On “Truth” and Its Consequences – Why We Need A New Business Model for 21st Century Journalism
On January 6, NPR’s This American Life aired an hour long and fairly damning segment on the working conditions of the Chinese manufacturing workers that build Apple products. To say the show got some attention would be an understatement. Within a few weeks it had become TAL’s most downloaded episode -- quite an achievement for a show whose podcasts perennially (and perhaps after the Apple episode, ironically) sit atop iTunes most downloaded lists. For its own part, Apple found itself forced into a position of having to publicly promise to better investigate the suppliers it hires to make its seemingly ubiquitous products.
Of course, as many are aware by now TAL was forced to retract the story last month. TAL host and creator Ira Glass dedicated an entire show to correct misinformation, apologize to both NPR and his audience for not being better stewards of the truth, and to confront the man universally seen as this anecdote’s villain: Mike Daisey.
As it turned out, much of Daisey’s account of his time touring factories in Foxconn, China was a fabrication of one sort or another. Some of the events he reported witnessing were wild extrapolations of items he had read in the news. For example, Apple employees at two plants (not in Foxconn) had been exposed to dangerous levels of the chemical n-hexane, which was a huge breaking story when Daisey first arrived in China. However, Daisey reported that the poisoning was universal and unreported; he claimed workers he interviewed could not stop their near useless hands from shaking do to n-hexane poisoning. As it turned out, he met no such poisoned employees. In another example, Apple itself publishes reports of its efforts to have it’s suppliers not hire underage workers -- a problem Apple admits it has yet to solve. Daisey used this data as a jumping off point that led to a claim that most of the workers he interviewed were twelve to fifteen years old, if not younger. These reported meetings with underage employees also never took place.
Some of his reporting was bizarrely unnecessary exaggeration, such as his claim that he visited ten factories (he appears to have visited three), or his claim that he ended his trip with the idea of posing as a businessperson to get access to factories, having thought of it after interviewing workers (it was actually the first thing he did when he arrived at Foxconn). Still other claims were neither based on news items nor exaggerations, but were instead pure fiction: an odd story about traveling on a freeway to nowhere, armed factory guards, getting tours of worker dormitories and discovering hidden cameras, and the story he tells of showing his iPad to a factory worker with a crushed arm were nothing more than fiction serving the purpose of storytelling.
TAL aired a retraction to its original story, devoting the entire hour of its March 16 show to both apologize to listeners and to set the record straight. As I said in an earlier post, the retraction episode was even more riveting that the original “expose,” which itself was quite compelling (if dishonestly so). The most fascinating part of the show is Glass’s interview with Daisey. Though Daisey starts off maintaining the accuracy of everything he reported, in the face of overwhelming evidence he eventually admits to making up much (but not all) of what is now obvious fabrication. However, even as he confesses to making things up, he is vigilant in his insistence that he has not lied. For Daisey, there is only one Truth: that Apple is an evil corporation that injures the innocent, and it must be held accountable. Facts and data that do not underscore his Truth are the real lies, whether or not they actually happened. As unconvincing as he is as he tries to weasel out of being caught in his various untruths, he is utterly convincing about this.
Mike Daisey might have lied through his teeth, but he sincerely believes he did so in order to tell the Truth. His defense, now that he has been exposed, is that he is a writer for the stage and that as such he does not live up to the standards held by today’s political journalists. But in this claim, he is depressingly wrong. He may be a theatre writer, but in today’s world of diverse market-driven journalism he is not the enigma we might wish him to be. Quite the opposite.
Mike Daisey is the poster child of today’s political journalism.
When I was growing up, news was a less fluid commodity. Newspapers might publish a story that the cause of a particularly devastating fire was due to an apartment dweller smoking in bed, or bad wiring, or improper building maintenance. Once published, that was the story everyone took as gospel. Were the news reports always, or even often correct about such things? My instinct is to say mostly yes, but since I didn’t follow reporters around to make sure they were doing their job I must confess that confidence was more of a conceit I -- and everyone else -- took for granted. It’s hard to believe there weren’t times when some elected official, public bureaucrat or corporate mouthpiece didn’t chuckle at the gullibility of all us rubes buying what they were selling hook, line and sinker. But there was also the comfort of knowing that when facing a thorny issue that was troubling our communities or the nation, we were all starting from the same point and were all armed with the same facts and figures with which to work. We might disagree about the best solutions to our problems, but as a people we were all on the same page.
Technology, of course, has ruined all of that.
With the advent of scores of TV stations -- which quickly led way to hundreds of them -- it was only a matter of time before the birth of the 24 hour news networks. Once multiple news networks began appearing, the laws of the market place engaged as they always do: To gain a secure market share, one needed to differentiate oneself from the competition. And the cheapest to differentiate yourself in the 24 hour news industry isn’t to report news better, but to have a unique and exciting take on what was news. When focusing on the White House, the other networks mainly talk about how presidential the President is -- why not carve out a niche by focusing on how treasonous he is instead? Your rival network might be boosting its rating running a story about how a Fortune 500 company is polluting a river -- why not capture the people who are tired of such stories, and instead run a series on how that government agency that oversees the Fortune 500 company is out of control? The Venn diagram that compares news junkies and political junkies is almost one solid circle, so it’s no surprise that that key differentiator that developed between cable news networks was along political party lines.
If hundreds of channels gave birth to competing data on the family television screen, it was spitting in the ocean compared to the variety the near infinite and free internet delivered. The Drudge report is largely credited as being the first site that successfully looked to cherry pick (often unsubstantiated) data that would have a preferential appeal to a certain market segment. It was by no means the last, and if anything became the very model for the burgeoning 21st century’s unique brand of mass media journalism.
There was, back in the day, a kind of heady optimism about the democratic ideals being made manifest that internet journalism would achieve. The Senate might propose a budget, for example, and now for the first time in human history thousand of humans (or more) could gather in any one of thousands (or more) virtual meeting places and collectively pick that budget apart, and review and discuss its merits. The new journalism’s proponents promised a greater access to information, and they delivered in spades. But to quote an overexposed pop singer from that previous era, “I never saw no miracle of science that didn’t turn from a blessing into a curse.” And no doubt about it, the endless data and myriad of venues did bring a curse with its blessing:
The inherent problem with being able to choose what news you consume is that someone will always be willing to give you the news you choose -- and this is not necessarily a good thing. For example, if you are a progressive liberal you might choose to get information from a progressive liberal news source, one that cherry picks stories that appeal to people like you. But there are already a plethora of choices to get progressive liberal leaning information, so you might find yourself choosing more and more the ones that only talk about how your world view is so very right, and how the word view of your opponents is not just misguided but factually wrong based on today’s news. Eventually, the news organizations that thrive aren’t the ones that offer objective data, they’re the ones that offer us confirmation of our Truths.
Because if the current news model has taught us anything it’s that given the choice between being objectively well informed and being proven right -- even fallaciously so -- we humans have little interest in objective information.
Over the past two weeks, the Trayvon Martin case has loomed large in today’s new media trifecta of cable news, talk radio and the blogosphere. When broken down to its simplest elements, it is a simple if tragic story. A young man looking to protect his neighborhood is involved in a confrontation with a boy he mistakes for a criminal, and during the confrontation shoots and kills the boy. Objectively speaking, this is about all we know for certain about the actual killing. However, because the events were immediately followed by what certainly appears to be profoundly incompetent police work, and because boy was black (and, as has since come to light, the young man who killed him seems to have a history of calling 911 to report black people in the neighborhood), it has become a national news sensation.
As I noted here, I think that the media firestorm in an of itself has been a positive thing:
The police did no real investigation of a kid being shot, citing Florida’s Stand Your Ground Law – which itself was passed more as a political tool than an attempt at crime prevention. In the Martin case, either the police were incompetent and/or dangerously prejudicial, or a law passed for campaigning purposes is potentially harmful to the community. (Or maybe both.) Without the media firestorm, silly as it has been at times, neither potential flaw in the system would be examined.
However, it also bears examination that the national news media did not focus on this story because it was about the death of a young boy, or incompetent police work. It focused on the story initially because the killing of a black youth in an upscale neighborhood spoke one particular liberal Truth, and because a conservative-backed law that might well lead to the shooter escaping prosecution even if he did kill the boy in cold blood speaks to another liberal Truth. To further underline this Truth, a major news network edited the 911 phone call made by the shooter to create its own self-fulfilling prophecy. In return, right wing media sources have responded in the only way they seem able: the facts of what did or did not happen have taken a back seat to the conservative Truth that any criticism of the right by the left must be fallacious. Therefore the right wing news outlets have focused little on the actual shootings, or even on Florida’s Stand Your Ground laws. Rather, they have chosen to report -- true or not -- that the victim was a dangerous thug, going so far as to come shockingly close to the reprehensible and disturbing message that the boy who had bought Skittles deserved to be killed. The Daily Caller, itself created by Tucker Carlson to be a right-leaning, journalistic news gathering site rather than commentary-only site has covered the Martin shooting fairly extensively. In fact, of all the many websites I have been browsing on this topic, they seem to be devoting by far the most coverage. Almost all the coverage, however, deals with the shortcomings of either Martin as a human being or liberals in general. The increasingly unpopular (for now) Stand Your Ground laws, by contrast, are barely mentioned except in passing. Tellingly, the only article I could find that dealt with the law in any depth at all was a piece noting that some Democrats voted for it as well as Republicans.
If this is what we are getting from our trusted news sources, is it any wonder that most of the data points I hear non-pundits arguing are utter fictions? Over the past week, I have engaged with people that have pointed out to me that Martin’s principal told the press he thought Martin was dangerous and was sure he attacked Zimmerman first (the principal did no such thing), that the wounds on Zimmerman’s head might have been faked later because they were never on the original police report (they absolutely were), that Zimmerman is caucasian (he isn’t), that Sanford is in fact an almost all-Black community (it isn’t), and countless other bits of gibberish that have been embraced in whole or part by the “journalists” of the internet, cable news and talk radio. What’s been particularly frustrating is that any attempt to correct misinformation is invariably sifted through the lens of the source. “Yeah, I hear about the edited 911 call, but that was on FOX,” or “The police report you saw might have said that, but your link is to TPM, and that’s a liberal site.” Like Mike Daisey, we hold our Truths as sacrosanct and assume any information that counters that Truth to be lies.
And it’s not just the Martin case. For conservatives, it doesn’t matter how much evidence there is that Big Government’s infamous ACORN pimp videos were a purposeful hoax, they spoke the Truth that conservative already knew -- and it was therefore the proof that the videos were a hoax that was the lie. A commonly referenced Conservative salvo today -- that the EPA is hiring 230,000 bureaucrats -- was based on a fallacious Daily Caller story whose writer clearly purposefully meant to mislead readers -- and which at least to my knowledge the Daily Caller has never bothered to retract. Why would it? Its readers aren’t looking for accurate information, they’re looking for validation of their Truth. Having this violation of trust made known wouldn’t make a Daily Caller reader start going to a site that reported the information correctly, anymore than NBC’s inexcusable editing of the Martin 911 call will make NBC fans switch over to FOX.
Amazingly, even those liberals who have publicly condemned Mike Daisey still frame their arguments around Daisey’s primary Truth, which is that the focus should be on Apple. True, Apple products are made in Foxconn and similar Chinese manufacturing hubs, but so are almost all the devices, gizmos, and appliances that we buy, regardless of brand name. I daresay that the reason Apple is cast as the villain is the same reason that Microsoft, Nike and Walmart were previously held up as “the real problem:” they’re the top dog and fat cat rolled into one right now. The facts and data show that if we are going to agree that working conditions in China are unacceptable, then the root problem is us -- because these conditions are an ongoing part of all our stuff, even if we don’t own Apple products. We’re all willing to live a comfy lifestyle at the expense of others that missed out on the Birthplace Lotto jackpot; who we buy nice things from is irrelevant. For those that have bought into the Truth that Apple is evil, however, these facts and data are inconvenient are therefore discarded. Instead, for much of the left punditry all that is needed to solve the problem is for Apple shareholders to make less profit, because the Truth that needs addressing isn’t poor working conditions, its that a particular corporation must be stopped.
[And in the interests of full disclosure, there is this: When I first talked about Daisey a few weeks ago, I described his transgressions from my memory of the TAL story without going back and re-listening to it. When I did so, I got two pertinent facts wrong. I know this because MR. Daisey himself emailed me to point this out. By looking to tell a “truth” without double checking everything I said, he claimed in his email, made me no different than him. He was right. We are all susceptible to telling “truths” first and foremost, myself included.]
I’m not sure where we as a country go from here. For my own part, I have no wish to go back to the old system where information was hard to come by, and dissenting voices less frequent. However, it seems that to solve problems there needs to be some baseline level of accepted information. If we’re going to have a meaningful talk about the stimulus’s effect on the economy -- and we should -- it isn’t helpful to have half of the news sources pretend that George Bush had nothing to do with the stimulus, or the have the other half refuse to report on obvious corruptions that occurred in its current implementation. Similarly, some kind of healthcare reform is badly needed in this country. But if half of us get our information from “journalists” who insist that the mandate is radically leftist rather than originally a conservative GOP strategy to avoid universal care, and the other half of us limit ourselves to “journalists” that claim the current version of Obamacare is going to generate enough revenue to pay for the nation’s claims (let alone administration) despite all evidence to the contrary, how on Earth can we be expected to hammer out an agreement that gets us where we need to be?
So how do we get there? How do we get to a place where the marketplace of ideas is truly open for business, but the accuracy of what is reported does not play second fiddle to the various Truths we all want to believe are infallible? If we are to make a new 21st Century Journalism Manifesto that allows the media to make the profit it deserves, but not at the expense of society as a whole -- what would that look like? How do we have the freedom to information we want, and still maintain a system that by and large values the actual truth over Truth?
I ask the hive mind for their feedback, and hope to write more on this over then next several months.