“It Would Ruin Everything”

by Jen Paton

ChainsThis American Life, the American radio program, has posted an episode called “Retraction”, which retracts performer Mike Daisey's story on Foxconn – adapted from his stage series, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.” Daisey, since the TAL story ran in January, has become one of the most visible critics of Apple. But it turns out that the most memorable stories in the piece- about a man with a subcontracted-factory-injured hand touching an Ipad screen with wonder, and a girl employee telling him Daisey was thirteen – were untrue, at least to TAL's level of comfort. When interviewed about all this in the “Retraction” piece, Daisey sounds abashed, and half-heartedly apologies to Ira Glass for allowing something that merely met the standard of truth for theater onto a journalistic program. Daisey tells Glass, “I really do believe stories should be subordinate to the truth….everything that is in this monologue is built out of the truth I took.” On his Web site (http://mikedaisey.blogspot.com/), Daisey writes that he “uses a combination of fact, memoir, and dramatic license to tell [the] story, and I believe [I do] so with integrity.”

Seemingly all of a sudden we (some of us, many of us) can instantly share our built truths, our ideas, our revolutions. Polish writer Piotr Czerski recently published a manifesto on “us”, the Web literate generation (he is three years older than me). Admitting that he uses “we” as a convenience, he describes us as communicating on a level “more intense and more efficient than ever before in the history of mankind.” This seems a bit grandiose – volume does not equal efficiency, intensity does not equal clarity – but Czerski raises many interesting points. I am most interested in his discussion of how we use the Web to find things out, to weigh the evidence, to triangulate at truth. He writes that: “we have learned to accept that instead of one answer we find many different ones, and out of these we can abstract the most likely version, disregarding the ones which do not seem credible.” While I agree more or less with his description of how to arrive at “the truth,” I'm not sure if the Web really makes “us” better at finding it.

I'm not sure we are so good at assessing credibility – the credibility of others, or perhaps worse, our own.

As “Alex Duryee” grumbled in the comments section of Czerski's translated article in The Atlantic, “I can't support that lifelong exposure to information makes me info-literate.” Because what often seems to resonate, politically, socially, through the internet, is something more emotional. Of course, this is only natural to an extent, and it is important – emotional argument compels people to action in a way intellectual palaver never will.

But, this can't be all we have, because in this limitless Web, there is always someone who will agree with us, supply the arguments and evidence we need to support what we thought anyway, playing on our emotions in a way that may or may not be honest. This may not necessarily lead us closer to truth. A few months ago I gave a guest lecture at a university here in Central Asia. The class was on terrorism, and I agreed to talk about how the American media reported on 9/11. The bright, privileged students then asked questions, very politely, many of which were in the vein of – did you know Hillary Clinton called everyone in her family and told them not to fly that day? Or Did you know the shape of the damage to the Pentagon does not match the plane reported? Or, of course controlled explosions etc. We discussed where they got that information (the Professor had shown them some internet documentaries the week before). I said sure, sometimes the simplest explanation makes the most sense and more importantly, always, not sometimes, you have to weigh the credibility of your evidence.

But I'm not singling out these kids. We all have this problem, and simply having access to information doesn't make us instantly very smart at weighing it. So many of “us” have the tools to create a compelling story and push it out into the universe. And any of us with an internet connection have the ability to watch whatever someone's pushed out there. But both of us – consumer and producer – also have the tools to do research that is a bit deeper, to weigh evidence, to build an intellectual foundation for the stories we produce and view – so why do we often have such trouble doing so? It is as if we are a bit intoxicated on our own power to communicate, and building something slowly, or researching a bit more about something, is just too much effort – it's easier to just “like” it.

Andrew Brietbart, the recently deceased, conservative-Web-don behind the Acorn sting operation, described just this feeling of being drunk on communications technology. In 2010 profile in the New Yorker, he recalls discovering the power of the internet: “There is just something about knowing information when it happens…There is something about telling somebody, ‘Did you know that Michael Jackson just died?’ It’s just weirdly powerful. It’s fun.” Now, this invigorating feeling is accessible to all of us, and suddenly research, context, reading a book, seem an unnecessary waste of time: William Gagan, who went to Syria as a “citizen journalist,” told the Guardian, “I knew about the parties and the Sunnis and I looked up a little of Assad's background and whatnot but I didn't really think any of that was relevant.” Gagan's bravery and curiosity is commendable, but really? Context isn't important anymore because…any one of us can tell a story on the internet? That seems to make knowing a bit of history about a million times more important (and a million times easier to do) then ten or even five years ago.

This does lead us, of course, like all roads, towards “Kony 2012,” an emotionally powerful, and, as has been chronicled extensively, sometimes factually feeble, video. In the middle of Kony 2012, creator Jason Russel narrates, “Its always been that the decisions made by the few with the money and power dictated the priorities of their governments and the stories in the media.” The attention given the video itself has served a purpose in proving that needn't be the case, at least for the media part of the equation. But it also highlights our responsibility – as media producers, but also as consumers – to be careful with our emotions. Because when something appeals only to our emotions and not at all to our intellect, we are being more than condescended to, we are usually condescending to the subject as well. And when we refuse to produce – or consume – information that challenges us intellectually, to find the shades of grey that always exist in any story, we effectively say, yes, what I want is propaganda.

Czerski says that we can better weigh evidence now, but for that to be true we must take some personal and collective responsibility for doing so – triangulating involves finding different sources, not “liking” just one. Perhaps as consumers of media, as people rich and privileged with internet access in an information age where access to that commodity remains unequal, we can take it upon ourselves to be better and more skeptical consumers.

In “Retraction”, Ira Glass asked Mike Daisey why he didn't come clean with This American Life before the story went to air. “I was terrified that if I untied these things that the work I know is really good and tells a story …that it would come apart in a way where it would ruin everything.” His excuse is mere hubris. I can tell this story better than anyone else. If it involves half truths, if it doesn't show as complete a picture, than so be it. The emotional response of the audience is enough. The same hubris is evident in “Kony 2012.”

What will ruin everything is if we succumb to the belief that the emotional resonance of a story always trumps its accuracy, and that the only way to encourage ourselves to “care” about politics/the rest of the world/our neighbor is to accept being lied to. I think we can handle the truth, and we owe it to ourselves to try and tell it – and to try and hear it.