Saturday, March 24, 2012

"This American Life", Mike Daisey and the Human "Weakness" for A Good Story

In a previous post, I wrote about the human "weakness" for a good story. The core idea was that we humans are very much disposed to welcome, accept and internalize a "good" story. In that post, I didn't spend much time defining the characteristics of a "good" story.

I don't have time and motivation to fully define the term now, either, but I'll flesh it out a bit more. Characteristics that make a story "good" (and, sometimes, "too good to be true") include:
  • Linear--the story arc is smooth, steady and in a consistent direction.
  • Dense--the critical events occur in a very compressed time or narrative space, typically much richer than you could ever expect (or tolerate!) in real life.
  • Drama--the story contains the ingredients--timing, character involvement, utterances--that heighten dramatic effect. Often these involve multiple improbable coincidences.
The NPR show This American Life just broadcast a remarkable episode. It is a program-length retraction of the Mike Daisey episode on work conditions in factories of Apple's China-based suppliers[1]. The episode was based on an adaptation of Daisey's one-man monologue The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.

How does this relate to my theme of humans-and-stories? Two ways. First and most obvious--it is a textbook example of the weakness part. Rightly or wrongly, Daisey seemed to believe that to command the audience's attention, he needed to make the story really good. Ira Glass takes issue with that--he seems to say, "no, just tell the story, no need to embellish".

I'm not so sure. Before I explain, let me make a couple of things clear. First--I hugely respect and enjoy Ira Glass. I don't know that much about him, but from my experience as a listener, he is an amazingly talented storyteller and a journalist with the highest integrity. He comes across as a pretty darn likeable and admirable human being, too. Second--no matter what, the ends don't justify the means. Even if it were provably the case that the only way for Daisey to get audience attention is through embellishment--I still don't approve. No good comes from falsification.

So back to my point. Really good stories, and claims of first-hand personal experience are, unfortunately, excessively arresting. One case in point--James Frey and A Million Little Pieces. It was rejected 17 times when submitted as fiction, before being accepted as a memoir[2].

So if Mike Daisey wanted to stay on safe ground, he would have had to eliminate at least one of the two things that made his story so compelling:
  • Remove the claim of first-hand experience.
  • Keep the story truthful, at the cost of diluting the qualities that made it such a good story.
In my opinion, when working as a dramatist he should opt for the former--admit that many parts are composite, but stick the the spirit of the truth. On the other hand, when (if) working as a journalist, the latter is preferable. Ultimately, I think the two are not fully compatible. It is too much of a stretch for Daisey, a dramatist, to wear the journalists hat. What would have worked much, much better would be for This American Life to have created the report using their in-house journalists, and heavily featured Daisey's work, acknowledging it as drama.

Okay, that's enough for one blog post. In Part 2, I will look more at the role of This American Life in the incident.
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[1] I am writing this having listened to the episode, but without having read about it, other than a few pre-broadcast news items, which alerted me to it in the first place. I added this link after-the fact.

[2] The linked Salon article also does a good job explaining why writers such a Frey or dramatists such as Daisey may be sorely tempted to take liberties.

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