Here Comes Trouble: Stories from My Life

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John Feffer

John Feffer is co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies

March 21st, 2012 8:30 PM

When Kony Met Daisey

Should we let the truth get in the way of a good story?

Never let the truth stand in the way of a good story.

This aphorism, often attributed to humorist Mark Twain, seems to apply equally well to both theater and politics. Story, in these worlds of bright lights and monologues, is everything. Whether it's a political campaign (Romney is a flip-flopper) or a successful Broadway play (Mozart was an idiot savant), the message is the medium, and you can't afford to lose your audience. Don't throw too many details at them. Don't burden them with too much complexity. This isn't rocket science; this isn't academia. If your audience members lose sight of your overall message, they'll be confused when they walk out of the theater or into the voting booth. Confusion, of both the factual and moral varieties, can spell death for a play or a political campaign.   

Both Mike Daisey and Jason Russell are storytellers. But they're not just storytellers. Like Mark Twain, who was infuriated by Belgian colonial policies in the Congo, Daisey and Russell want to provoke us into doing something. And they have carefully crafted their stories toward that end. 

Russell, along with his colleagues in the organization Invisible Children, released the video Kony 2012 to launch a campaign to apprehend Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony and bring him to justice by the end of this year. The video has attracted more than 80 million viewers. Mike Daisey, the author and performer of the theater piece The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, recently appeared with an excerpt of his play on This American Life, the National Public Radio show hosted by Ira Glass. It was the most popular segment in the show's history with nearly a million downloads. Daisey's message — that Apple exploits low-wage workers in China — has stimulated a national debate on the technology giant's corporate conduct. 

And now, virtually simultaneously, both Russell and Daisey are under fire for not adhering to the literal truth. The narrator of the Kony 2012 video, Jason Russell, stands accused of sins of omission. A wave of blog posts, articles, and even counter-videos argue that his picture of Joseph Kony is out-of-date, his understanding of Uganda out-of-touch, and his call for military intervention seriously out-of-control. Mike Daisey has admitted to sins of commission in the wake of a Marketplace journalist's investigation and This American Life's unprecedented retraction of the show. Critics have piled on, even fans of the show like Peter Marks of The Washington Post, who tweeted that "zeal seems to have gotten the better of his judgment."

These sins are of very different magnitude. But before I explore these differences, let's look at the similarities between these two examples of storytelling "gone bad." 

The Kony 2012 video doesn't begin with Joseph Kony. It doesn't begin with Uganda or war crimes or Africa. It begins with you and me and a desire to connect through technology and tap into our common humanity. Then it continues to the birth of a child, Jason Russell's son, and then a promise that Russell made to a young Ugandan boy, Jacob, and then, only then, to Joseph Kony. This is a classic storytelling technique. To get the audience to care about something quite beyond their knowledge and perhaps their interest, you must first start with something they know. They know about Facebook. They know about little children. Joseph Kony is in many ways irrelevant to the story. The story is about how you and I, through the power of Facebook, can save children from evil. There is a fairytale aspect to this story. It's Harry Potter, with Kony as Voldemort. It's powerful. It's effective. And it's misleading.

Mike Daisey does something similar. He starts with something that so many of us know: an object of desire, an Apple product. And he confesses that he's an Apple fanboy. He starts his story by boldly telling us that he's no different from anyone else. He's seduced by iPhones and iPads and iEverything. He decides to go to China only after a kind of magical experience in which he reads about a fellow Apple fanatic who discovered several pictures on his brand-new iPhone, pictures that were taken in the factory that produced his iPhone. Daisey develops a desire to visit this mysterious place from whence his iGear comes from. He goes to China, but he wants us to know from the very beginning: Mike Daisey knows jack about China. Nor is he a journalist. In fact, all the journalists he talks to scoff at his plan to just show up at the gate of the FoxConn plant and interview workers outside. Mike Daisey is the innocent abroad. He is just like us. He's a fanboy on a quest for the origins of his obsession. It's Harry Potter, with Apple as Voldemort. It's powerful. It's effective. And, in a different way from Kony 2012, it's misleading. 

Both Daisey and Russell offer a relatively simple story line that conceals a great deal of technical mastery. For Daisey, the mastery is his way of putting together the narrative. The excerpt that This American Life aired features a steady accumulation of telling details, delivered with Daisey's Everyman style, from his Hawaiian shirt and the Chinese offramp exit that ends in a precipice to the underage workers and the man with a crippled hand who has never seen the iPad he spent so many years helping to make. Missing from this audio version are Daisey's physical touches: the expressive face, the maneuvering of his body in his chair, the mopping away of sweat. Still, he manages to build suspense with his voice alone. For Russell, meanwhile, the technical mastery is in the video editing: the photographs that appear 3D, the cross-cutting images, the technology that is always at our command. 

The mastery in both cases is in the service of a relatively simple story. In the world of advocacy, we are told over and over again that we must boil it down, we must stay on message, we must be clear in our ask. Joseph Kony is a bad man. He must be stopped. Even a child, like Russell's five-year-old, can understand this message. Apple produces beautiful products. But there is a worm in this Apple, and this worm is its corporate conduct in China. Apple must be stopped. If even a fanboy like Mike Daisey who knows next to nothing about China can understand this message, then surely you and I can understand it too.

Daisey and Russell are two geeky white guys who take us on a journey to a different world, the world of violence and pain that lies behind our relatively tranquil lives. They are our guides. There is an element of trust implicit in the role of guide. They introduce us to a couple people from these different worlds that we trust are somehow representative. We trust that the anecdotes the storytellers relate are not merely anecdotal. We believe that they are bringing home with them essential truths, like rare spices, from these distant lands. Even in an age of Apple iPads and Facebook, we need these human interfaces. And when these human links turn out to be weak links, our sense of betrayal generates outrage.

Yet these two apparently similar cases of truth-bending are in fact fundamentally different. They are different not so much in their approach to truth but in their approach to power.

Kony 2012, in order to both simplify its story and justify its conclusion, focuses on Joseph Kony. But Kony at this point is a vestige of what he once was, a warlord with little in the way of a following, a Ugandan who fled northern Uganda six years ago, a thug who aspires to be a threat. He is not Voldemort but the Wizard of Oz, whose omnipotence is almost entirely in the eye of the beholder. Nor is this malign wizard an obscure figure as the video suggests. "In fact global institutions have been seized with this issue for years," writes Jeremy Konyndyk of Mercy Corps, "starting with the important advocacy efforts of the UN's top humanitarian official back in 2003. Kony has been indicted by the International Criminal Court and is listed as a terrorist by the U.S. government. The UN Security Council has issued multiple resolutions relating to the LRA. From 2006 to 2008 an internationally-backed peace process ended the conflict in Northern Uganda. And since 2008, UN peacekeepers and the Ugandan military have been hunting the LRA across central Africa."

Worse, as Foreign Policy In Focus contributor Matthew Kavanagh argues in Why Kony 2012 Fails, "in framing the problem as simply a question of arresting an evil man, it makes an indefensible omission: the role of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and that of the U.S. in the region. In this omission, and in its ahistorical political analysis, Invisible Children offers its one solution: U.S. military intervention. And so it calls on millions of American youth to save the Africans by supporting the presence of U.S. soldiers in a region the movie actually says remarkably little about—a solution that is, at best, insufficient and most likely disastrous when understood in context." 

Adding U.S. soldiers to this mix, as Kony 2012 urges, is superficially attractive. Why not put more hunters on the trail, particularly if the hunters are equipped with the latest technology? But Washington already attempted something similar in a failed AFRICOM expedition three years ago that only prodded Kony to redouble his efforts. The endpoint of Kony 2012's advocacy is built on everything that preceded it. Military intervention is only necessary if Kony is still a viable threat, other means are not more likely to be productive, and military intervention doesn't do more harm than good. But the sins of omission are essential to the project, for if more information is supplied and greater complexity understood, the final recommendation turns out to be not only flawed but counter-productive. The end does not justify the meme.

Daisey's sins of commission are certainly significant. He made up numbers -- the number of factories he visited, the number of workers he interviewed. He describes events and people as if he experienced them firsthand when in fact he only read about them. Perhaps most importantly, he seems to have created some of his most telling details from whole cloth. "The most powerful and memorable moments in the story all seem to be fabricated," concludes Ira Glass in a recent This American Life show devoted to nothing but the Daisey retraction. 

Glass and Daisey go head to head in this show, and their discussion of truth seems almost surreal. "I believe that when I perform it in a theatrical context in the theater that when people hear the story in those terms that we have different languages for what the truth means," Daisey asserts. Glass strenuously disagrees: "I understand that you believe that but I think you’re kidding yourself in the way that normal people who go to see a person talk – people take it as a literal truth. I thought that the story was literally true seeing it in the theater." Really, Ira? Are theatergoers so naive as to believe that what they see on stage presented as a true story is literally true? I would hate to see David Sedaris subjected to a comparable Marketplace investigation. I can just hear the journalist asking, "Mr. Sedaris, did you actually say all those things as a SantaLand elf? Word for word? Or did you just conclude after the fact that you would have liked to have said those things at the time?" But of course, Sedaris was not urging a boycott of Macy's as a result of his treatment as an elf.  

What makes this back-and-forth particularly odd is that it mirrors a recent book composed entirely of letters exchanged between the writer of an article and his fact checker. In The Lifespan of a Fact, a scrupulous fact checker challenges a rather unscrupulous essayist about the myriad changes and distortions in the latter's article about a suicide in Las Vegas. Readers expect the truth from non-fiction, says the fact checker. Readers expect art, says the writer.  

Personally, as a journalist who has ventured into the world of dramatic monologues in the last three years, I find myself caught in the middle. I am furious at writers who cut corners in order to enhance their stories. It's like a ballplayer who uses steroids, a tone-deaf singer who lip-syncs. But I also recognize that theater is a different world, that remembered or reconstructed dialogue is something fundamentally different from a taped interview. Journalists and dramatists might seem to be embarked on the same mission — to tell a compelling story — but their approach to their material is very different. The problem, as Daisey has said, is that he shouldn't have appeared on This American Life with its presumption of journalistic ethics. The problem, as Glass has said, is that Daisey takes on some of the attributes of a journalist, and its attendant virtues, even as he strenuously denies that he is a journalist.

Once, working on a monologue about a trip to a Jewish cemetery in Poland, I was trying to streamline a section involving a taxi driver and a farmer. "Take out the farmer," my director urged me. "But the farmer was there," I said. "How can I take him out?" My director shrugged. "It makes a simpler and more effective story without the farmer." The essential truth of the story remained the same without the farmer. Just as the essential truth of the story would not have been altered if I'd added in what I'd eaten for lunch that day, the music playing inside the taxi, or the precise number of headstones in the cemetery. In telling stories, we must be selective. We must discard everything but the core, the essence. Journalists are not immune from this law, and they too must be judged by what they leave out. Even the 9.5-hour, scrupulously researched documentary Shoah somehow manages to omit the evidence that contradicts its central implication that Poles are inherently anti-Semitic.  

With all these sins of commission, Mike Daisy's larger points remain true. “What makes this a little complicated,” reports the Marketplace journalist who investigated the story, “is that the things Daisey lied about are things that have actually happened in China: Workers making Apple products have been poisoned by hexane. Apple’s own audits show the company has caught underage workers at a handful of its suppliers. These things are rare, but together, they form an easy-to-understand narrative about Apple.” And it's not like these abuses that take place in China, and which Apple knows about, can't be avoided. Producing an iPhone in the United States would cost from $10-$65 extra, according to The New York Times team that dug into Apple's corporate conduct and confirmed many of Daisey's charges. Apple, moreover, is sitting on a $100-billion cash surplus. It has just announced that it will distribute $45 billion to its shareholders over the next three years. Why isn't some of that money going toward eliminating the occupational safety and health problems in its supply chain?

We are addicted to good stories and always have been, judging from cave paintings of exciting hunts. But we are also attracted to the truth, however we understand this shimmering, shape-shifting ideal. The journalist and the dramatist must navigate between the siren call of story and the rocky shoals of truth. Both Jason Russell and Mike Daisey wrecked their ships. We should judge them not simply by their navigational skills, or lack thereof, but also the things they carried. 

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