There’s a weird synchronicity in all these stories floating around lately about people, nominally good guys, trying to raise public awareness about nominal bad guys, but doing it by exaggerating or outright lying. When the nominal good guys succeed in raising that awareness, and a wider audience is suddenly up in arms about the nominal bad guys, what does it mean when it emerges that while those bad guys really are pretty bad, they’re actually not bad in the particular way or to the particular extent that the nominal good guys made them out to be?
The nominal good guys should have been more honest, right? Ideally, they would have raised awareness without resorting to deception. But what if being honest about the bad guys means that the narrative exposing their wrongdoing is not compelling enough to go viral and get the kind of traction that leads to real pressure for change? Is it okay in that case to stretch the truth a little, to embellish the storyline? Is it okay to stretch the truth a lot? Where do you draw that line? And if the nominal good guy does stretch the truth, only to have the deception come to light later on, is it all just “pearl clutching” for the nominal good guy’s nominal allies to call foul at that point?
I don’t actually know the answers to any of these questions. I’m curious what you think. In particular, I’m curious about the following three cases:
Jason Russell: This is the guy who made the “KONY 2012” video via his nonprofit, Invisible Children, Inc.:
I still have not watched KONY 2012, though with 81 million YouTube views (and counting), I’m apparently one of the few who can say that. Among those who have viewed it, there exists a subset of people who have checked into the claims it makes, and pointed out that while this Kony guy really is a legitimately bad guy, the monstrous depiction in the video glosses over or outright misstates some important facts. Like, Kony is not currently operating in Uganda, and hasn’t been since 2005. He doesn’t have an army of 30,000 child soldiers; that number in the video apparently was based on an estimate of his actions over several decades. And so on.
From an article by Demian Bulwa in sfgate.com (Kony video quickly raises awareness, skepticism):
In a response to criticism on its website, Invisible Children highlighted its education and rehabilitation programs in the region and said it had “sought to explain the conflict in an easily understandable format.
“In a 30-minute film,” the group said, “many nuances of the 26-year conflict are admittedly lost or overlooked. The film is a first entry point to this conflict for many, and the organization provides several ways for our supporters to go deeper.”
Sean Darling-Hammond, a 27-year-old student at the law school, said he was becoming skeptical about all the skepticism.
“Criticizing the efforts of others has become the currency of relevance in social media,” he said. “If this video had been about the group’s cotton project in Africa, they would have gotten 200 views. The sad reality is that narrative sells, and catch-the-bad-guy is a classic narrative.”
I guess. But apparently the stress of his newfound success in selling a not-quite-factual bad-guy narrative — or maybe the pushback from people who want to hold the video to a higher standard of accuracy — has been having a negative impact on filmmaker Jason Russell. From the NYT (Police Detain Maker of Uganda Video):
SAN DIEGO – A co-founder of Invisible Children, the nonprofit organization whose video “Kony 2012” has become an Internet sensation, was detained by the San Diego police on Thursday, after they said he was found in the street in his underwear, screaming and interfering with traffic.
The police found Jason Russell, the filmmaker behind the video, after responding to calls about a man who was acting irrationally, including one call that alleged he was naked and masturbating, a San Diego police spokeswoman said. He was taken to a hospital for evaluation and treatment, and the police have no plans to charge him.
“It’s our belief that a medical condition would explain his irrational behavior as opposed to criminal intent,” said Lt. Andra Brown, the spokeswoman. “If we thought he was under the influence, we wouldn’t have taken him to a hospital; we would have taken him to jail.”
The 30-minute “Kony 2012” video has been viewed nearly 80 million times on YouTube since March 5. It has thrust a sudden celebrity upon Mr. Russell, 33, who narrates the video and appears in it with his young son, appealing to viewers to bring more attention to the Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony and advocating his arrest.
That success has brought criticism of Invisible Children for the way it spends its money, for a photograph of its founders, including Mr. Russell, holding rifles, and for other matters.
That criticism took its toll on Mr. Russell, according to his wife, Danica Russell, who released a statement Friday.
While the attention the film has drawn has brought increased awareness of Mr. Kony, Ms. Russell said, “it also brought a lot of attention to Jason — and because of how personal the film is, many of the attacks against it were also very personal, and Jason took them very hard.”
Mike Daisey: Because I’ve switched to mostly telecommuting lately, I don’t listen to nearly as much This American Life. As a result, I missed an episode, aired back in January, in which
reporter thesbian Mike Daisey gave a first-person account of his investigation into the surreal and horrible working conditions at Foxconn, the Chinese manufacturing company where my iPhone was probably made.
The episode became the most-downloaded TAL episode ever, and apparently played a role in a massive petition campaign that pressured Apple into pressuring (some) of its Asian suppliers into improving working conditions for (some) employees, or (some)thing.
Except it turns out that many of the “facts” narrated by Daisey were not, in fact, factual. This weekend’s This American Life episode consists of an apology, including a detailed account of what went wrong: Retraction. See also this blog post (and attached press release) from TAL host Ira Glass: RETRACTING “MR. DAISEY AND THE APPLE FACTORY”.
Some of the falsehoods found in Daisey’s monologue are small ones: the number of factories Daisey visited in China, for instance, and the number of workers he spoke with. Others are large. In his monologue he claims to have met a group of workers who were poisoned on an iPhone assembly line by a chemical called n-hexane. Apple’s audits of its suppliers show that an incident like this occurred in a factory in China, but the factory wasn’t located in Shenzhen, where Daisey visited.
“It happened nearly a thousand miles away, in a city called Suzhou,” Marketplace’s Schmitz says in his report. “I’ve interviewed these workers, so I knew the story. And when I heard Daisey’s monologue on the radio, I wondered: How’d they get all the way down to Shenzhen? It seemed crazy, that somehow Daisey could’ve met a few of them during his trip.”
In Schmitz’s report, he confronts Daisey and Daisey admits to fabricating these characters.
“I’m not going to say that I didn’t take a few shortcuts in my passion to be heard,” Daisey tells Schmitz and Glass. “My mistake, the mistake I truly regret, is that I had it on your show as journalism, and it’s not journalism. It’s theater.”
Daisey’s interpreter Cathy also disputes two of the most dramatic moments in Daisey’s story: that he met underage workers at Foxconn, and that a man with a mangled hand was injured at Foxconn making iPads (and that Daisey’s iPad was the first one he ever saw in operation). Daisey says in his monologue:
“He’s never actually seen one on, this thing that took his hand. I turn it on, unlock the screen, and pass it to him. He takes it. The icons flare into view, and he strokes the screen with his ruined hand, and the icons slide back and forth. And he says something to Cathy, and Cathy says, “he says it’s a kind of magic.””
Cathy Lee tells Schmitz that nothing of the sort occurred.
Here’s Daisey’s response, as posted on his personal blog (Statement on TAL):
I stand by my work. My show is a theatrical piece whose goal is to create a human connection between our gorgeous devices and the brutal circumstances from which they emerge. It uses a combination of fact, memoir, and dramatic license to tell its story, and I believe it does so with integrity. Certainly, the comprehensive investigations undertaken by The New York Times and a number of labor rights groups to document conditions in electronics manufacturing would seem to bear this out.
What I do is not journalism. The tools of the theater are not the same as the tools of journalism. For this reason, I regret that I allowed THIS AMERICAN LIFE to air an excerpt from my monologue. THIS AMERICAN LIFE is essentially a journalistic - not a theatrical - enterprise, and as such it operates under a different set of rules and expectations. But this is my only regret. I am proud that my work seems to have sparked a growing storm of attention and concern over the often appalling conditions under which many of the high-tech products we love so much are assembled in China.
Peter Gleick: You don’t really need me to summarize this, right? Just go back and read the last 50,000 words of drivel I’ve spewed in this blog. Note that for the purposes of the current comparison, I’m crediting Gleick with having forged the 2012 Heartland Climate Strategy memo. I’m also crediting him with having created at least some degree of heightened public awareness of what Heartland is up to, awareness that would have been less if he hadn’t “sexed up” his document leak with the forged memo.
So, here’s my actual question: Were these guys (Russell, Daisey, and Gleick) in any sense right to do what they did? All appear to have been willing to deceive the public as part of crafting a more-compelling narrative fiction. And in each case it appears to have worked (at least in a certain sense). Their acts of public deception gave their stories “legs,” making it so more people heard about them, were outraged by what they heard, and were motivated to pass the stories on. The fictions contributed to, and may actually have been essential to, the stories “going viral.”
With the benefit of hindsight, was that a good thing? Is the “it’s not journalism; it’s theater” defense valid?