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March 20, 2012, 10 a.m.

The Newsonomics of Mr. Daisey’s media blur

Part of the outrage surrounding Mike Daisey’s Apple fabrications stems from our uneasiness with the blurring of media boundaries in the Internet age.

Was it journalism, performance art, political provocation, or just a hell of a good story? Was it a great truth, a great lie, or somewhere in between?

This American Life’s retraction (good NPR explainer here) of Mike Daisey’s January piece on Apple’s factories in China has unleashed a cascade of reaction and rethinking. It’s been a chain reaction, with the episode connecting up all our next-era hopes and fears.

The much-decorated (Peabody, Polk, DuPont-Columbia, Murrow awards) This American Life is 16 years old now, and fundamentally a radio program. But the “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory” show showed real new-media power, becoming TAL’s most downloaded podcast ever at 880,000 downloads — a sure measure of its virality. (In that follow-on impact, it reminds us of the power of Katie Couric’s 2008 interview with Sarah Palin — an interview whose web afterlife made many more waves than the initial broadcast.)

Why are we seeing such a fuss? The two big reasons, I believe: the impact the story had, and our increasingly uneasy footing in the blurring media landscape.

The 39-minute Daisey piece did what dozens of previous stories on Foxconn’s massive manufacturing of our Apple (and other) wonders hadn’t accomplished: It captured listeners’ imaginations.

Why? Daisey turned our portable pleasures to guilty ones. Talking with Chinese workers, he connected our pleasures to their pain — 18-hour days, chemical poisonings, suicides, and more. He tempered the guilt with a decent pro and con discussion of how even odious sweatshop jobs have long lifted generations into the bottom rungs of middle class existences in many nations.

TAL pricked the consciences of 1.8 million This American Life listeners, a group you’ve got to expect includes a disproportionate number of Apple users. Then, within two weeks, The New York Times began publishing a series on Apple, China, job creation, and Foxconn. Where Daisey made Americans care anew, the Times did what it does best: It hammered at the Foxconn record, detailing it with exhaustive reporting and all the data it could uncover.

Tales of Foxconn abuse go back years, but never seemed to pique the public’s imagination. The combination of This American Life emotionally tinged story and the Times’ work — seemingly on the heels of Daisey’s tale, but with reporting that had been months in the making — pushed the issue to new heights. We saw a high-voltage online public interest campaign ignite, producing a quarter of a million signatures. Congress joined the fray, indignation rising and providing good opportunities for photo-ready public outrage. Finally, Apple, reaping huge profits (and now granting bonanza dividends) by punting around the issue for years, seemed to take it more seriously, engaging with the Fair Labor Association “to end sweatshop conditions.”

That’s a lot of impact, and Daisey’s piece played a clear role in the chain of events.

Now we understand that Daisey included some reporting, some surmising, and some conflating in his Foxconn tales. Maybe that’s not a huge surprise, given his long career in performance, in storytelling, a craft in which the moving around of facts to better tell a story is the how the art form works.

Of course, that’s not how journalism works. When you hear talk about a new “ecosystem,” a word that understandably drives some people in the news business nuts, we can see its uneasy and only partially charted taxonomy in the Daisey story.

Which brings us back to the second big reason we’re hearing such debate: We’re having a hard time defining the journalism — and the other stuff — that digital media either creates, or amplifies.

It’s a bigger and bigger media blur out there, and the tablet has only further softened our vision. On an iPad, does NPR qualify as radio, audio, or a news site, with half or more of its stories text-only? Is The Wall Street Journal still a newspaper with its all-but-devoid-of-text WSJ Live video news app? Are the NBC Local sites broadcast websites or city sites that look awfully like newspaper ones? You can’t tell the players apart like you used to; there’s no new scorecard.

We’ve seen other hand-wringing twists on this storyline. Are bloggers journalists? No, not most, but some. Are journalists bloggers? Yes, some. Can we believe what bloggers write? Yes, some of the time, depending on who they are, for whom they work, and what we know about them. We’re still coming to grips with these overlapping lines, and we can the same kinds of issues here in the Daisey story and retraction. In a sense, TAL’s dilemma parallels that gap in our new taxonomy, our new way of explaining ourselves to ourselves and to others.

In his strongly worded retraction, TAL host Ira Glass, of course, tried to parse this still-being-charted landscape. Glass attempted to get ahead of an avalanche of “new media” criticism now falling. “See, you can’t trust those guys,” is the sentiment, both public and private, we can expect to hear from many quarters. “That’s not journalism.”

Offered Glass: “We’re horrified to have let something like onto public radio. Our program adheres to the same journalistic standards as other national shows, and in this case, we did not live up to those standards.”

Note that the New York Public Theater, in standing behind its decision to complete its current run of Daisey’s stage show, said in its statement: “Mike is an artist, not a journalist. Nevertheless, we wish he had been more precise with us and our audiences about what was and wasn’t his personal experience in the piece.” Daisey himself, caught between several worlds, “stands by his work,” but notes he “not a journalist.”

The two statements from Glass and the Public Theater seem to define two separate things: theater and journalism. Yet, by the nature of the revolution TAL has spawned, theatrical storytelling aids the journalism. In fact, it directly excerpted its Daisey program from his still-playing one-man show. Consequently, that line between journalism and theatrical storytelling isn’t as easily defined as Ira Glass’s statement would make it seem. In fact, when Glass talks about “other national shows,” we’ve got to wonder which ones he means. “Show” is of course an old show business term; newsies tend to go beyond the Anglo-Saxon to the more serious-sounding “program.” Where do we place Radiolab and The Moth, both of which owe legitimization to TAL?

Complicating our understanding is that TAL’s habit of reaching out to non-traditional storytellers is one of its greatest strengths.

It’s funny, though, but I never expected This American Life to adhere to the same standards as The New York Times. In the stories of David Sedaris, Sarah Vowell, and David Rakoff, and in providing a forum for non-journalistically trained storytellers, as well as journalists, we’ve seen the bounds of our understanding expanded on everything from the financial crisis to infidelity to what happens when humans and fowl collide (in its “sort of annual Poultry Slam!”). That seminal financial crisis story — “The Giant Pool of Money” — won lots of awards and forced more people to take TAL seriously. Its co-creator Adam Davidson now co-hosts NPR’s (and TAL’s) Planet Money, which we hear from more and more on All Things Considered and Morning Edition.

What has distinguished This American Life through 459 episodes has been its breadth. It could be haunting, horrifying, or hilarious, and often some combination of emotions that one-note traditional media often keep in check. I was entertained while I learned about something. I can’t recall being bored.

So, yes, let’s debate the definitions. Let’s try define the turf, as we see in such recent initiatives as Simon Dumenco’s Council on Ethical Blogging and Aggregation. Let’s remember that the Internet is a remarkable, if gawky, self-correcting organism. (It was the reporting of Marketplace’s Rob Schmitz that uncovered the Daisey inaccuracies. It’s worth pointing out: public radio is helping clean up a mess created by…public radio.)

Let’s not, though, retreat to our traditional corners.

Was Mike Daisey a liar, or merely deeply disingenuous? (Poynter’s Craig Silverman does a good job of picking apart the trail of words.)

As an artist, he deals in truths. As journalists, we don’t have the poetic luxury to rearrange facts in time and place. That’s always been and should be an essential boundary of our craft. Yes, it seems strange having to explain that facts shouldn’t be rearranged for the sake of dramatic power or clarity — but, then again, as journalists we’ve never explained quite that well how what we do is different.

The key here is not to build a wall, but to disclose the blur — explain to listeners, viewers, and readers who did the work, and within what bounds. Just last week, Greg Smith’s explosive Goldman Sachs piece in The New York Times made its own news, and no one mistook it for journalism — it was interpreted through a set of conventions we worked out long ago called the op-ed page.

Our times call for recognizing The Big Tent that the digital world has popped open. We can better define its rooms, but for the sake of all traditional media, from newspapers to yes, 40-year-old public radio, best to make that tent big and wide. That’s what we as an audience want, and that’s what will help pay the bills for the news-gathering itself.

POSTED     March 20, 2012, 10 a.m.
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