It’s been a tough winter for facts, and for those of us who wrangle them for a living. On Friday, March 16, monologist Mike Daisey admitted he’d invented details in his stage show about working conditions in Chinese factories that manufacture Apple products. A version of this show aired on the public radio program This American Life, and has since been downloaded or streamed more than a million times.
In February, John D’Agata and Jim Fingal published a book titled The Lifespan of a Fact, a provocative rumination on the amount of veracity an essayist owes his audience. Lifespan, a purported seven-year fencing match between fact-checker Fingal and acclaimed essayist D’Agata over the latter’s essay about Las Vegas, ends with a whimper, with our hero Fingal essentially giving a nihilistic shrug and asking whether the facts even matter.
Both D’Agata and Daisey have proudly proclaimed that they’re not reporters; that the normal rules of factual accuracy don’t apply to them. Instead, both claim they’re aiming for something greater. “I am seeking a truth here, but not necessarily accuracy,” D’Agata loftily tells his fact-checker.
In the service of said Greater Truth, D’Agata does whatever feels right. He increases the number of strip clubs in Vegas from 31 to 34 because “the rhythm of ‘thirty-four’ works better in that sentence.” He lies about graffiti on a bridge to gin up a moment of poignancy. He even fakes a pivotal scene with a boy who kills himself—a central part of his story. Nearly every sentence in the piece contains an inaccuracy. The sheer volume of wrongness is actually sort of impressive.
In his stage show and on the radio, Daisey spoke of meeting a 12-year-old working illegally at a Chinese factory (didn’t happen) and, in a moving moment, of showing his iPad to a former Apple assembly line worker with a work-crippled hand (another nope). Last week he said he stood by his work; his sole regret was that he let his monologue appear on a documentary show.
What both men essentially argue is that the only thing they as artists owe their audiences is a truer emotional resonance, and a “cool story” to carry the water, as D’Agata puts it. The ends justify the means. “It’s called art,” he snaps condescendingly at Fingal.
But is a cool story all these guys really owe us?
I’m all for art’s freedom to wander past fences. But when D’Agata and Daisey swaddle themselves in facts and reportage (and they do don the metaphorical reporter’s fedora, even as they disdain it) they also put on journalism’s hard-won mantle of authority. “This guy has done his homework,” the audience thinks. “I can trust him.” And so when they lie, even in pursuit of bigger game, they erode a relationship between news-gatherers and their audience that’s already at an all-time low.
We may live in an increasingly post-fact society, but the truth (with a small ‘t’) is that facts still matter. When I read D’Agata’s 2010 book About a Mountain, I believed him when he cited studies showing how horribly unsafe Nevada’s Yucca Mountain was as a storage site for nuclear waste. His reporting changed my mind about an important piece of national public policy.
Now I know that D’Agata can’t even be trusted to tell me the true color of pet grooming vans in Las Vegas (apparently pink, but the two beats in ‘purple’ sounded better). Why would I ever trust him on an issue as grave as nuclear waste, much less take seriously his thoughts on grander themes? The answer is, I can’t. I won’t. Likewise, is there any doubt that Daisey’s manipulation of facts has now deeply damaged the important discussion over sweatshop conditions in China and given ammunition to those who would resist change?
Look, I get it: Facts are messy. They have too many sharp angles. A fact is a square peg when all you see around you are round holes. In short, facts make life complicated. That’s called reality. The awkwardness of facts is what makes life, and my job as a journalist, so frustrating—and so interesting.
Sanding down the facts to support a neat worldview and a moving story is arrogant, and it’s lazy. But that’s not what bothers me most about Daisey and D’Agata. When they “streamline” (the latter’s word) the facts, they demean the public, and they demean the truth, by conditioning all of us to think that simple answers abound, even when they don’t. In a small way, their work trains us all to hold less in our minds. Is that really a Greater Truth?
There’s a simple solution to this dilemma: Let these artists announce at the start of their work that a little, or a lot, of artistic license lies ahead. Had either told us that their work were fictions rather than truths, we would have judged them as both claim they want to be judged—as artists, rather than as mere reporters bringing issues to the public square.
But D’Agata’s and Daisey’s work requires our belief. Deception is the keystone of their art. They need us to trust in facts, even as they manipulate them. That’s why their work feels so parasitic. As long as people are willing to deceive us in the name of truth, our only antidote is to embrace the old saw taught to every cub reporter: If you mother tells you she loves you, check it out.