Mike Daisey, Kony 2012, John D’Agata and the Power of the Truth

Reading through the transcript of this weekend’s episode of This American Life, in which Ira Glass explores how the program came to air an excerpt of Mike Daisey’s monologue, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, despite clear warnings that numerous elements and anecdotes in it were fabricated for dramatic effect is a striking thing. It’s not just that Daisey’s actions will likely harm the larger—and still just—cause of pushing Apple to improve working conditions throughout its supply chain, or that a venerable program let itself be tripped up by the desire for a good story. It’s more that it’s a clear articulation of a troubling worldview that’s been awfully present in campaigns from this one, to Stop Kony, and that’s penetrating even the academy itself: that in telling moving stories, emotional experiences may be more important than precision.

” I’m not going to say that I didn’t take a few shortcuts in my passion to be heard,” Daisey told Glass. “But I stand behind the work. My mistake, the mistake that I truly regret is that I had it on your show as journalism and it’s not journalism. It’s theater. I use the tools of theater and memoir to achieve its dramatic arc and of that arc and of that work I am very proud because I think it made you care, Ira, and I think it made you want to delve. And my hope is that it makes—has made—other people delve.”

But of course, it didn’t really take Daisey’s monologue to make people delve. Daisey himself says on the program that “I wanted to have the voice of this thing that had been happening that everyone been talking about,” which suggests a desire more to capitalize on a rising wave of conversation to instigate it. And the New York Times reporting by Charles Duhigg and David Barboza has certainly succeeded in getting people talking and thinking critically about Apple and its supply chain without a whit of fictionalization for dramatic effect. It’s odd that Daisey wouldn’t trust the facts when the facts have proven to be so compelling time and time again.

The same is true for the efforts to stop Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army. While some of the defenders of the Stop Kony! viral video campaign suggested that it was forgivable for the video to make factual errors, including the number of members in the LRA and the fact that Kony’s moved out of Uganda, in the name of raising broader awareness about Kony’s brutality, it’s not particularly clear why such a thing was necessary—or effective. In fact, there’s been rather significant media attention paid to the campaign against Kony over the past several years. Samuel Childers, the evangelical preacher and biker who’s made it a personal mission to stop Kony, was profiled in Vanity Fair in 2010 and the subject of a movie starring Gerard Butler, Machine Gun Preacher, released last year. In other words, Kony, and the kind of militant interventionism by white Americans that Stop Kony championed, are already media stars here in the U.S. Stop Kony’s exaggerations weren’t necessary to achieve that kind of fame, and as Max Fisher at the Atlantic’s pointed out, their efforts seem to have produced a short-term interest spike rather than a long-term engagement.

In a recent essay in the New York Times examining the ideas of John D’Agata, a writer and professor who got into an extended battle over an essay for The Believer that had already been rejected by Harper’s because of how fast and loose it played with the facts, Gideon Lewis-Kraus explains:

D’Agata proposes that we give up the idea that there is a genre called “nonfiction” and instead return to the blurrier, artier time (from Herodotus until around 1940) when we were content with the term “essay” — “an attempt, a trial, an experiment.” From his rostrum as an influential professor in the nonfiction program at the University of Iowa, D’Agata has often argued that we read such essays for the poetry of “experience” rather than for mere “accuracy.”…He does defend James Frey, sort of, because even though he thinks Frey is a bad writer, he did fulfill his one obligation to his readers: “to give them a good experience.”

But why should a good experience trump the facts? And if you’re giving readers of non-fiction a powerful experience that’s built on fabrications, doesn’t that mean the experience is hollow, in danger of imminent collapse? Isn’t the question of whether an experience is good deeply tied to its authenticity? That depends on whether the story is presented as true or not. It’s one thing if Mike Daisey (or, say, Tony Kushner) had written a play called The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs (in its own way a Kushner-like title), where actors played Daisey, his translator, and the people he interviewed, and included clear signifiers that what they were relating was fictional, whether in the character names they were given, the cadences of their dialogue, or in the use of made-up companies or locations. If an audience expects that they’ll experience fiction, and experiences fiction, if then there’s no inconsistency to undermine their experience. If an audience expects facts and is given fiction, the realization that they’ve lied to may be shattering, and permanently discrediting. “Each time, I left the theatre electrified,” Michael Schulman writes in the New Yorker of his experiences seeing Daisey, “in part because I took what I was hearing as non-fiction.”

Whether it’s Mike Daisey, Stop Kony’s factual errors, or Greg Mortenson’s lies about his experiences in Central Asia, embellishing perfectly powerful stories for effect speaks of a insecurity about the power of the facts. And to an extent, I understand that sense of desperate urgency to bring attention to a cause in which is someone is deeply invested. We live in a deeply broken world, and it’s hard for an issue to break through and become a priority for the large number of people it would take to make a meaningful difference. But you can’t bridge the difference between what the facts are and what they wish you were with fiction if your viewers or listeners expect facts—and if you expect to motivate them to act in the world.