March 19, 2012

"Making people care" — Mike Daisey's justification for folding fake drama into a more or less true story.

David Carr analyzes the theater/journalism borderline, looking at Daisey's "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs" (the subject of this week's "Retraction" on "This American Life") and "Kony 2012" (the viral video whose producer, Jason Russell, was found, last Friday, naked and ranting on the streets of San Diego). Daisey says he "was terrified" that if he "untied" the fake parts of his theater monologue (to meet the standards of "This American Life") that "the work, that I know is really good, and tells a story, that does these really great things for making people care... would come apart in a way where, where it would ruin everything."

I listened to the "Retraction" episode of "This American Life," and was captivated and repulsed by the replays of the "The Agony and the Ecstasy," with Daisey's heavy-handed phrasing and gulping passionate voice. He injects Apple is eeeevvvilll directly into the theatergoer's brain. You hear the audience reaction and feel them in his manipulative hands. This is art! But it's journalism too. All you have to do is say it has fictionalized elements, and you're in the powerful realm of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and "The Jungle."

Carr says:
I am a longtime fan of “This American Life,” but I have never assumed that every story I heard was literally true. The writer and monologist David Sedaris frequently tells wonderful personal yarns on the show that may not be precisely true in every detail....
Yes, what exactly is the difference between Sedaris and what Daisey did? One is humor and the other drama? But both humor and drama employ exaggerations, composites, and invention. One is only trying to entertain and the other is trying to incite political action? That's more like it. One is an author telling stories on himself (and his friends and family) and the other has identified a target and intends a vicious attack that will cause real harm. That matters.

Now, Daisey stresses the victims of his victim: the workers in China, the people he made the audience care about by making up dramatic scenes that, it turns out, never happened, like the man with a hand that was mangled making an iPad who gets to touch, with that mangled hand, a finished iPad, and he strokes it and calls it "magical." This is a version of what is the classic melodramatic encapsulation of the plight of the factory worker: He labors over the creation of a product that he can never own.

Carr — writing in the NYT — turns to the NYT journalists who published a series of articles "investigating Apple’s suppliers... that may have contained a bit less drama, but landed hard." I presume these articles are accurate, but how do I know? Carr anticipates the reader's skepticism about the trustworthiness of professional journalists (who can't make the I'm-an-artist defense when they are caught faking). He ends his article with a coy reference to "an e-mail to someone I know who is an expert on journalistic malfeasance [askins] if, in a complicated informational age, there was a way to make sure that someone telling an important story had the actual goods." We get a quote from this character, a quote that's only worth quoting to get to the revelation that it's Jayson Blair. Somehow the NYT expects you to remember who Blair is... or they're hoping we've forgotten.

I put that link on Blair's name. It's not in Carr's article — and it's even a link to the NYT. Blair's articles seemed so good because they included vivid details that extracted empathy from the reader:
Some of Mr. Blair's articles in recent months provide vivid descriptions of scenes that often occurred in the privacy of people's homes but that, travel records and interviews show, Mr. Blair could not have witnessed.

On March 24, for example, he filed an article with the dateline Hunt Valley, Md., in which he described an anxious mother and father, Martha and Michael Gardner, awaiting word on their son, Michael Gardner II, a Marine scout then in Iraq.

Mr. Blair described Mrs. Gardner ''turning swiftly in her chair to listen to an anchor report of a Marine unit''; he also wrote about the red, white and blue pansies in her front yard. In an interview last week, Mrs. Gardner said Mr. Blair had spoken to her only by phone.
Why lie about pansies? Red, white and blue pansies. To make you care. You can't be relied upon to care based on journalistic facts alone. Those who would manipulate your political opinions know they need to pull at your heart. They give you flowers. They give you an old man with a shaking, mangled hand.

From the "This American Life" transcript (boldface added):
Mike Daisey: And everything I have done in making this monologue for the theater has been toward that end – to make people care. I’m not going to say that I didn’t take a few shortcuts in my passion to be heard. But I stand behind the work. My mistake, the mistake that I truly regret is that I had it on your show as journalism and it’s not journalism. It’s theater. I use the tools of theater and memoir to achieve its dramatic arc and of that arc and of that work I am very proud because I think it made you care, Ira, and I think it made you want to delve. And my hope is that it makes – has made — other people delve....

And I stand by it as a theatrical work. I stand by how it makes people see and care about the situation that’s happening there. I stand by it in the theater. And I regret, deeply, that it was put into this context on your show.
Make people care. This is the what we are exposed to when we encounter text. An author is trying to make you care. And maybe you feel that upwelling of caring — empathy... ah, the twinges of humanity. Aren't you a good person to surrender to the injection of caring about the thing you've been manipulated into caring about?

Make people care. May I suggest that you shift your focus from "care" to "make"? Someone is trying to make you feel/think what they want you to feel/think. They'd like you to directly internalize the viewpoint they have chosen and do not want to try to prove on facts and reason alone. Resist!

There. Was that dramatic enough to make you care about resisting the writers who are out to make you care?


BigFire said...

Fake but Accurate all over again.

MadisonMan said...

The underlying message: You are too stupid to take the facts and arrive at the conclusion I think you should arrive at. Therefore I am justified in my manipulation.

Triangle Man said...

"Making" you feel something is what artists aspire to do. Daisey is welcome to join the ranks of annoying performance artists. Once he has been identified as such, he will be that much easier to ignore.

Robert Cook said...

If you offer falsehoods or exaggerations to "make people care," and your fabrications are discovered--as they will be--you will succeed only in making people "not care."

Ann Althouse said...

"Daisey is welcome to join the ranks of annoying performance artists."

Clearly, he already did that. His monologue had a successful run in a very prestigious theater in New York.

The mistake he made was in taking advantage of the people at "This American Life" after that had already occurred.

Craig said...

Delving makes good copy, too.

David said...

Robert Cook said...
If you offer falsehoods or exaggerations to "make people care," and your fabrications are discovered--as they will be--you will succeed only in making people "not care."

Correct. Thus the global warming fiasco.

Thus the need in modern American politics to demonize the opponent.

Trapper Townshend said...

Ann, you have written many times about how you mostly read nonfiction; about how children in schools should be taught nonfiction instead of fiction; you have a tendency to post stuff like Philip Roth's claim that he "never reads fiction anymore."

The implication behind all that is that nonfiction is somehow different from fiction--more true, more lasting, more universal, more something. Is it? What I see from the "nonfiction writers seems to be this: stories which address the trendy ephemera of our current moment (Apple! Economic inequality!) with messages that flatter Western sensibilities (things aren't *fair*, technology is good) and which are "artistically" composed to manipulate emotions (see Daisey, Sedaris, Jayson Blair, or heck, see all of the mainstream media, plus Fox News, plus the majority of people with a political agenda).

At least fiction is honest about the fact that there is a person, with artistic intentions, doing the writing, and doesn't claim to be a documentary about the world.

If you want to kick the fiction out of our schools and replace it with nonfiction, expect our students to become more brainwashed, more narrow-minded, and more flattered that, at the age of 18, they know everything, than they were before.

Bob Ellison said...

Professor, you seem mostly to distinguish here between persuasion and compulsion. Journalism is (I persuade) always persuasive, and so is fiction. Fiction presented as fact is just another form. It's not compulsive.

Mind you, I agree with your well-persuaded points.

Joe said...

The mistake he made was in taking advantage of the people at "This American Life" after that had already occurred.

Give me a break. The people at "This American Life" are selling entertainment. Anyone who hasn't realized that is a fool and almost deserves to be duped.

Just like Jason Blair and so many others, the most simple skepticism would have raised serious questions. A few phone calls would have raised more. As with Jason Blair the editors/producers WANTED to be conned; they were practically begging for it.

"This American Life" is full of bullshit, but few care.

DCS said...

There aren't many steps between the kind of advocacy journalism practiced by the NYT and other liberal publications and the outright fakery of Mike Daisey. "I'm shocked. Shocked. To see that gambling is going on in this establishment."

traditionalguy said...

Daisey is a writer of fictional non-fiction. It's a false flag operation invented by Truman Capote.

His craft highlites Propaganda by the government working through Walt Disney Fantasyland themes inculcated into children and complete with smooth movies.

That has always given media a special place in the outcomes.

Historically, the Old news papers powers gave way to a mega power contained in Newsreels and live radio during the 1920s... The result was Hitler's fantasy land.

Newsreels and live radio were overpowered by TV Network Anchor Men in the mid 1950s... The result was Viet Nam and Watergate.

By the late 1990s a new world wide satellite digital media awoke to its power. Every observer was aghast at what a media savy Princess Diana had done to win the world's heart and mind... The result was a UN world wide Global Warming Hijack of Science to empower a mega hoax by Soros/Obama/Pelossi.

ONLY the internet bloggers push back has saved the world from a return of the glory of the Roman Empire complete with slaves and pagan far.

Scott M said...

Given his justifications, falsifying "to make people care", is there any possibility at all that Mike Daisey is just Al Gore moonlighting from Current TV into a media operation that actually has an audience?

Wince said...

TMZ has the Russell nude meltdown video.

cubanbob said...

Yet another reason for the administration and congress to defund NPR. When will the schmucks realize that in the internet age you need a better class of liar? One not so easily fact checkable.

Quaestor said...

Ah, that subtle blend of truth and lies... no propagandist can hope to succeed without it. The art is to make the lies even more truthier than the truths. Truth is often boring. Some people can see the most profound beauty in science and mathematics. Often this aesthetic derives from the contrast between the simplicity of the statement and the complexity implications of that statement. Most people, however, don't give mathematical truth a chance to excite them. They turn away with a "huh?" or a "big deal..."

Lies on the other hand are usually exciting, that is if the lie is not easily shown to a lie.

Someone ought to create and perform a monologue titled The Agony and Ecstasy of Mike Daisey which uses that subtle blend of truth and lies to draw a comparison between the famous monologist and an infamous propagandist, say Josef Goebbels. With a few well-polished truthy lies it should be easy enough to make Mike Daisey one of the most hated figures in America... Do you think he'd sue?

edutcher said...

I get it - it was all a "wardrobe malfunction".

(if he "untied" the fake parts..."the work...would come apart...")

Peter said...

"Someone is trying to make you feel/think what they want you to feel/think. "

That's why I've mostly given up on movies. Sure, they're fiction. But the emotion is dialed up so high that it just feels too manipulative.

Of course, novels may try to do the same thing. BUT, a novel is just ink spots on paper (or the electronic equivalent). There's no upwelling of music, no camera telling you what to look at.

And the reader provides the pace- once can always set it down to think, "What's the author trying to do here?"

So, perhaps there are still some good movies. But until directors learn to turn down the emotion-inducers, I doubt that I'll be seeing them.

kcom said...

"Someone is trying to make you feel/think what they want you to feel/think. They'd like you to directly internalize the viewpoint they have chosen and do not want to try to prove on facts and reason alone. Resist!"

David is right.

This is the perfect description of the selling of the global warming hypothesis. It's always been about the "settled science", meaning "we've already decided what's true, your job is to internalize it whole and take our word for it." They don't want you to bother your pretty little head about how that conclusion came about. They just want to inculcate their pov directly into your brain, and if they have to exaggerate and use ridiculous, non-sensical scare stories, so be it. But they still think we should trust them anyway, even when we find out they're lying.

Ann Althouse said...

@ Bob Ellison. No, I disagree. Oscar Wilde said it best: "No work of art ever puts forward views. Views belong to people who are not artists."

Ann Althouse said...

@Joe If you listen to the hour-long "Retraction" episode, you might change your mind. Ira Glass agonizes and abases himself. Maybe that's phony, but... well... if so: great theatrics!

KCFleming said...

Speaking "my truth" to power = Postmodernism + Foucault + Alinsky + deconstruction + "God is dead"

Baby boomers learned and taught moral relativism and now they have raised an entire generation of bullshitters who think they are truth-tellers, and don't even know there is any difference.

Daisey is journalism's example of False Memory Syndrome, accusing Daddy of abuse that did not happen, but tells a "larger truth".

Christopher in MA said...

Ah, yes. Just like all the little J-school propagandists who wanted to "make a difference" instead of - wait for it - report the news!

Tradguy has it right: without the internet, we'd be blind and ignorant, depending on only what our "betters" want to tell us.

Ira Glass agonizes and abases himself.

Pfft. Ira Glass abases himself just by being Ira Glass

Bob Ellison said...

It's not the seas that are rising; it's the irony!

gerry said...

Hitler used art in the same way.

So did Stalin.

The purpose (one-half of the time) was to induce hate into the hearts of audiences so they would go out and kill landlords, propserous merchants, know, the enemies of the the people.

The other half of the time socialists use art to instill blind obedience and fervor into audiences.

If you make people think it's real, all the better. Anything is moral if you are a socialist, and, as a socialist, you cannot be a hypocrite, even if you are a millionaire!

SGT Ted said...

It's not only the fabulism. It's the conceit that only they can care about others so much more than everybody else. They are wonderful. Because they said so. Therefore, they get to tell lies. And commit fraud. And rip off their employer.

It's the Grand Narcissism and Self Congratulations for noticing the obvious and talking about how nmuch they care.

If you say the word "care" with a breathy, NPR-like radio voice, you have it down.

SGT Ted said...

If you offer falsehoods or exaggerations to "make people care," and your fabrications are discovered--as they will be--you will succeed only in making people "not care."

Hear, Hear, Robert Cook!

You accurately describe what activism has done to the AGW movement.

KCFleming said...

The fabulists at NPR are faaabulous.

SGT Ted said...

AbFab, Pogo!! Don't think, just FEEEEL!

Isn't it deliSH!!

William said...

It's a fact that writers for the past hundred years have taken far more satisfaction in documenting and dramatizing the evils of capitalism than those of communism......I have read Theodore White's account of his time in China during the revolution. He was very hard on Chiang and the Nationalists and had nothing but praise for Chou En Lai (Mao's Speer). Theodore White was a Pulitzer Prize winner..... In the full arc of history, Taiwan has become a democracy with a high standard of living. Red China after the revolution became a fevered nightmare and has since made only made only the most off balance strides towards a just society.....There was a pro Chiang lobby in America, but I think it's fair to say that our writers and academics were, if not pro Mao, properly distanced from Chiang. Lippmann felt that our Navy should not be used to protect Taiwan's shores......As noted, Chiang was the better bet. I don't think any thought has ever been given to why so many of our thinkers were so wrong about the Russian and Chinese revolutions. If it's a choice between a Commie and a Colonel, they invariably choose the Commie. With the exception of Hitler, history has shown that right wing assholes like Franco, Pinochet, and Chiang have been far less pernicious than Castro, Mao, and Stalin.......I yearn for a muckraking journalist to serve the cause of humanity by documenting the distortions and biases inherent in muckraking journalism.

Sigivald said...

I automatically resist all media attempts to manipulate my emotions.

I'm somewhat shocked that that's not universal and automatic.

(Mr. Cook is correct; when someone lies - and these were lies - to "make me care", they have the opposite of the effect they desired, and further ensure I will never trust them in the future.

Likewise I wish to emphasize something Mr. Townshend said - the problem with "documentaries" is that they're "polemics", these days.

I have nothing against polemics, but I prefer they be honestly labeled as such.)

Christy said...

Don't see how this is different from the Charles Bronson revenge movies or Billy Jack. They had us cheering the use of violence to right wrongs. The media elites sneered at how easily our emotions were manipulated. Now it's OK when the cause is a different flavor?

halojones-fan said...

I'm surprised that nobody has yet mentioned Michael Moore, who made people think that Charlton Heston said "from my cold dead hands" as a direct response to the Columbine shootings.

NotWhoIUsedtoBe said...

Documentaries are leaking into journalism.

Propaganda by any other name smells the same.

ricpic said...

No matter how much Walt Disney rammed Mickey Mouse down my throat I was always a Donald Duck guy and I'll be a Donald Duck guy to the day I die.

ricpic said...

To answer William's question: Franco, Pinochet and Chiang only wanted to reimpose a preexisting order on society. Extremely boring to intelleckshals. No, what they want is a complete reordering of the previously existing order so that there can be heaven on earth. Ergo their undiminishable ardor for the great murderers of the Left, Stalin and Mao, who if they don't deliver heaven on earth at least promise that it will come into sight just past this last mountain of dead bodies.

Kirk Parker said...

Christopher in MA,

I love Joanne Jacobs' take on this:

"When the San Jose Mercury News was working on a 'mission statement,' I participated in endless, agonizing discussions on this sort of thing. I suggested our mission was to put out a newspaper, but nobody listened to me. We ended up with coffee mugs about the Merc being the 'essential source of information.' "

chuck said...

I stay in lock down while the media prowls the streets and artists preach jihad.