Freedom of speech, journalism, and artistic license

When public communications veer off the path of truth, and enters the domain of artistic expression, not only are lines blurred, because both journalism and art/ entertainment are forms of public communications, the confusion of fuzzy logic and the gullible naivite of the undiscerning casts a cloud of anxiety over the masses.

This week the journalistically-styled NPR-ish radio show (and podcast) This American Life retracted its most popular episode, Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory, because it mixed fiction and truth in a story that was regretably aired without more thorough fact-checking. The statement of retraction stated:

This American Life has retracted this story because we learned that many of Mike Daisey’s experiences in China were fabricated. We have removed the audio from our site, and have left this transcript up only for reference. We produced an entire new episode about the retraction, featuring Marketplace reporter Rob Schmitz, who interviewed Mike’s translator Cathy and discovered discrepancies between her account and Mike’s, and New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg, who has reported extensively on Apple. Ira also re-interviewed Mike Daisey to learn why he misled us.

As a journalistic genre, This American Life is committed to certain journalistic standards, and this one episode got away. On their blog with the press release, the Executive Producer and Host Ira Glass wrote:

I have difficult news. We’ve learned that Mike Daisey’s story about Apple in China – which we broadcast in January – contained significant fabrications. We’re retracting the story because we can’t vouch for its truth. This is not a story we commissioned. It was an excerpt of Mike Daisey’s acclaimed one-man show “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” in which he talks about visiting a factory in China that makes iPhones and other Apple products.

 

Episode #460 explained more about the fact-checking after the airing of the original episode, its retraction, and an interview with Mike Daisey to seek an apology and explanation. I’ve listened to both episodes. Painful. (And what might Apple’s legal department be plotting?)

Daisey felt justified in doing what he does as a storyteller and believes his work is a legitimate exercise of artistic license. Sure, a scriptwriter has the freedom to create a work of art as movie or play or book by rendering a dramatization based on a true story. There’s a place for that. That place is not a journalistic-style radio show. Maybe Garrison Keillor? Or Jon Stewart? Stephen Colbert?

This kind of problem will keep aggravating the world of journalism as social media enables anyone and everyone to have a public voice. Everything is looking more like op-ed pieces. Journalism perhaps isn’t able to uphold as high a standard as it used to because of an accelerated news cycle in a 24/7 communication world, or maybe new media is revealing the subjective biases and inaccuracies of the reporters’ work.

I’ve had a few encounters with journalism, and news reporters (with news involving people I knew) did not get the facts nor details right. This recently happened in the OC Register and its February 23rd article Rick Warren builds bridge to Muslims. Rick Warren was forced to respond amidst an already busy highly-demanding schedule. First to clear up theological issues, in an interview with Brandon A. Cox and The Christian Post. Secondly, a line-by-line documentation of the factual errors in News & Views 3/10/12: ON RESPONDING TO FALSE ACCUSATIONS (also posted at ocregister.com), the Saddleback Church email newsletter. Some of the damage may be irreparable, as OC Register noted on 3/9/12 in Effort to reach out to Muslims stirs outcry. And media representative A. Larry Ross wrote up this article, Saddleback Church: Setting the record straight on outreach to Muslims, published at ocregister.com .

My hunch is that as media technologies keeps developing and maturing, the lines will only get more blurred. And, these situations are indicators of a shift of trust away from faceless institutions towards individuals in one’s social network.

Oh, and the dust hasn’t settled yet on Mike Daisey and his American Life episode. There’s more.

On March 19th, “… at a long-scheduled appearance at Georgetown University, Mike Daisey gave his first public talk since the news broke last Friday that This American Life was retracting the now-infamous episode featuring his work. Daisey is a complicated and conflicted figure, and, it’s hard not to feel complicated and conflicted about him and about his work. His talk last night provides a new dimension to the story that is now at the center of a scandal.” —The Atlantic Wire

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