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    Mike Daisey, Kony and the Ecstasy and the Agony of Infotainment

    Written by

    Alex Pasternack

    Founding Editor

    Steve Jobs didn’t see Mike Daisey’s one man show about the Apple boss and the ugly supply chain that makes his and everyone else’s gadgets. But Daisey claimed that Jobs told someone, that “Mike didn’t appreciate the complexity of the situation.” Daisey recounted Jobs’ response when we both appeared on the CBC recently to talk ethical gadgets, and he relished it, in part for the dramatic twist. Jobs was acknowledging, Daisey said, that there is a situation to begin with.

    And it gets more complex. For the year and a half it traveled the country, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” was just that: a performance, delivered in a black box to audiences that included Steve Wozniak (who wept, Daisey said) and Ira Glass, who chose to air the piece on This American Life. Glass’s show is known for emotionally powerful non-fiction, split between monologue-y personal tales (“Break-Up”) and hard-hitting exposes (“The Giant Pool of Money”). The tricky space between those two kinds of formats is where Daisey’s partly fabricated story slipped in, and managed to slip past a fact checking gauntlet. (See the case of Malcolm Gladwell, who also fibbed in a Moth monologue that was later broadcast on This American Life.) But in moving from small theaters to an audience of 1.8 million listeners, theatrical embellishment becomes journalistic sin.

    A few hours after news of the Daisey retraction hit Twitter, casting a new kind of shadow over the already murky story of gadget ethics, another kind of embarrassment went viral: the flame out of Invisible Children’s Jason Russell in the middle of a Pacific Beach neighborhood. There’s good deal of interesting overlap between the Foxconn story and the story that Russell told about militia leader Joseph Kony in his 30-minute video – the pricking of Western guilt, child abuse and lots of sketchy details. But there’s a crucial difference. The challenge of verifying Daisey’s piece – and the relative speed with which the Kony / Invisible Children phenomenon crashed and burned against a fact-checking wall – points to the importance of trusted sources. Invisible Children already carried dubious associations, as a piece at Vice noted early on; This American Life, meanwhile, is one of the most venerated programs on American public radio, hosted by a lovable and trustworthy personality.

    But when asked for his translator’s contact to verify his facts, Mike Daisey managed to foil This American Life‘s producers. He told them he could no longer contact her. If you’ve ever fact-checked, you know, deep down, that that’s simply not good enough. In buying that explanation though, the producers may have fallen prey to another of those complexities of the situation: the undying mystique of China as a black hole of information. (See Evan Osnos’s write-up for an overview of what is knowable in “unknowable” China.)

    Still, it’s not hard to understand why China’s mystique persists, and why only one journalist, NPR’s Rob Schmitz, seemed bothered enough to tear it apart. Daisey’s monologue, with its self-righteous declaration that it took a rogue non-journalist to do the work of real journalists — journalists who didn’t seem to care enough about the story, or at least didn’t know how to tell it — didn’t sound totally “accurate” to me. And yet, it wasn’t implausible. China can be a devilishly difficult place to distinguish fact from fiction (as I learned during a two-year stint in Beijing after college). That’s the effect of living not only amidst otherworldly ambitions (try to imagine the construction of 200 new cities), but in a society where the state has eliminated freedom of information and replaced it with promises of economic growth.

    And yet, those promises are showing signs of breaking. To see how, just look at China’s internet. It may be surrounded by a wall and policed by thousands, but harmless-looking subversive memes and the power of tweeting networks like Weibo make it a robust fact-checking machine, exposing corruption, lambasting official hypocrisy, and occasionally becoming a scary instrument of vigilante justice.

    With journalism budgets sinking, and fact-checking taking a back seat to metrics, the Internet everywhere is proving to be a pretty able machine not just for spreading lies but for exposing the truth. I bet that if China’s netizens had been provoked to examine the facts behind Daisey’s story — maybe if someone had translated the story into Mandarin, at least as a transcript (see what New York Times did a few years ago with its Choking on Growth series) – perhaps the facts would have emerged sooner.

    Mike Daisey talks about Kony 2012 on MSNBC, March 13, 2012, three days before This American Life’s retraction.

    The Daisey fabrication also points to another complexity when it comes to stories about China, the ethical issues of globalization, and anything else we have trouble understanding: we’re hungry for “truths” that line up with our perception of the world. That’s a formula that politicians exploit during campaigns (see today’s Times piece on polarization science) and that advertisers adore (data about our “likes” is what makes Facebook so valuable).

    As a journalistic enterprise, This American Life failed, as Ira Glass “admits”: on the “Retraction” episode, which, by the way, is a fantastic and provacative piece of radio, not least for the long, dramatic silences between Glass and Daisey. But a fantastic, dramatic piece of radio cannot alone undo the damage done.

    And so it is with Foxconn and Kony: a thorny “situation” can be addressed beautifully, compellingly and intensely, but that doesn’t necessarily address the complexity of the situation. In fact, sometimes it obscures the complexity, and makes it even harder to talk about. But, for a brief time at least, we suck it up nonetheless, because who wants to deal with a complex situation when we can have everything wrapped up into a neat package? A package complete with simple instructions on how to unpack it, music and poetry that inspires us to action, and an easy way to share our actions with other people. (As Ethan Zuckerman notes, once you’ve aroused their emotions, giving people something they can do, especially through something as easy as social media is going to be a very useful takeaway from the Kony campaign.) By listening and watching and interacting, we might find a way to exorcise a guilt we can’t begin to explain, or scratch an itch we didn’t know we had.

    Steve Jobs also knew how to give people what they wanted. “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them," Jobs told Businessweek. To that end, he valued simplicity, and he knew the virtues of good packaging. This is technological populism, which doesn’t necessarily make a product good, or ethical, or transparent. (In fact, it makes gadgets like the iPad almost impossible to dissect or repair.) As Daisey wrote in a Times op-ed – a piece that has since had a dubious paragraph excised – Jobs’s greatest talent was as an editor. Not an editor that cares about facts but one who knows how to tell a compelling story to an audience eager to “think different.”

    One of the keys to Apple’s success under his leadership was his ability to see technology with an unsentimental eye and keen scalpel, ready to cut loose whatever might not be essential. This editorial mien was Mr. Jobs’s greatest gift — he created a sense of style in computing because he could edit.

    After waves of criticism, Invisible Children danced around the trade-offs, explaining that “In our quest to garner wide public support of nuanced policy, Invisible Children has sought to explain the conflict in an easily understandable format.” The “easily understandable format,” a format that might begin with ancient Greek theater but that goes viral in the age of TED and the infographic, is one we’re learning to grapple with. The troublesome facts and problematic motives in both Daisey’s story and Invisible Children’s make me think of the newspaper story at the heart of that 1980s movie Absence of Malice: the damning article that Sally Field writes about Paul Newman is accurate, she acknowledges, but it isn’t true.

    A clip from Absence of Malice.

    The Kony story, thoroughly dissected by the media, looks accurate but not true. Joseph Kony has done terrible things to people and employed child soldiers, but placing so much emphasis on him loses sight of a larger story. Daisey’s saga is the reverse: it’s “true,” but not accurate. The things he describes do happen in China, and in much worse ways. Teenage labor, mutilated factory workers and worker poisoning are all par for the course in a country with weak labor protections. Daisey’s inaccuracies are frustrating because they distract from and undermine those actual facts, facts that just don’t fit into a neat personal monologue by a funny man who marches up to a Chinese factory in a Hawaiian shirt (that detail in Daisey’s story was accurate, by the way).

    But there’s also value in Daisey’s Foxconn saga and Invisible Children’s sketchy Kony campaign. These stories give us not only an education in Internet virality or an important reminder about the uses and abuses of art made for political ends. They’re lessons in detecting bullshit. And as such, they’re also lessons in how easy it is to provoke guilt as well as a desire to act on that guilt. We’re eager for explanations and revelations, facts aside. The irony exposed by Daisey and Kony – and by the actual Foxconn story too – is that the tools meant to bring us closer together, and closer to the truth, also keep us surprisingly far apart.