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Evans: Nothing left but fiction

BY BENJAMIN EVANS | FEBRUARY 21, 2013 5:00 AM

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Perhaps you’ve seen them — the posters pinned on boards or hung up next to university insignia with crisp letters heralding the arrival of Mike Daisey.

But with Dasiey’s theatrical prowess marking Iowa City’s cultural scene comes a mark of a different, more sinister nature.

Daisey is, simply, a liar.

The famed public-radio program “This American Life” aired one of its most popular shows excerpting Daisey’s one-man show titled “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” about the supposed abuse of Chinese workers in Foxconn factories that manufacture Apple products.

The 39-minute excerpt broadcast on Jan. 6, 2012, featured a significant piece of Daisey’s monologue, stories about his personal travels to factories in China. In this monologue, Daisey spoke of the number of factories and workers he visited, telling listeners about a group of assembly-line workers he met that were poisoned at the factory they worked at. In his monologue, he even went so far as to describe an interaction among Daisey, his interpreter Cathy Lee and a man maimed by making iPads.

This never happened. This never took place, disputed by Daisey’s interpreter, a lie told to nearly a million people on a reputable broadcast. The underage workers he saw? Fabricated. The poisoned workers? Fictionalized. The number of factories and workers? Hyperbolized.

“This American Life” aired its first ever retraction show, devoting an entire hour to scrutinizing every detail of the excerpt and reporting the facts as they are — without adjectives and exaggeration.

“I’m not going to say that I didn’t take a few shortcuts in my passion to be heard,” Daisey told reporter Rob Schmitz and the show’s executive producer Ira Glass. “My mistake, the mistake I truly regret, is that I had it on [‘This American Life’] as journalism, and it’s not journalism. It’s theater.”     

Art as an excuse to manipulate and present facts to an audience expecting to be informed. In the genre of nonfiction, this is criminal, but it is not a singular event.

University of Iowa’s own John D’Agata, a faculty member of the Nonfiction Writing Program, was caught in a similar controversy spanning the past decade.

In an essay he submitted to The Believer (originally he submitted it to Harper’s magazine, but the magazine rejected it after finding it was riddled with “factual inaccuracies”), D’Agata tangoed with a fact-checker named Jim Fingal concerning the nature and relationship of facts to truth. The 15-page essay, a reflective piece about a young man’s suicide in Las Vegas, was eventually published in 2010, after nearly five years of fact-checking.

This, of course, didn’t make the press until email correspondents between the fact-checker and the essayist were compiled and published in a book titled The Lifespan of a Fact — most of which is dedicated to how well facts can tell the truth.

Once again, like Daisey, some creative transformations of facts are small: D’Agata claimed there were 34 licensed strip clubs in Las Vegas, when sources say there are only 31.

Why, the fact-checker asked?

“Because the rhythm of ‘34’ works better in that sentence than rhythm of ‘31,’ ” said the UI faculty member in a response to The Believer’s fact-checker.

And, like Daisey, some inaccuracies are complete fabrications; another suicide that occurred on the same day as the young man’s changed from a suicide from falling to a suicide by hanging.

Why, again?

“Because I wanted [the young man’s] death to be the only one from falling that day,” D’Agata said. “I wanted his death to be more unique.”  

All in the name of art, manipulating facts to suit personal, creative gains is playing God with a peanut-sized brain.

Throughout Lifespan, D’Agata argues that he is not a journalist, he does not report the facts, but he instead seeks the truth — that his interpretation of the facts (though inaccurate) is a small breach of a despotic veil shrouding truth from the world.

Fabricating stories, hyper-exaggerating facts, changing numbers because they sound better — this is the new nonfiction some praise as true and real.

I’m not here to thump the journalistic code of ethics, nor discourage the purveyors of truth, nor preach about any definition of truth.

Daisey isn’t fully to blame for the “This American Life” broadcast — the program’s producers admitted to not fully fact-checking the content before it aired but instead opted to take Daisey at his word.

But with these small exchanges, be it the producers of “This American Life” putting faith in Daisey to be honest or a reader opening The Believer and expecting an essay based in fact, the core meaning of the relationship between writer and reader is revealed: trust.

Nonfiction writers hold a fragile, but distinct contract with their readers to represent facts as facts. We can dink around, making adjective more palatable, verbs sexier, spicing up normally boring rhetoric with creativity. But the line remains — the social contract validated by picking up a newspaper or flipping to an article in a magazine.

The mutual trust is clear and holy and cannot be abused because of righteous sense of artistic integrity. Readers trust writers enough to let down, if even an inch, their skeptical guard about a despotic world to become students of an article, report or essay. And with every Mike Daisey or John D’Agata, the readers lose more of that trust.  

Facts are facts. Don’t abuse them or, in the end, there will be nothing left in the world but fiction.


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