be questioned equally with the parts that weren't true... because he allowed the story to be mis-labelled a as a piece of journalism. The part of me that likes facts thinks that that's just not fair. I've seen so many people in the last day holding up things that were (and are) true about working conditions in China as not true simply because Mike Daisey said them alongside made up bullcrap about Bladerunner dorm rooms. (The part of me that likes being able to detect nuance and distinguish verifiable fact from inference from fakery (even when it's been pointed out in detail in a retraction) is kind of frustrated with the people who can't do that and want things to be black-and-white. Journalism is about trust, and this whole thing was a major betrayal of trust, but you can't just stop the analysis there.) And the part of me that likes This American Life as a journalistic effort thinks that it's super not-fair that people are blaming TAL for the fact that they were lied to--though, yes, they should have known better than to trust someone who claimed their translator could no longer be reached. But when it comes to personal monologues, how do you reliably verify and fact-check things that only happened to one person? A part of me is also currently enamored with the idea of Ira Glass really angry and flipping tables, even though he's just so calm in the interviews.

And let's talk about that, actually. Because Act 2 this week? Is probably one of my favorite bits of radio, ever. It is the perfect example of how an interview can be utterly ruthless without ever raising its voice. All the long, awkward pauses are left in. Dead air--because it's such a taboo--is really powerful. I feel bad for Mike Daisey (though the BS he trots out to try to shield himself from journalistic critique is the sort of stuff I always wanted to punch people for in lit crit classes. Because it's about his art. Though, okay, there's a tiny bit of my hardened little heart that breaks when he says that he knew the piece was his best work, and if he didn't lie he knew it wouldn't go out. But Mike Daisey, that is what art is for. That is not what journalism is for.) I want to high-five Ira Glass. Or give him a hug. He just sounds so... betrayed. YOU DO NOT BETRAY IRA GLASS, AMERICA. Because he will very calmly dismantle you in front of everyone.

tl;dr If you want to tell a story, tell a story. If you want to be a journalist, tell the truth. Also don't lie to Ira Glass. Also people should listen to the Retraction because it's good radio... especially if you listened to Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory (or anything Mike Daisey said on the subject before and after, because he duped a lot of news outlets on his quest for publicity). There are facts and nuance and Ira Glass calmly dismantling someone.

Aaand this post is mostly to prevent me from gracelessly getting into arguments with people on Tumblr and Reddit about what journalism is actually for and what the retraction actually means and who, exactly, failed here.

Oh, and this article in the New Yorker, about how our expectations about China and our technology make it far too easy to believe overwrought stories like Mike Daisey's (and the importance of first-hand experience with a country in regards to what's being said at home) may also be worth a read. It's a lot more coherent than I am about the ways this story went wrong and why.

ETA: A couple other interesting articles on the subject: Fabulous Journalism (on Reuters' blogs) and Theatre, Disguised as Real Journalism (in the NYT).


( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
17th Mar, 2012 20:02 (UTC)
Argh, my phone doesn't seem to like NPR, I'll have to wait until later when I'm home. :(

...Btw, dunno if you've thought more about your maybe taking a vacation in May (it looks like you've been incredibly busy), but I thought I'd give you an update on Hawaiian archaeology. The dig will probably be over by Memorial Day weekend; I'm planning on going over the previous weekend so I can help with sifting/making lunches/rubbernecking/whatever. I plan to be on the Big Island for the long holiday weekend.
17th Mar, 2012 20:15 (UTC)
Boo, phone! (You have a droid of some sort, right? The NPR app or Stitcher might work? Sticher is still on last week's episode, though.)

Oh man, May. Yeah, I haven't had any time at all to plan anything lately (though all in all, I can't complain that much since I get to pretend I'm a writer now). I think I'm going to have to stay on the mainland in May... but that just means I can schedule a proper Hawaii vacation for some point when you're not mostly off in the rainforest with birds. (-;
17th Mar, 2012 21:08 (UTC)
Droid 4 and yeah, it offered me the NPR app but I have this policy against, like, paying for things, and I figured it was easy enough to just wait a few hours.

Haha yeah, the timing, which at first appeared to be supernaturally fortuitous, appears now to be... not that great. But omg, congrats on the writing gig!! That's fantastic! Sorry I didn't say so earlier, but I miss a lot when I spend half my life in the deep woods. So... yay for acquiring jobs that are actually tied into our interests/career plans/life goals that keep us busy and make us exhausted but also happy! *highfives* :DD (I had the exact same jumpy-squealy reaction when I got mine. XD)
17th Mar, 2012 22:42 (UTC)
As far as I've known (approximately a week), both the NPR app and Stitcher are free. Though yes, if it's just a matter of waiting a few hours, no big deal. (-;

I think I'm pretty all right with the way unexpected fortuitous things intervened in our otherwise-perfect archaeological meetup (though really... we need to find a way to reschedule some sort of archaeological meetup, because I'm never happy with just having my cake). ^_^
18th Mar, 2012 00:37 (UTC)
As far as I could tell it was offering me something upwards of two bucks. Which is cheap, yes, but I dunno that it would be worth it for me since I can't see myself listening to internet NPR with great regularity, as fabulous as it is.

Oh yes, most definitely. BEING ABLE TO ALSO EAT THE CAKE WOULD BE SO MUCH BETTER. I'll definitely keep you informed of any future archaeological investigation. Not that I think you should necessarily wait for one to come visit, should you so desire and the opportunity present itself. :D

17th Mar, 2012 21:08 (UTC)
Hmm, somehow I can't picture Tumblr as the appropriate forum for any discussion, let alone this one...

Anywho, will give the retraction a listen! Since I can't listen to radio at work, I tend to forget about NPR and how much I like it from to time. Probably time to go on one of my binges and get caught up!
17th Mar, 2012 22:46 (UTC)
In my experience so far, Tumblr is not a good forum for any sort of discussion at all. It is, however, great for 1) gifs 2) art and 3) shouting into the void and listening to the echo.

Did you hear the original story? I'm kind of curious about what someone who didn't will make of it, but things right now are mostly an echo chamber of people who are public radio weirdos (I mean, it's a public radio story that was later debunked by another public radio program. A disconcerting amount of the argument I've seen has actually been derailed by how TAL is distributed by PRI, not NPR, so, you know, the whole thing isn't actually as much of a meta radio ouroboros as it seems.)
18th Mar, 2012 09:19 (UTC)
...Those pieces of dead air were electric.
19th Mar, 2012 05:08 (UTC)
The first one ran so long, I actually checked to make sure it was still playing. Leaving that dead space in there says so, so much more about Mike (and Ira) than could ever really be covered otherwise.
19th Mar, 2012 19:54 (UTC)
I listened to the retraction episode on Saturday and holy crap, I have never seen (well, heard) anyone pull off calm anger as well as Ira Glass did. That first moment of dead air was so long that I started to think that my radio had shut off.
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )


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EvilHippo of the Clan MacHippo
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