these american lies

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(Before we begin, good news: this sentence is the only time the word “truthiness” is going to appear anywhere in the essay.)

America, its materialising spirit, its indifference to the poetical side of things, and its lack of imagination and of high unattainable ideals, are entirely due to its having adopted for its national hero a man who, according to his own confession, was incapable of telling a lie, and it is not too much to say that the story of George Washington and the cherry tree has done more harm, and in a shorter space of time, than any other moral tale in the whole of literature.
-Oscar Wilde, “The Decay of Lying”

Since last summer, I’ve been planning to write something protesting This American Life; in the meantime, the situation of the show has more than caught up. It’s been a terrible week. Regardless of my distate for This American Life (TAL) and for #KONY2012, I had no desire to see them disgraced like this. It serves no-one. It’s not good for Africa, the labor situation in China, public radio, or conversations about the media. Conservatives, who are probably still convinced that Michael Moore is a liar, must be having a fantastic weekend congratulating themselves for being distrustful isolationists. “Before we get involved in petitions against Apple or manhunts in Uganda, we better know who’s in charge, eh?”

These very recent events also have important larger contexts, including a specific conversation about truth and falsehood in the media, furthered by John D’Agata’s astonishing attempt to defend admitted lies in The Lifespan of a Fact, which chronicles his dispute with his proofreader at The Believer, and which was published all of three weeks ago. In last year’s wonderful essay collection Pulphead, John Jeremiah Sullivan played games of truth in his essay about animal attacks, although there the reader’s not left in the dark.

Beyond the deserved public disgrace of Mike Daisey, what to make of all this? On Twitter, @USelaine linked to a post by NYU professor Jay Rosen on the subject, and it’s a great place to start. Rosen:

I don’t think the emphasis on Daisey’s lies is misplaced. I don’t think This American Life is evading accountability. However, there is one way in which I lean in your direction.

This American Life is about stories. No word is more basic to the show than that… “story.” You could almost say that the show fetishizes the “story” as object. I think Ira Glass could have dug a little deeper into why he and his team made that fatal error and broadcast the segment even though they could not fully check it with the translator. They could have adopted as a working hypothesis that such an error was years in the making, not an isolated slip-up but something that cut deeper. If they had done that, they might have begun to question whether it is possible to fall too deeply in love with “stories” and their magical effects; whether that kind of love erodes skepticism, even when you are telling yourself to be skeptical; whether Ira and his colleagues in some way wanted Daisey’s stories to be 100 percent true, whether this wish interfered with their judgment, whether there isn’t something just a little too cultish about the cult of “the story” on This American Life.

They did not go there. But they could have. And maybe they should have.

Rosen’s right, TAL does goes overboard when it comes to story. In preparing to write this, I went back and listened to the one TAL episode I downloaded after I first got interested in analyzing it. The show aired last September, and is titled “Living Without.” I hadn’t been listening for five minutes when Glass began to introduce a story about a man who has severe tinnitus. Before the story begins, Glass tells us “we bring you four stories about people giving things up, some voluntarily, some not.” He says this offhandedly, in the same tone he uses for everything, but he’s nonetheless telling us exactly what every story will “mean.” We can infer for ourselves that most of these stories will be about acceptance, and the show doesn’t disappoint. At the end of the first story, we hear a very young woman (his daughter?) telling the protagonist “I think hearing that tone has made you more patient.” He’s given up hoping for a cure, and that’s “the part about acceptance.” Glass adds afterward that although he had to give up his baseball career, he’s finally beginning to enjoy just watching the game.

This story is particularly offensive because it’s so emphatically in favor of his resignation, but the structure is even more salient than the optimism. Glass notes that the story was recorded by a small affiliate station, and tells listeners where to go if they want to learn “how to tell a story for radio.” Presumably, one thing they’ll learn is that you should announce the meaning of the story before it begins, re-stating at the end, exactly as you would in a high school essay.

This moral tyrannizes over the story, enforcing a tone of bittersweet acquiescence from start to finish. One of the consistent ironies of TAL is that most stories feature dialogues between people, and since you can hear them, the listener’s invited to savor the contrasts between young and old voices, native and accented English, the suave and the weathered. These dialogues suggest pluralism: many people speaking in turn, exchanging accounts of something that happened, even airing disagreements. This, however, is nothing but an effect. Real pluralism can’t survive under the rule of a life lesson, and that’s the downfall of the show, that almost everything is a life lesson. As a joke, I was going to post on Twitter that Ira Glass was now working for Twitter, and that the new motto was “Twitter. Extraordinary People. Ordinary Stories.” I realized the joke wouldn’t be funny, in part because right now the facts are too painful.

TAL has carved out a niche as an American substitute for literature. It’s available as a free podcast, so it’s cheaper than literature. It’s an audio program, so it’s more portable than literature, and more easy to combine with other activities (driving, the gym, etc). I’m not saying TAL’s audience doesn’t read; actually, I’d guess that audience reads much more than the American average. Still, among the people I know, the convenience of TAL makes it a more consistent practice than reading for pleasure. There is, of course, no inherent reason why public radio couldn’t be producing radio plays or having stories and poems read out loud. They’re respecting the audience’s wishes! The audience wants “true life” stories, easy to digest and even easier to simply marvel at. The subtext of many TAL stories is Ripley’s Believe-It-Or-Not: Can you believe Noriega wrote to a little girl? Can you believe that two old sisters dress the same? Well, maybe you can believe that, but can you believe ONE WOMAN is a CHIMERA with the DNA of TWO DIFFERENT PEOPLE? OR DID I JUST BLOW YOUR MIND? Thanks to irrelevancies like Glass’s voice and persona, TAL appears loftier than it really is.

Oscar Wilde’s point, in the quote above, is that we apply a different standard to “true life” stories than we apply to literature. If I tell you I met Beyonce and Jay-Z at a dinner party, that’s automatically “a story.” If I just say that I fantasize about having dinner with them, not only is it not a story, but it’s so lame that most people will seek to change the subject. The same goes for moral lessons. If I write a story about The Golden Rule, it’s likely to fail, unless something about it is surprising and challenging. If, on the other hand, I tell a true story about reciprocity, our standards get lower, because we’re eager to hear that the real world does, in fact, repay moral behavior.

The symmetrical, meaning-rich nature of stories makes them emotional for us. They are potentially much more powerful than any array of facts, even if the facts are about something alarming, such as sweatshops or global warming. As the emotional power of TAL created a larger and larger audience for its programs, it was natural for the producers to feel increasingly responsible to this huge audience, to the point where they wanted to have an immediate impact on a present-day issue: factory conditions in China. They went out of their depth and got exactly the story they deserved, a piece of “theater” by a guy who couldn’t distinguish between facts and implied meanings. By “implied meanings,” I’m talking about the huge set of probabilities that follow from one mid-size story. We know that some Apple employee, surely, has been maimed in a factory. We know for a fact that some workers have been poisoned. In a novel, you can centralize all that, but in a news story there is a necessary looseness to conjunctions of facts.

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Here are some points of departure — since, in today’s story, we ask the question “Where do we go from here?”

The things that so-called “post-structuralist” theory tried to prove about literature apply much more consistently to journalism. If a journalist is interviewing a dictator, and is lucky enough to see the dictator suddenly risk his life to save another man from drowning, he probably has to report that, even though it will disrupt what his story’s supposed to “mean.” His readers would rather ponder the contradiction than miss out on the facts. That’s why D’Agata’s defense of fudging is so misguided. In the case of the dictator the irony is blatant. In most cases, as with D’Agata’s story about Vegas, the reporter might not even know all the complexities in play. It may seem like there’s absolutely no difference between 31 versus 34 strip clubs in Vegas, and in a novel there wouldn’t be. But since this is real life, and the implications of the story are beyond what the reporter can fathom, he has to stick with the number 31.

Scandals like this are going to keep on happening if consumers continue to take the truth-value of fiction so lightly. Twilight really does contain a theory of sexuality, and it’s mostly a bad theory, making sex out to be violent, male, and sinful. The books are also poorly written. People justified reading Meyer on the grounds that it was “entertaining,” a “guilty pleasure.” So what happens to the desire to have both truth and story together, simultaneously, in the same narrative? A special report on China by TAL. That may seem exaggerated, but remember this isn’t the first time TAL has bitten off more than it could chew. The first time was when it tried to expand into television, and failed, because Americans are serious about television. If they want entertainment, they can get juicier material than the struggle to accept tinnitus. If they want truth, they can watch any one of the critically-acclaimed shows — one familiar example being The Wire — that tell false stories in a true way. TAL was caught in the middle and sank.

We’ve got to find a way of feeling things without turning emotions into an absolute. Just the other day, I was reading responses to the “Goldman-Sachs letter” in which, as I wrote in The Grand Fork, folks on Twitter were “confessing” that they were “underwhelmed” by it. The implication was that being underwhelmed proves something, which it doesn’t. For all I know, the tweeter was tired or distracted when they read Smith’s letter. It’s a sneaky way of making an objective political argument via what seems like simple honesty. We’re so worried about people feeling enough of the right emotions that many people defended the shallow narrative of #KONY2012 on rhetorical grounds: sure, it’s superficial, but it’s going to stir up righteous emotions. Now we have to deal with the fallout. In order to be so “emotional,” #KONY2012 took a page from TAL and showed Jason Russell having an (interminable) discussion with his son about the “bad guys.” Now that he’s been arrested for public intoxication and masturbation, the fact that his arrest isn’t relevant to Uganda can’t put the matter to rest, because the original approach was full of equally irrelevant material. Emotionally, the film asked us to get involved in an issue because a nice father with a nice son were involved. Russell staked the video on our perception of him, and it’s too late to reframe now.

The most basic assumption, common to both TAL and #KONY2012, is a formula. EMOTION + REAL EVENT = AUDIENCE TAKES ACTION. Even this assumption has to get more complex. There has to be something people can do. If there is, a novel works just fine, as with Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle. If there’s not, as with Kony, it’s all empty gestures. Sullivan wrote an essay full of real facts about the rising incidence and ferocity of attacks by animals on human beings. He theorized, plausibly, that these attacks are the result of the environmental pressure we are now putting on every animal population on Earth. The false part was the man he supposedly interviewed, a quirky environmentalist with David Duchovny’s X-Files cool. (For example, when he sends Sullivan information, he confidently dismisses skepticism with a simple “see for yourself. You’ll be back.”) Sullivan invents him as a satire on our need to localize stories in people. A bunch of information about animal attacks is just scary. We don’t know what solutions exist, or where even to look. A sympathetic crusader informing people about these attacks puts us at ease. It means we’ve done something just by believing him.

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In a vacuum, TAL will absorb this. It’s already begun to to do so with the latest podcast. Ten years from now, there will be a TAL about “Imposters,” including (after the break) “a story about the imposter who tricked the very people here at our program.”

Peronally, I plan to start small. The next time I hear Glass beginning to explain what a story is about, I will respond:

WAIT! WAIT! DON’T TELL ME!

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