This American Life just broadcast the extended retraction of/reflection on Michael Daisey’s January account of working conditions in Apple supplier factories in China. This whole story is a bonfire of fact-truth-journalism ethical puzzles. During an exquisitely painful conversation with Ira Glass, Daisey claims he told the truth, as a piece of theater, even though many of the facts he recited, especially things like “I [Daisey] saw X and Y at the Foxconn plant”, have gone up in smoke. Glass is having none of it. He also admirably stands up on behalf of his staff to say “we screwed up”; not “we were brainwashed” or “lots of people make mistakes in this business” or “we’re sorry if anyone was offended” or “the staffer who erred has been fired”; “we screwed up, we’re sorry, and we learned from it.”
What’s the right way to think about something like this episode? The key “facts” asserted are diverse in type and import. For example:
Daisey saw an underage worker at the plant he visited. (False)
Chinese Apple factories employ underage workers. (True, on other evidence)
The falsity of the first of these does not falsify the second. Climate change is not a lie because somebody misrepresented some evidence about it.
Chinese factory working conditions would be illegal in the US, and are frequently deplorable by (at least) conventional American standards of decency. (True, and true despite the violations at sweatshops in LA and coal mines in West Virginia)
Chinese factory workers, on the whole, find their jobs the best option available to them under existing Chinese conditions of rural poverty, internal migration laws, labor law, etc. If higher standards were successfully imposed, a significant number of those workers would have a worse set of options-would think themselves worse off-as their company’s customers sourced products in better but more expensive US factories, or worse and cheaper ones in, say, Myanmar. (Also true)
The basic theorem of policy analysis, Compared To What? shines its ineffable light broadly here.
As to the first pair of facts, Deasey was reporting things that are true (how generally is another question) about Chinese factories, not bloodying a shirt with ketchup like the late minimally lamented Breitbart. He was not careful enough about his framing, especially when his monologue was headed for a program whose underlying premise is journalism, not theater. I don’t mean this is a minor or unimportant failure. There is such a thing as artistic truth, and there is also a legitimate way to illustrate literal truth with utterances that are not literally true, and this way is not inferior to conventional journalism, just different. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, full of truth about the lives of slaves, is nothing but made-up stuff; Compulsion (a play about Leopold and Loeb) is not merely imaginative fiction. The chorus of the Hebrew Slaves in Nabucco told the truth about oppression for Italians trying to get their country back from foreigners, notwithstanding its fictional status and remote superficial context, and it is not an inferior substitute for a bunch of socioeconomic data. Goya titled one of his Desastros “I have seen this” and another “and this also” to give them extra punch, but that didn’t mean the rest of the series were fakes or lies.
Of course this kind of argument or explication has inherent risks (but so does just reciting facts in the narrow, “checkable” sense), and the power of art has been used for evil and deceit: the Horst Wessel Lied is probably as good a song as the Marseillaise–and come to think of it, the latter is pretty bloodthirsty and xenophobic. In general, memorable vignettes and examples, whether fictional or not, have to be consistent with larger truth to have legs. Of course Mitt Romney doesn’t go around offering to bet people $10,000 on a whim, or as a way to bully them in conversation, and he doesn’t hate dogs. But the picture of Romney as being clueless about what ten large means to most people, and being both enormously rich but too stingy on behalf of others to rent a second car so his family could enjoy that trip and his dog ride inside, is about right.
Anna Deavere Smith has deliberately chosen to work within the constraint of quotation from her personally conducted interviews, but that (alone) isn’t what gives her work weight, and it doesn’t have more weight than, say, The Jungle or Giants in the Earth. There’s no easy way to manage the here-and-now facts, the large facts, and the truth properly. Any bright-line rule will develop leaks and force foolish decisions, whether or not it affords editors, managers, artists, and publishers a place to hide from the duty of judgment.
As to the larger question, thinking about working conditions in China (the second pair of facts) can easily lead us to fix our coordinate system in the wrong place. What I mean by this is that if we just think about Apple gadgets being made, we can think it would be a better world if that were happening in an American factory, with OSHA popping in and out, in Peoria. But if we think about those workers, and do not think a set of wheels would make Grandma a streetcar, policy and our own procurement choices look quite different. Fifty years ago, we thought building public housing of the type middle class people thought poor people would want to live in if they were middle class (Ville Radieuse projects) would be a good idea, but it wasn’t. We also thought if you cleared a slum neighborhood and replaced it with middle and upper-class housing and delis, things were better, but Chester Hartman and his fellow skeptics, and the sainted Jane Jacobs, pointed out that if you put your coordinate system on the people who were displaced instead of the place, it didn’t look that way at all.