A compelling story is carefully crafted. It’s released into the world and it spreads exponentially. Suddenly, the masses are aware of and care about an issue that wasn’t even on their radar the week before. This is a good thing, but then the movement starts to come undone.
The pressure of such widespread exposure causes cracks to form in the narrative. Attention often means a mixture of both adoration and scrutiny, but the narrative was only built in preparation for the adoration. It was never designed to hold up to skilled or persistent scrutiny.
In the end, reputations are seriously tarnished, the original issue is buried amid the controversy, and the general public moves onto the next thing, determined to be a little less susceptible next time. That’s the last time I retweet a feel-good story, they tell themselves. Anyone who purports to be a do-gooder is probably just selling something.
I feel like this story plays out over and over again on both micro and macro scales, from fish stories to James Frey to Bernie Madoff to the claims of a televangelist under investigation. Most recently, this is the story of Mike Daisey, the man made famous by a recent episode of This American Life for his tale of visiting factories in Shenzhen, China, where Apple products are manufactured.
Last week, Ira Glass and This American Life announced they’d discovered serious problems with Daisey’s narrative, and they presented these problems in episode #460, simply titled, “Retraction.” In my opinion, this episode is required listening for communicators and storytellers. (Okay, I think all episodes of TAL are required listening, but this one especially.)
What I hope we take away from all this is a commitment not just to outcomes when we communicate, but a foundational commitment to truth and authenticity when we communicate.
Jesus said the truth sets us free (John 8:32), which implies that anything less than the truth can have the opposite effect. Dishonesty binds us, as evidenced in this exchange between host Ira Glass and Mike Daisy in “Retraction”:
Glass: “… Instead you lied further and told us the workers were from WinTech, not Foxconn. Why not just tell us what really happened at that point?”
Daisey: “I think I was terrified.”
Glass: “Of what?”
(another long pause)
Daisey: “I think I was terrified that if I untied these things, the work I know is really good and tells a story, that does these really great things for making people care, that it would come apart in a way where it would ruin everything.”
Daisey admits that he fabricated, embellished, and rearranged for dramatic effect. Daisey admits that his narrative was built for the theater, and he apologizes for allowing it to be a part of This American Life because his work does not meet TAL’s journalistic standards. But he maintains that he stands by his work and he stands by the way it makes people feel.
He seems to say that the ends (convincing people to care about factory conditions in China where American gadgets are made) justify the means (mixing truth and fiction). For my part, I don’t believe this. Ever.
It was all the way back in 2005 when Stephen Colbert introduced us to the word “truthiness,” the idea that what feels right trumps what might be factually right. “I don’t trust books,” he said (tongue firmly planted in check, of course), “they’re all facts and no heart.”
As communicators with a high calling, truthiness isn’t good enough. Not when we have truth that sets people free.
Scott McClellan is the Editor of Echo Hub and the Director of Echo Conference. You can follow him on Twitter: @scottmcclellan.