Mike Daisey has discovered what every reporter already knows: Interviewing real people is a messy business. The temptation to cheat is high, while the rewards for being honest can be low.
I think I know what happened to Mike Daisey. Every reporter knows. He was felled by the most dangerous transaction in journalism: the “man on the street” interview.
Daisey is the ex-Seattle theater performer outed last week for lying and making up people and events regarding Apple and worker abuses in China.
His defense was that he’s an artist. In art it’s OK to fabricate in pursuit of a greater truth.
That is a convenient explanation. I bet the reality is that he learned what all rookie reporters do the first time they go out to “get some color” from real people on the streets.
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It’s a mess. Most of what you get is useless. When you are fishing — as Daisey was when he interviewed random people outside a Chinese factory — hours if not days can be squandered talking to people who turn out to be uninformed, incoherent, unreliable or even unstable.
The notion that he could parachute into a foreign country, spend a few days and come back with an investigative exposé — it would be a first in the history of journalism. As “This American Life” should have known.
I have done this sort of “person on the street” interviewing many times. It’s a minefield. For starters you are popping into someone’s life in the most abrupt fashion, so why should they open up to you? It takes endurance to get something real — the truth, as Daisey calls it.
Plus if you’re interested in this truth being true, you have to corroborate it. That can get uncomfortable for everyone.
Example: Daisey contends he met a Chinese worker whose hand got mangled in a metal press and so was fired. This forms the emotional core of his story, when this man, whose life was ruined making the iPad, strokes the device with his claw and still proclaims it “magic.”
This never happened. But had it, a reporter, not an artist, would likely require the poor man to produce work and medical records substantiating his account. The man might refuse, or the records might complicate his story. Plus you’d want to hear the company’s side. This sort of vetting of the victim we do all the time in journalism. It’s not pretty, and Daisey is right about one thing — it sure can gum up the poetry of the moment.
My favorite scene on this was in the HBO series, “The Wire.” A reporter is sent out to do a feature about his city on the opening day of baseball. He spends hours talking to people who spout only gibberish or clichés.
So much time and effort, this reporting, often leading nowhere. So the reporter concocts a story about an orphan kid in a wheelchair skipping school to go to the game. It’s the perfect metaphor of springtime hopes blooming in the gritty city.
That’s why I think the press is obsessed with Daisey, as he has complained. Because we’ve all been there, right where he was, tempted. While he cheated and came up with a yarn that is the most-listened-to in the history of “This American Life,” we don’t cheat and our stories typically come out more nuanced and dense.
Admittedly they’re also often missing these so-called larger truths.
I mean it took a team of New York Times reporters the better part of a year to tell the actual story of working conditions in Apple’s China factories. It was potent but clogged with facts, caveats and gray areas. There was no poetry moment.
All of this is because we figure you expect stories about real people and real companies to be, at a minimum, real.
But do you? I cringed when Seattle’s Cornish College of the Arts, which is about to give Daisey an honorary degree, excused the scandal as “the understandable confusion … between art and journalism.”
Making up stories and spouting them on news programs is “understandable?”
It’s true journalists haven’t always upheld these standards either. Now I wonder if anyone cares anyway.
Because on Monday, Daisey did a show in Washington, D.C., in which he bashed the media — for nitpicking him, for not getting that “that’s what drama is, it’s dramatizing,” and for being too blinded by facts to see the truth.
He got a standing ovation.
Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org.