Media Minute: Variable Truth
By Jerry Brown, APR
What’s acceptable as “true” can vary depending on the medium in which you tell your story. But there’s a difference between literary license to bend literal truth to make a point and breaking the truth by making things up.
And that difference is at the heart of Ira Glass’s retraction last week of a story that aired on “This American Life” in January criticizing Apple’s manufacturing practices in China.
Glass is one of the best journalists in America today. His stories are always interesting, often edgy. He’s also one of journalism’s best-kept secrets. His show airs on Saturday and his stories are long enough that you have to be in your car a long time to hear one of them all the way through if you’re like me and do most of your weekend radio listening while driving.
The Apple story had more impact than most of Glass’s stories. Glass says it was the most downloaded story in the show’s history.
So, it had to be especially painful when Glass opened his show on Saturday by saying: “I’m coming to you today to say something that I’ve never had to say on our program. Two months ago, we broadcast a story that we’ve come to believe is not true.”
The story was based on a monologue actor Mike Daisey has been performing on stage since 2010 about visiting an Apple plant in China.
“As best as we can tell,” Glass says, “Mike’s monologue in reality is a mix of things that actually happened when he visited China and things that he just heard about or researched, which he then pretends that he witnessed first-hand. He pretends that he just stumbled upon an array of workers who typify all kinds of harsh things somebody might face in a factory that makes iPhones and iPads. And the most powerful and memorable moments in the story all seem to be fabricated.”
Different languages for what truth means
Daisey’s version: “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.”
Glass made a mistake, admitted it and then set the record straight without flinching. The mistake will haunt him for a long time to come. But the way he went about fixing it speaks well of who he is. It was the right thing to do. And the unflinching way he approached the retraction and correction can only help him and his reputation as a journalist.
Companies that find themselves in crisis situations would do well to follow his example.
I agree with Daisey that theatrical truth and journalistic truth can be different. But he represented what he was saying on stage as well as what he told “This American Life” as literal truth. Unfortunately for him, the way he’s handled this story probably destroyed whatever “truth” is in the story he’s been telling on stage. It’ll be hard, perhaps impossible, for him to recover from that.
The lesson for the rest of us?
Mark Twain said: “Never let the truth stand in the way of a good story.” Twain was right in the context in which he told his stories. If you’re taking literary license to make a point, you need to make sure the rest of us know that.
But if you’re taking literary license while representing your story as literal truth, you’ll destroy your credibility once that unpleasant truth becomes known — even if your story is “true.”
That’s my two cents’ worth. What’s yours?
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