What links the viral reaction to the story of This American Life retracting its Mike Daisey story about Apple factory conditions in China and the news that Kony 2012 cofounder Jason Russell was arrested for public masturbation? The hope the often nasty tweets and messages held that people wouldn’t actually have to worry about buying iPads or helping children being kidnapped in Africa.
TAL host Ira Glass did what any good journalist would do with the Apple story, in which monologuist, author and (perhaps) bullshit artist Daisey is guilty of mashing up facts (and seemingly inventing characters) for a radio report based on his one-man show, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs: He made a whole new episode out of it, and it’s a must-listen for fans of journalism.
Glass himself seems beyond reproach, which is one of the reasons his retraction packed such a punch. As Kurt Andersen noted, the first line of tweets responding to his posting of the news was “Whoa!” Glass is like the Edward Murrow of the new new journalism; his popular program has always seemed a model of integrity and has never succumbed to easy irony. He tackles subjects others don’t, using novel approaches and refreshingly first-person reporting.
Which is maybe why he sounds so devastated in this weekend’s show. “The most powerful and memorable moment’s [of Daisey's report] all seem to have been fabricated,” he says, a fact which Daisey doesn’t really dispute. “I wanted to tell a story that captured the totality of my trip” he says, which, along with “I didn’t think I would unpack the complexities of how the story gets told” may live on as howlers of the Appalachian Trail variety when it comes to the art of dissembling.
In the end the monologist (and author of the inside-Amazon book, 27 Dog Years) seeks shelter with the idea that he was telling a theatrical truth in a journalistic setting (which doesn’t explain him lying to Glass and the fact-checkers of the show) while Glass counters that the old-fashioned idea of labeling stories “fiction” or “non” stands the test of time (and theater). Daisey makes it sound like they tried to take Death of a Salesman and put it in the 60 Minutes slot (against his will, I guess) while Glass understands that the question of Apple’s factory conditions is a different one for billions of consumers: “Should I feel bad about this?” they want to know, or, put another way, “Is their blood on my iPhone?”
In the third act of the retraction show, Glass poses the question to Charles Duhigg, who co-authored a report on Foxconn factory conditions in the NY Times, and it gets a complicated answer. But I can’t help but think a lot of people want an uncomplicated answer — No — so they can go back to tapping their screens without wondering if there’s a human cost.
So it is with Jason Russell, whose Kony 2012 video has been seen by more than 82 million people. The video, along with the organization Invisible Children, is meant to bring awareness to the Ugandan guerilla Joseph Kony, whose Lord’s Resistance Army kidnaps young children and forces them into conflict and prostitution. The video and the organization were already being criticized before his arrest — it was misleading, critics said, an over simplification, another example of a white man coming to save Africa. (Nicholas Kristoff did a pretty thorough job of answering those criticisms in his op-ed column last week.)
Now, after being caught (and caught on tape) screaming, naked, hysterical on the streets of San Diego, Russell has damaged the cause and certainly made himself a target for a lot of online humor. Friends and family members are already suggesting that Russell’s problems are a lot deeper than the haters suggest, and may end up proving the adage that just because someone is crazy doesn’t mean they’re wrong.
Russell has made a cause of the thousands of children kidnapped in Uganda and neighboring countries, and has been fighting to bring it to public attention for ten years. His organization has enlisted the support of politicians on both sides of the aisle in DC (and what else can you say that about these days?) and helped convince Obama to send military advisors to Uganda to aid in the capture of Kony, who tops the list of the International Criminal Court’s most-wanted-for-crimes-against-humanity. The eagerness to write him off seems to mirror the desire most people have when faced with international injustice to go back to sleep.