In January, I started to write a post about objectivity, “bias,” fact-checking, and the differences between journalism and history. (Phew). I was inspired in part by the now-infamous “This American Life” episode featuring Mike Daisey’s visit to electronics factories in China – particularly the last 15 minutes when Ira Glass fact-checked the story with other journalists. While this final segment of the original episode hinted at some exaggerations on the part of Daisey, it struck me as an illustrative example for students. When I heard that Glass retracted the story this past Friday, I decided to revisit my post. While comparisons to other recent-ish fact/fiction debacles (Michael Bellesiles, James Frey, Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass, etc.) may be apt, I’m not getting into those here.
Then: What I Wrote in January
My high school journalism teacher showed us All the President’s Men in order to teach us how dogged and determined journalists like Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman had to get two sources to confirm every piece of information they printed. We learned that they weren’t biased, and they didn’t report unsubstantiated information. They reported the facts.
More recently, I listened to the “This American Life” episode adapting Mike Daisey’s one-man show, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” about Apple’s Chinese factories and suppliers. I found Daisey’s performance to be somewhere between effectively moving and over-the-top. But, of particular interest was the last portion of the show — a fact-checking exercise in which Ira Glass interviewed several other journalists and writers who had also covered the story. Was Daisey’s story sound? Was he a biased observer? He didn’t pretend to be a real journalist, after all. It turns out that his story did hold up, although his claims about the amount of child labor at Foxconn appear to be somewhat exaggerated.
I’ve been thinking about assigning this episode to my classes to spark a conversation about sources. As I’ve taught research seminars, I’ve thought more about the differences between journalistic research and historical research, and my sense is that students don’t always understand the distinction. If one of the Chinese workers whom Daisey interviewed lied to him, and he reported it as truth, what does this mean? What kinds of evidence do we trust, and which do we question, and why?
I find that students often have this backwards. When they read scholarly articles and books, they will accuse the authors of being “biased” because they are pursuing an argument instead of “just presenting the evidence.” Well, yes. She is “biased” because her article has an argument. While quick to find “bias” in scholarly articles and books, students sometimes have a very hard time identifying “biases” when they read primary sources. If the source said it, and the source lived in 1745, then it must be true!
My pedagogical strategy at the moment is to point out examples of evidence and analysis in every reading we do in class. I also use lots of primary sources, and I have students write short analyses throughout the semester so they become used to the language of introducing and analyzing quotations. Even with these exercises in place, I still find that learning how to gauge evidence is often the hardest skill to teach and to learn. It requires a breadth of knowledge that students’ frankly don’t have. How do they know that the New York Herald was a Democratic newspaper during the Civil War when it just pops up as another article in a keyword search? They don’t. The best I can do is teach them that they should always inquire and always ask: is this source “biased?”
Rethinking all of this after the Retraction . . .
Well, clearly that “This American Life” fact-checking session didn’t go far enough. Given the recent Daisey revelations and the cringe-inducing conversation (here’s the transcript) with Ira Glass and the Marketplace reporter Rob Schmitz, even more pointed and poignant lessons could be drawn from this affair – awkward pauses aside.
1. Arguments and Biases
What is the difference between arguments (interpretations based on evidence) and biases (intentional and/or unintentional prejudices and assumptions)? As a secondary-source writer, Daisey wrapped his argument in a persuasive and emotional story – a story he still believes is essential to making Americans care about distant workers in China. He supported his argument with facts — what he had seen with his own eyes. While we wouldn’t call Daisey biased, at least as he presented himself in his monologue, we can see how his work confirms our own biases and assumptions about terrible factory conditions in China. A recent New Yorker blog post from Evan Osnos makes this point: “His story was initially a success because it satisfied so many of our casual assumptions about China and Apple.” Daisey said what many of us already believed, and for those of us in the United States at least, it seemed entirely plausible. In spite of its many errors, Daisey’s monologue did indeed contain, as Osnos says, “a wisp of truth,” even though to reporters in China, many parts of the piece seemed suspect. Here is where the fact-checking process began. A few kernels of suspicion led Rob Schmitz to look into the story, to check the facts. Woodward and Bernstein (or at least the Redford/Hoffman versions) would be proud.
For historians, this is a useful lesson. What do we do when an article, book, or primary source seems too good to be true? How many pieces of evidence do we need to make a claim? If Daisey saw a few teenage girls employed as laborers at one factory, does this mean that Foxconn widely employs underage workers? To take a historical example: if we find a speech from a woman’s rights activist demanding free love does this mean all nineteenth-century women opposed marriage? Of course not. Evidence must be carefully evaluated.
2. Judging Sources, Considering Context
This story also requires us to think through sources and contexts. How do we know who to trust? Is there a single “truth?” Many of the invented parts of Daisey’s story were disproved by multiple sources. For instance, he said that he met with victims of N-hexane poisoning. This poisoning did indeed happen, but not in Shenzen where Daisey went. He admitted to Glass and Schmitz that he had only heard about the poisoning victims, but that he had not actually met them.
Other points of contention pitted Daisey against his translator, and these proved more complicated. For example, Daisey insisted that he spoke with a thirteen-year-old worker, while his translater (located and interviewed by Schmitz in China) said that they did not meet any such young workers. Might the translator, a Chinese woman who goes by the name Cathy Lee, be lying or forgetful? Or did Daisey make this up to add pathos into his account? When Schmitz and Glass confronted Daisey on this question, Daisey recalled that he had been speaking to the worker in English while Lee had been elsewhere – therefore, she might not have heard. Yet, Schmitz used some context to back Lee’s side of the story up: it is unlikely that the mostly rural migrant workers at the factory would speak English enough to answer Daisey’s question (See p. 12 of the transcript).
This kind of fact-checking works differently in history when it can be easier to reconcile two opposing accounts of the same time and place. For instance, an enslaved woman and the plantation mistress would unsurprisingly have different views on many issues, but historians explain this by trying to represent why each woman saw the world as she did. I’m moving into uncertain territory here, but I wonder if we should think about Daisey and Lee along these lines. If Daisey’s monologue and Schmitz’s interview with Lee are primary sources, can we think of them differently? Can their different subjectivities allow us to understand why Daisey’s version (likely a lie, but nonetheless an interesting choice) is different from Lee’s account (supposedly “true”)? For whatever reason, the reporter, Schmitz, spent very little time discussing Lee’s background, other than noting that she is a translator who regularly works with English-speaking reporters who visit the factory gates to interview workers. It seems that as a Chinese woman and a person whose job depends on reporters, she might have an agenda of her own.
3. Fact, Fiction, and History-Writing
Finally, the controversy speaks to a broader question about the nature of storytelling and history, fact and fiction. I like imaginative scholarly books: Daniel Richter’s Facing East from Indian Country leaps to mind, and I just taught Richard Wightman Fox’s Trials of Intimacy about the Beecher-Tilton sex scandal. Both historians are upfront and clear about their unusual approaches, and they are open about the unknowns and their imaginative efforts to fill in the gaps. In a related vein, historical novelists like Wallace Stegner, Geraldine Brooks, E.L. Doctorow capture feelings and sentiment even if they take literary license. Daisey’s performance might very well be a part of this tradition, except for his perplexing refusal to place his work in a recognizable category. And here lies the insurmountable problem. While journalists can check Daisey’s facts and scholars might examine how his context shaped his point of view, he appears to be working with fundamentally different definitions of fiction and non-fiction than most of us are used to. In the “Retraction” episode, Ira Glass pushes him on this question:
Ira Glass: Are you going to change the way that you label this in the theater, so
that the audience in the theater knows that this isn’t strictly speaking a work of
truth but in fact what they’re seeing really is a work of fiction that has some true
elements in it.
Mike Daisey: Well, I don’t know that I would say in a theatrical context that it
isn’t true. I believe that when I perform it in a theatrical context in the theater that
when people hear the story in those terms that we have different languages for
what the truth means.
Ira Glass: I understand that you believe that but I think you’re kidding yourself in
the way that normal people who go to see a person talk – people take it as a literal
truth. I thought that the story was literally true seeing it in the theater. Brian,
who’s seen other shows of yours, thought all of them were true. I saw your
nuclear show, I thought that was completely true. I thought it was true because
you were on stage saying ‘this happened to me.’ I took you at your word.
Mike Daisey: I think you can trust my word in the context of the theater. And how
people see it -
Ira Glass: I find this to be a really hedgy answer. I think it’s OK for somebody in
your position to say it isn’t all literally true, know what I mean, feel like actually
it seems like it’s honest labeling, and I feel like that’s what’s actually called for at
this point, is just honest labeling. Like, you make a nice show, people are moved
by it, I was moved by it and if it were labeled honestly, I think everybody would
react differently to it.
Mike Daisey: I don’t think that label covers the totality of what it is.
Ira Glass: That label – fiction?
Mike Daisey: Yeah. We have different worldviews on some of these things. I
agree with you truth is really important.
Ira Glass: I know but I feel like I have the normal worldview. The normal
worldview is somebody stands on stage and says ‘this happened to me,’ I think it
happened to them, unless it’s clearly labeled as ‘here’s a work of fiction.’
Hedgy answer indeed. What do we do when Daisey says that his work is not fiction (in spite of the fact he admitted to inventing some parts entirely)? What does it mean when he says that “you can trust my word in the context of the theater?” No amount of fact-checking can solve this dilemma. How will future scholars (if they study Daisey’s work) evaluate it? Would we approach Uncle Tom’s Cabin differently if Harriet Beecher Stowe claimed that it was entirely factual, based on her own personal experiences, yet also theatrical? If we think of Daisey’s monologue as a secondary source, reporting evidence and making an argument, his response raises even more problems.
Guilty of imposing my own wishful narrative arc to this whole thing, I wish Daisey had folded here. Glass was giving him a clear out — Daisey could have agreed that his monologue captures the larger truths of globalization through fiction — as historical novels and plays have done. Alternatively, just sticking to the supportable facts could also have worked for him, as the interview with the New York Times journalist, Charles Duhigg, illustrates in the “Retraction” episode’s final segment. Unfortunately, Daisey refuses to choose a path. This leaves his monologue in an in-between place; it rests somewhere between fact and fiction and this ambivalent position steals the show and ultimately distracts from the very serious and very real problems that Daisey sought to address in the first place.