Mike Daisey, Truthiness, and Photojournalism

Mike Daisey, Truthiness, and Photojournalism

 

Over the weekend, the popular radio program and podcast This American Life produced an entire show’s worth of material to retract a previous story about Mike Daisey and his sold out, one man show, “The Agony and Ectasy of Steve Jobs”. The issue at hand was Mr. Daisey’s fabrication of events in his theatre piece under the guise of wanting to report on harsh working conditions at Foxconn, the company that produces many Apple products.

When I initially heard about the retraction through various news outlets, my reaction was “what’s the big deal?” I heard some quotes from Mr. Daisey proclaiming that theatre isn’t held to the same standard as journalism. I couldn’t agree more. But I was curious, so I decided to listen to the entire show.

My mind was changed.

Host Ira Glass constructed a solid argument. The producers had approached Mr. Daisey to use parts of his show for a broadcast. They asked him to ensure that what he presented was, in fact, up to journalism standards because their show is journalistic in nature. He assured them that it was so. But when they asked Mr. Daisey for his translator’s contact information (a woman named “Cathy Lee” who is portrayed in his show), he said that her cellphone number no longer worked and he couldn’t get in touch with her.

In Ira’s words, he should have “killed the story right there.”

Another reporter, Rob Schmitz, had listened to the original Daisey piece, and he immediately had many doubts surrounding the veracity of Mr. Daisey’s tale. For example, Mr. Daisey says that the guards at Foxconn had guns, but no one but the military has guns in China. A number of other issues raised red flags, so Rob decided to track down the translator. He thought the task would be difficult, but one Google search later, he found the woman (go SEO!), and found out that many of Mr. Daisey’s anecdotes were fabricated.

Mr. Daisey reluctantly admitted that parts of his show never happened. Or more specifically, they didn’t happen in his presence. He used theatrical license to appropriate stories he had heard, and represented them as his own experiences. It raised the emotional stakes in his estimation, and it made people care about the workers again after the initial news cycle of worker suicide had passed. The end result (people care!) trumped the truth (he made up stories!).

Hearing the retraction made me think about some of the conversations we’ve recently had about photojournalism, including one about photojournalism contests. Some readers commented that there is no visual truth. The use of black and white film subverts the truth. The use of lenses that compress visual information distorts the truth. The way a photographer crops, tones, or applies filters alters the truth. Many people took the position that as long as you weren’t removing or adding elements to the scene, there was no issue. A few people pointed out that Europeans have no such hang ups about Photoshopping images.

I understand and appreciate the sentiment. But it still bothers me.

Because here’s the thing: when we alter an image to heighten the gravity of the situation, we are essentially taking the same position as Mike Daisey. We’re trying to make the picture as visually appealing as possible in order to draw attention to stories we believe need to be heard. Go to Africa to report on famine, desaturate the images to make it look really arid. Go to Antarctica to capture melting icebergs, boost the blue hues. Vignette an image to really create an obvious focal point.

But when photojournalistic images become artistic through something other than composition and framing, we cross from truth to truthiness. We are saying that facts should never get in the way of a good story. We are editorializing rather than reporting. And we’re doing it on purpose, which is the worst part of it all.

A number of pundits have compared Mike Daisey to the Kony 2012 video, which went viral a few weeks ago. Convenient facts (like how the Ugandan military perpetrated many of the same atrocities as Kony) were omitted to vilify Kony. Was the net gain worth it? Maybe. The campaign raised awareness of a wanted warlord and raised money that ostensibly will be used to help some of his victims. But David Carr astutely points out in a New York Times piece, “…there is another word for news and information that comes from advocates with a vested interest: propaganda.”

Listen to the This American Life piece, and then let me know what you think.

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There are 8 comments for this article
  1. JL at 1:29 pm

    Interesting comparison between photo manipulation and what Daisey has done, I’ll be thinking on that. Regarding your link, Ira Glass and This American Life pulled their original piece from their website. Until they repost it, photo shelter users cannot listen to this controversial piece, only Glass’s attempted defense of running a piece by a non-journalist that wasn’t fact checked. (I was hoping it would make great radio! But as my ten year old daughter, who could hear the voices but wasn’t following the story, said in the car, “Daddy, those men are so annoying! Turn it offfff!”)

    My own two cents is that Ira Glass and TAL ought to hire journalists if they want to do journalism. I very much like their show, and NPR, when they give color to stories. WNYC, NPR and TAL are not known for fearless or groundbreaking reporting, people support them for deep reporting and for summarizing the leading liberal and intellectual sources. It is shameful that professional news outlets repeated Glass’s assertions without fact checking, unlike TAL, they do know better.

    To see what it takes to produce breaking news from a liberal slant, one must learn from a pro like Amy Goodman. Not for the weak!

  2. YG at 5:12 pm

    Manipulating symbols is an essential trait of art, and I’d like to think that the careful hands-off public handling of the situation by Apple/foxconn, seeking to prove that they are not the kinds of corporations that sue PR problems into submission, coupled with the complete and utter detraction of the story (even if it is merited) is part of the performance.

    One way of interpreting this performance is that it’s been 2 months, even if it were true nobody cares.

    Written from my macbook

  3. Shana Sureck at 10:29 am

    The 25 page NPR retraction, while long, is fascinating. Of course the show crossed the lines of truth and honesty needed to be called journalism, as opposed to the embellishment allowed in theater. But there’s another layer to this that concerns me. While Daisey messed with the facts, there is a real situation not being addressed and that’s that there are atrocious conditions in those factories, highlighted honestly in the NY Times stories, and there’s no outcry. Apple announced 100 billion dollars in cash reserves, and is giving dividends to stockholders, but what about the workers who make the iPhones and iPads that we all adore and can’t live without. Would it kill the company to share the wealth in some way? I know this is off topic, but it’s relevant to the discussion of how we, as visual storytellers, can be honest with our work AND make people care enough to do something, or at least be deeply aware of something.

  4. Superfancy at 11:11 am

    Embarrassing as this must be for Glass, we all make mistakes — nobody died — I hope he doesn’t curl back up into the shtick that made the show famous, but instead pushes determinedly back into the terrain he had been beginning to explore- combining breaking news with entertaining long narrative. As with many photographers, radio artists can also flesh out a story to greater impact, reaching far past those squiggly letters on the page or screen. I was troubled by the scared whine in his voice, in his apology show, but have faith he will get past this problem a better and wiser man.

  5. Paul Robertson at 8:29 pm

    I have to agree with David Campbell ‘when is image not an alteration?’ but when you say ‘But when photojournalistic images become artistic through something other than composition and framing, we cross from truth to truthiness’ composition and framing are some of the first steps to manipulation in the process of making images. They are some excellent points made the Guardian article, some more interesting points about photojournalism are made here http://politicstheoryphotography.blogspot.co.uk/2012/02/uses-of-pieta-criticisms-of-world-press.html and here http://politicstheoryphotography.blogspot.co.uk/search/label/World%20Press%20Photo

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