Mike Daisey definitely crossed a line from acceptable storytelling into unacceptable misstatements of fact, but Ira Glass was correct in saying that “This American Life” has to take much of the blame for it. As Laura points out, that show has an ambiguous status, and I had not known until now that its producers consider their work as journalism. That’s not quite an adequate label, frankly. But it’s clear that once they decided to fact-check Daisey’s work for their radio show, and he actively misled them about the fact that some details were fictionalized, the Rubicon had been crossed.
To be clear, I have no problem with an artist or writer taking liberties with a somewhat true story in order to make a dramatic point or a social argument. That describes almost everything Dickens ever wrote, and everything else from Frank Norris and Theodore Dreiser to “All the President’s Men,” “Silkwood” and “The Hurt Locker.” The larger problem is that our society lacks basic standards of literacy that would allow people to understand the distinction between fiction and journalism, and the varying pathways to truth (and definitions thereof) that each can offer.
We’re obsessed with the question of whether things are “real,” which betrays our doubts about whether anything we encounter in the media should be considered real. So the appearance of authenticity becomes a valuable commodity, and people seek it out when they don’t deserve it. Every other Hollywood movie professes to be “based on a true story,” which often is just an excuse for shoddy storytelling. What’s doubly or trebly unfortunate about this case is that most of what Mike Daisey says about working conditions in Chinese factories is apparently true. He doesn’t deserve comparison with someone like James Frey, who essentially tried to sell a novel as autobiography.
The line here is very broad and hazy, and in the end I'd say Mike Daisey definitely crossed it. But the key to understanding what happened here is an understanding of genre. What he did would be ok for a personal monologue, but not as a political argument or journalism, or expert commentary. It would be ok for a docu-drama, or historical movie, but not in dinner party conversation. Poem, yes. Photograph in art show, yes. Photograph in news magazine, no.
Genre is one of the most powerful tools in the discipline of English, yet it is absent -- uniquely absent -- from the Common Core standards. Why?