The “Greater Truth” Defense  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    FROM THE EDITOR    
From AJR,   June/July 2012

The “Greater Truth” Defense    

Mike Daisey is the latest to pull out that shopworn canard in an effort to justify fabrication. Mon., March 19, 2012.

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


The Greater Truth.

That's so often the explanation, the defense, the justification when someone is caught fabricating.

Sure, I played a little fast and loose with the facts. Sure, I made some things up to make the narrative more dramatic. But, hey, what's the big deal? It was all in the service of The Greater Truth.

It's one of the most pernicious doctrines out there.

The latest liar to rest upon this slender reed is Mike Daisey, the off-Broadway performer and crusader against the evils of the Chinese manufacturing system and its assembling of Apple products. Daisey got into trouble when he left the safer confines of the theater and took his act to Ira Glass' acclaimed public radio show, "This American Life."

Many of the details Daisey offered up unraveled rapidly under the aggressive scrutiny of "Marketplace" China correspondent Rob Schmitz. To his credit, Glass quickly retracted the episode and aired another that showcased how things had gone terribly wrong.

But Daisey has learned nothing from the episode, judging by his blog post Monday, one that is off the charts in both self pity and shamelessness.

"Given the tenor of the condemnation," he whined, "you would think I had concocted an elaborate, fanciful universe filled with furnaces in which babies are burned to make iPhone components, or that I never went to China, never stood outside the gates of Foxconn, never pretended to be a businessman to get inside of factories, never spoke to any workers."

"Given the tone," he goes on to say, "you would think I fabulated an elaborate hoax, filled with astonishing horrors that no one had ever seen before."

No, many of those horrors are there, as the New York Times, among others, has reported. And, no, Daisey didn't pull a Jayson Blair and pretend he had gone to China when he hadn't left his apartment.

But that's what makes his fabrications all the more galling. They were completely unnecessary. The material was there. He didn't need to make up the maimed factory worker, purportedly injured while making iPhones, seeing one for the first time. Or pretend that he had interviewed workers poisoned on an iPhone assembly line when he hadn't.

Daisey complains that the furor over his fevered imagination will overshadow concern about conditions at Chinese factories. "If you think this story is bigger than that story, something is wrong with your priorities," he says.

But that's what always happens when journalistic felonies are uncovered. Think of the Cincinnati Enquirer's devastating 18-page special section on Chiquita back in 1998. The articles cataloged a long list of ethical violations by the company. But the whole thing fell apart when it turned out reporter Mike Gallagher had illegally intercepted the company's voicemail messages.

The paper renounced the articles, paid Chiquita more than $10 million and apologized to the company.

All the attention moved from Chiquita to the paper's misdeeds. All because of Gallagher.

Just as in this case, the spotlight shifted from China and Apple to a bad apple because of Daisey's lies.

Speaking of lies, it's clear that the performer-turned-bad-source has no idea what they are. In perhaps the most astonishing assertion in a post with no shortage of them, he wrote, "But understand that if you felt something that connected you with where your devices come from – that is not a lie."

That's complete nonsense. We often feel something very powerful from works of fiction, and there's nothing wrong with that. But when you make yourself available as a journalistic source as opposed to a monologuist or theatrical performer, the rules change. You stick to what you know. Even if you have to settle for The Lesser Truth.

Daisey's defense of the indefensible brings to mind the similar antics of James Frey, author of the best-selling 2005 memoir "A Million Little Pieces." The book was a particular favorite of Oprah Winfrey's. Then along came the Web site The Smoking Gun, which looked into Frey's book and found that the author "wholly fabricated or wildly embellished details of his purported criminal career, jail terms, and status as an outlaw 'wanted in three states.' "

But Frey was undaunted. USA Today reported that he stood by..wait for it.. the "essential truths" of his tome. "This is a truthful retelling of my story," Frey told CNN's Larry King. "The primary focus of the book is not crime, but drug and alcohol addiction."

Oh, in that case...

And, he pointed out, he had a pretty good batting average: Only 18 of the 432 pages had been called into question, an "appropriate ratio for a memoir." And he said there was a "great debate on what a memoir should serve: the story or some kind of journalistic truth." Actually, that great debate took about five seconds. If it's a memoir – or an appearance as a journalistic source – the material better be true.

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