April 23, 2012
This post is late in the news cycle of this media event because I tried, unsuccessfully, to publish it as an Op Ed. Enjoy!
A few weeks ago, an unfortunate scandal played out at Pitzer College, where I am a Professor of Media Studies. At a student senate meeting, a small group of students requested the establishment of the Caucasian Culture Club. After lengthy questioning from the senators, engendering insensitive justifications, the request was denied.
Overt racism within a liberal institution, however, is not the scandal I am considering here. Rather, it was this following revelation: the white clubbers were performing their offenses while playing a role at the behest of three students of color. They wanted footage about racial silences at the college for a mockumentary they were making for a documentary class offered by my department.
Two weeks of difficult intellectual and ethical conversations ensued on the student list serve, in town hall meetings, and in our campus media: does the greater good of revealing what might otherwise be unspoken justify the pain of those who are misled along the way? Do various traditions like documentary, ethnography or even the news, have different standards regarding the treatment of human subjects? Do the time-honored institutions of artistic license and academic freedom protect students from other shared responsibilities?
Within our small campus community, we learned a great deal from talking together about these hard questions, ones not isolated to this incident. For our culture is littered with forms that mix truth and fiction, reality and entertainment, documentary and storytelling. Fake or entertainment news like “The Colbert Show” or “E Entertainment News,” fake documentaries and fact-based fictions like The Devil Inside or Cloverfield, and all of bogus “reality TV” are ubiquitous within and perhaps even definitive of our media moment. I believe that the larger culture could learn from the kinds of conversations we had about these issues on our campus.
In F is for Phony: Fake Documentary and Truth’s Undoing, I suggest that for talented artists, mocking forms known for their sobriety allows for harder conversations about truth, identity, or history. Meanwhile, in my more recent book Learning from YouTube, I express the less optimistic opinion that the faking of facts, authenticity, and expertise have become an accepted and even normative mode across our culture: for both every day YouTubers and much of the dominant media they emulate.
However, while most of these forms remain entertaining and pleasurable—instilling the satisfaction of insider-knowledge and the comedic reach of parody—we are also beginning to encounter instances where an ever-more uncertain or shifting blend between fact and fiction is causing pain.
For instance, the intense scrutiny by an international Internet audience on the factual ups and downs of the “Kony 2012” video may have contributed to the emotional breakdown of its director, Jason Russell, even as so many African vbloggers righteously attest to their own anguish caused by seeing the over-simplification of their continent’s political turmoil in the name of activating media-weary youth. In this case as well, its authors believed that a greater social good—produced by powerful story-telling forms and their associated feelings—gives them license to play somewhat loose with facts.
But in such confounding situations about the role and ethics of fact-based media, are we best served by only attending to the suffering of those who are misled, or by also asking larger questions about a culture of misleading and its new forms and old institutions? In the case of a retraction that ran on Friday, March 18 on “This American Life,” the players are as sacrosanct as National Public Radio, the New York Times, and Apple. Here, the discomfiting admixture of art and journalism occurred in “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory,” an excerpt of the acclaimed one-man show “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” by Mike Daisey that ran on This American Life.
In “Retraction,” Ira Glass, the host of This American Life, thoughtfully and with some felt embarrassment and even seeming grief revealed that “the most powerful and memorable moments of the story all seem to be fabricated.” And so this story, too, inevitably played out in relation to the private pain of Ira Glass, and his listeners: “we are going to talk to Mike Daisey about why he lied to all of you, and to me, off the air, during the fact-checking process.” However, by playing the pain card, this story of real wrongdoing is only understood at the personal, and not formal, institutional or political, levels.
Certainly, deceiving a national radio audience, and its producers, about worker abuse in China is itself a violation worthy of attention. But the nature of this violation becomes less clear when that national audience is listening to “This American Life,” itself one of the range of contemporary media practices that structure reality like fiction so as to move, entertain, and inform audiences. Daisey explains, “Everything I have done is bent towards that end, to make people care.” He admits that he lied in pursuit of telling what he thought to be a greater artistic truth, but he continually insists, to an ever more aggrieved Glass, that he did so as a theater artist and not a journalist, and his mistake was putting his work into a new context.
In response, however, Glass doesn’t take the more transparent road: acknowledging that this context-confusion is partly of his own making. For certainly, genre-bending shows like This American Life influence the shifting norms of storytelling. Their programs may be fact-checked like real journalists, but other norms of the profession are adapted to allow audiences to feel. But Glass avoids larger and more self-critical conversations about the pervasive use of fabrication, entertainment, and fiction within contemporary media, or his own show. Instead he chooses to at once verify the journalistic chops of This American Life and vilify the behavior of Daisey. He brings in reporters from “Planet Money” and The New York Times to humiliate Daisey into his own retraction, making Daisey the scapegoat for a cultural and institutional shift, or perhaps spread. Glass says to Daisey, “I have the normal world view. If you say something happened to me, then it did.”
Given these changing norms, however, in our contemporary media environment we need more than a normal view from our best journalists. We need critical frameworks to understand how Daisey, Glass, and mainstream institutions, like NPR, are honestly thinking about, using, and changing the uses of subjectivity, fiction, storytelling—and the real emotions they bring to bear—to allow audiences to know, and to care, in an ever more noisy, unfeeling, and uncertain world.