Last week This American Life ran a Retraction. ”We’ve discovered that one of our most popular episodes contained numerous fabrications. This week, we detail the errors in Mike Daisey’s story about visiting Foxconn, which makes iPads and other products for Apple in China.” The episode details the fabrications of an earlier “story” that failed to live up to “journalistic standards.” The lengths TAL go to expose Daisey’s factual errors and exaggerations is interesting, not least because Mike Daisey is a professional actor and storyteller, in this case performing a theatrical monologue. And it is curious too because, as TAL reiterates more than once in their Retraction, what Daisey says about working conditions and the supply chain is largely accurate or “true.” So Daisey is said to be right about the manufacturing process, or fabrications, of Apple. What he’s criticized for is the way he fabricated the truth. Here’s a discussion of that asymmetry.
People will decide for themselves whether the folks at TAL are doing what they must to defend the integrity of journalism (where data accuracy trumps sentiment and storytelling?) or not (pursuing false precision and distracting us from the most powerful source of fabrications in the story?). People will need to decide whether there is some moral equivalence between the fabrications of a global corporation and those of a one-man show. Daisey did after all sign on to the “journalistic standards” of TAL, and he also seems to pass himself off as a truth-teller on other news programs. That’s irresponsible too.
What I’m interested in is the showdown between “fact” and “truth” in the Retraction. It dogs fiction-makers everywhere. We’ve been over this before. And this is where the medieval worry over the truth-value and effects of fiction is relevant to us again. In the thirteenth century Richard de Bury wrote: “Accordingly the wisdom of the ancients devised a remedy by which to entice the wanton minds of men by a kind of pious fraud, the delicate Minerva secretly lurking beneath the mask of pleasure” (Philobiblon). Knowing this kind of thing, Chaucer seems a little worried, as we’ve seen, because a pious fraud is still a fraud. A noble lie is a lie. At other points he retreats behind the protective curtain of mere reportage, claiming to relate only the true facts. But this too is inadequate given that the facts he’s relating are made up. I don’t think we can quite settle the question of his retracted fictions, but Chaucer does anticipate us by centuries whenever we encounter the same dilemma. In fact he’s fictionalized our truly important moral dilemmas.
If you’ve followed this at all, I’d be interested in your opinions, especially given what we’ve talked about regarding assemblage, the agency of language, material conditions, rhetoric, and so on. My mind runs to the virtuality and virtues of fiction-making.