In 2004, bloggers exposed the memos at the heart of CBS’ story about George W. Bush avoiding military service as forgeries, forcing the termination of producer Mary Mapes and the disgrace of 60 Minutes II and Dan Rather. Defenders of CBS claimed that while the memos themselves were fakes, the story was nonetheless still true, a laughingstock of an argument that came to be known as “fake but accurate,” and sometimes as “truthiness.” This impulse to dismiss fakery in the service of larger truths makes a reappearance in the Washington Post, as Joshua Topolsky attempts to defend hoaxer Mike Daisey, exposed earlier this month by NPR for lying about his experiences in China and about Apple’s factories there:
No, he didn’t lie about all of it. He did go to southern China and meet with workers from Foxconn. He was there, all right, but he wasn’t honest about what he’d seen. There were no underage workers he’d spoken with, there was no man with a maimed hand. In one passage of his show, Daisey talks about workers who had been poisoned by a gas called n-hexane. That part was true — there had been workers poisoned by this gas at a Foxconn factory somewhere in China. But Daisey never spoke to them. Like many of the most upsetting moments in his show, Daisey simply fabricated the encounter.
The lies were so clear and so egregious that after learning the truth, “This American Life” issued a retraction of its report by way of a new show — a show in which host Ira Glass confronted Daisey over the deception.
It’s an uncomfortable listen. As Daisey is called out by Glass, you can hear the hesitation, the panic, and the fear in his voice. He doesn’t offer much in the way of excuses. The main point he drives home is that he felt it was necessary to embellish his story in order to retain the “truth” of the message of his show. He lied to tell the truth, basically.
At this point, a journalist should be expected to state the obvious — that lying doesn’t serve truth, it undermines truth. In this case, Daisey not only lied to make a point, he lied to make a buck, which Topolsky acknowledges in an almost offhand way. Daisey’s lies got him on stage, sold tickets, and made him famous enough as an entertainer and a human-rights activist to get the NPR gig on This American Life. He damaged Apple’s reputation based on lies, and to the extent that even a little of the truth came through, he lifted those experiences from other people and claimed them as first-person testimony.
Topolsky, who founded the tech site Verge, says that Daisey deserves credit for opening eyes, and that the lies were necessary:
But until the radio broadcast Daisey took part in — and many of the follow-up interviews he gave — this problem was never discussed in a such a big, public way. Daisey’s lies inspired honest questions about the gadgets in our pockets. Did he betray the trust of the public and journalists by lying? The answer to this question is easy: Yes. But were the lies necessary?
We have a tendency to tune out the things we don’t like hearing. That is doubly true when money is involved. I’m not suggesting that we didn’t listen when Apple issued its report, and that we didn’t pay attention when the Times published its findings. What I’m saying is that sad songs have a way of sticking with us long after we’ve heard them — and Daisey found a way to tell the sad, human part of this story. To make it catchy enough to stick, even if it was a lie.
No, the lies weren’t necessary. Daisey could have gone to the other factories and done more research. He could have stuck to the truth of whatever he saw and not made up the rest. In the end, his lies end up undermining confidence in the stories about Apple’s business practices in China, in no small part because most people now won’t know where the truth ends and the lies begin. That makes it harder for real journalists to get those truths out to the public, who won’t put much stock into their claims after having been burned by them with the media’s credulous treatment of Daisey until his exposure.
It seems that this is a lesson that some in the media never learn — fake but accurate doesn’t mitigate anything. It’s as satisfying as the orgasm in When Harry Met Sally. And it’s sad that eight years after the CBS/TANG memos debacle, Topolsky and the Washington Post want to make an argument that fake but accurate has some merit in the journalistic sense.
Update: Reader Adam B writes to state that Mapes was fired, and others at CBS resigned. I’ve changed “resignation” to “termination” in the first paragraph.