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Liars, and how to spot them

I was had by Mike Daisey.

When “This American Life” aired an excerpt from his monologue about working conditions in the Apple factories, I believed every word. I shared it with friends. It was an amazing, thought-provoking angle on modern life.

It turns out it was horseshit, as was painfully clear after listening to Ira Glass’s devastating interviews with Daisey on this weekend’s follow-up program. TAL called its first show on the topic “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory.” The second one was called, glumly, “Retraction.”

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Daisey’s Apple story is just one of two ambitious, popular works of communication to unravel under scrutiny this year.

The other is Kony 2012, a slickly packaged video from a nonprofit organization called Invisible Children, which aims to help Ugandan children by toppling Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony. Thanks to a celebrity-backed social media campaign, the video was viewed more than 70 million times its first week of release, and it seemed to connect especially with young people.

It now turns out the Kony 2012 video is, at best, a warped view of a complicated situation. It was met with withering criticism by people in the international aid community, who questioned the group’s financing and organizational capabilities, and called it an example of both slactivism and Colonial-style condescension. I haven’t seen anyone accuse Kony 2012 of out-right lying, but they are guilty of failing to present a full picture, and you’d be misguided to believe anything else they publish. The man who created and narrated the film, Jason Russel, was arrested last week amid what sounds like a breakdown related to the stress of sudden fame.

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In retrospect, it seems crazy that we fall for these ploys. One bumbling American managed to penetrate the secrets of Chinese labor abuses during a week-long tour? A bunch of kids in California are our resident experts on Ugandan politics?

It also brings to mind other too-good-to-be true stories passed off as truth by some journalists (Janet Cooke, Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair) and especially, memoirist James Frey.

(A separate conversation is whether works of monologue and memoir should meet journalist standards of truth. They should. Unlike a movie recreations of nonfiction works, such as “The Social Network,” or “All The Presidents Men,” the audience is buying the opportunity to read or hear a first-person, eye-witness narrative. If your customers are buying truth and you’re selling them a “version of the truth,” you’re a counterfeiter.)

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Back to Daisey and Russel. Things go wrong when people’s ability to communicate outpaces the quality of their content.

I have never been in such a situation, but I can imagine this frustration. You have mastered writing. You have mad oratory; a TED-Talk-like ability to announce facts with slow, impassioned confidence. You have a platform, and incredible marketing tools at your disposal. You’re young, and your peers look up to you with awe. Everyone is listening to you. Never mind how you got here: What will you say with this opportunity?

And then you run out of things to say. Maybe life experience has delivered one or two neat little narratives, but you’ve already cashed them in. The real work — digging up facts, extracting deep insights from strangers — is difficult and risks derailing your confidence. Yet you cannot deliver a work marred by doubt and incomplete information; you’d be wasting your talents. You’d forfeit that platform you worked so hard to earn. You’d lose out to some younger, smarter communicator who will arrive with a more elegant narrative than yours, and win the hearts and minds you deserve.

And so you fudge things a little bit. In service to the greater truth.

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Gathering information and communicating information are two different skillsets. It’s nice to be good at both, but it’s no requirement for success. Plenty of writers (both fiction and nonfiction) hire researchers to help gather information, and plenty of knowledgable activists and academics hire writers to help them communicate. Do what you’re good at. Ask for help with what you’re not.

For us in the audience, we now know to watch for lone prophets who emerge with fantastic stories no one else has. Mike Daisey and Jason Russel’s whispering, melodic deliveries put us all under hypnosis. They’re great communicators. Great communicators can be wrong.

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Update, 9:30 a.m.: Further reading: David Carr tackles this very same subject in today’s New York Times. Read his column here.

— By Daryl Lang. Filed under News & Journalism

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