Saturday, March 31, 2012

I don't believe in Facts

NPR's This American Life Retraction of the Mike Daisey story about Apple's labor practices in China was a missed opportunity.If you missed it, the show had played an amazingly compelling excerpt from Mike  Daisey's trip to China to interview workers at the iPad factory in Shenzhen.  Daisey related how he drove up to the factory in a taxi, and interviewed child workers, illegal union members, workers who suffered from chemical poisoning. The problem wasn't that these people didn't exist--Apple and other sources confirm their existence, the problem was that it was revealed by someone who tracked down  Daisey's interpreter that he invented his meetings with them.

Invented dialog has long been part of essays since Plato, part of biographies, documentaries, memoirs. It's a staple of the stories of David Sedaris, one of This American Life's most frequent contributors, whose stories are presented as non-fiction. There has been much discussion already on this subject recently in the media due to the publication of "The Lifespan of a Fact" about a true debate between a magazine writer and a factchecker on what constitutes a fact (although the dialog in this book presented as non-fiction is also invented). I have always been annoyed at the tone of sites like or the regular fact checking these days on network news that pretend that they have the absolute authority on truth, when in fact, the definition of a fact is always open for interpretation. (this critique also applies but in a more complicated way to climate scientists).

I'm not defending Daisey. Someone pointed out it is his deliberate deception of TAL's staff that matters, not the stories themselves that matter. I also think it was deceptive to make people believe that such awful labor practices are so common one can find them just by driving up to the factory gates. I also think that most attacks on Chinese labor practices are wholly wrong-headed. But I do think the notion that a fact is a fact has been too much taken for granted.

Of course, as someone who studies apologies, I know that if This American Life had gone this route in its apology and retraction, it could easily be seen as defensive and thus insincere if done poorly. However, I still feel like it was an opportunity missed.

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