The Seduction of Narrative

Last November, somebody who is now at the center of a media storm said this:

The way our media is currently constructed, that story isn’t being told in a way that actually reaches and connects with people, and has a consequence. Most of us are very ignorant of what is going on.

Who do you think might have said this and what is that story about? Global warming? Rural poverty? The war on drugs?

It was Mike Daisey, explaining backstage in a New York theater, why he undertook to tell a story that he believes journalism wasn’t equipped to tell. That story, about his experiences investigating a factory in China that makes iphones, was adapted in January for the popular This American Life radio program. On Friday, This American Life retracted that show and ran an extraordinary segment  that unravels the fabrications in Daisy’s tale, which were recently uncovered by another reporter.

As Max Fisher lays out in The Atlantic, here’s the unfortunate truth that Daisey has undermined:

When Mike Daisey lied to national radio audiences on This American Life, lied to the 888,000 people who downloaded the podcast (the most in the show’s history), and lied to who-knows-how-many theater audiences over two years of performing his one-man show The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, he wasn’t wrong about the Chinese labor abuses that go into making iPads and other beloved American gadgets. He wasn’t wrong that Chinese workers are often subjected to horrific conditions, wasn’t wrong that Apple’s supervision of its contractor’s factories has been problematic, and wasn’t wrong that we American consumers bear an indirect but troubling moral responsibility for these abuses.

Most importantly, Mike Daisey wasn’t wrong that it is possible for Chinese authorities and Apple to substantially improve labor conditions — without making their products any more expensive or less competitive — and that American consumers can help make this happen. But he was wrong that embellishing his story would help, that bad behavior in service of a good cause ever does.

That’s one take home lesson (which apologists for Peter Gleick’s recent deceit  seem tone deaf to) for those who champion any cause.

A second cautionary lesson involves the use of storytelling to advance a cause. In his analysis of the second This American Life episode, David Carr observes:

Mr. Daisey, to his credit, appeared on the show for an awkward and occasionally excruciating interview, but was mostly evasive, arguing that some characters and events had been invented in service of a greater narrative truth.

This is known as the means-justify-the-ends rationale.

Carr also hints at something (“I am a longtime fan of This American Life, but I have never assumed that every story I heard was literally true.”) that Jay Rosen pokes at:

Is it possible to fall too deeply in love with “stories?” Where [host] Ira Glass did not go in his Retraction but should have.

At his Tumblr blog, Rosen notes that Glass could have examined why he went ahead with the initial broadcast lauding Daisey’s work, even after some red flags went up. Rosen offers some insight into this:
You could almost say that the [This American Life] 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 [Chinese] translator…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.
A less charitable and somewhat similar critique of Glass has also been offered up in this interesting post by Nathanael Edward Bassett. And I am only scraping the surface of what’s been written of the Daisey scandal. (Two other essays I found excellent can be read here and here.) But for my money, it is Carr who gets to the heart of what matters most when he asks at the outset of his NYT column:

Is it O.K. to lie on the way to telling a greater truth? The short answer is also the right one.



40 Responses to “The Seduction of Narrative”

  1. Roddy Campbell says:

    I read the whole script of the ‘retraction’, which was of course much more than a retraction in that it also praiseworthily retold the underlying story alongside the new Daisey story.  It was about as perfect at not leaving unanswered questions as it could be imho.  So I think ‘uncharitable’ critiques are just that.  And ones that critique TAL for its MO (narrative trumps journalism) must above all acknowledge the journalistic excellence of the retraction.

  2. grypo says:

    The comparison of Daisy to Gleick only works if he is found to be the writer of the fake memo.   Gleick’s lie was not about the subject matter to which he was exposing, it was about his own identity.  Embellishment through lying is a different ethical issue which is what happened in the Apple story.  

    Otherwise you are discussing journalistic or personal ethics – which in Gleick’s case aren’t fuzzy – but you must admit, there are fuzzy situations in journalism, such as, “To Catch a Predator” or using nonverbal cues to obtain information.  I believe Revkin has said that using dress (although not uniforms) to be in the right place to get info is not considered a problem at mainstream news sources.

  3. Michael Larkin says:

    “Is it O.K. to lie on the way to telling a greater truth? The short answer is also the right one. No.”
    Even more, “no” is the answer to the question: “Is it O.K. to lie in an attempt to make a greater lie seem true?

  4. Jonathan Gilligan says:

    Felix Salmon also has a very intelligent commentary which connects Daisey to the Kony 2012 business and quotes journalist Rebecca Hamilton saying this: “To build a mass movement quickly, it helps to have an over-simplified, emotive narrative with a single demand. It also helps to tells people that by doing easy tasks ““ sharing a link on Facebook, buying a bracelet “” they can save lives. Central to the formula is that the agency of local actors gets downplayed to hype up the importance of action by outsiders.”

    Hamilton’s comment about over-simplified narratives and saving the world by taking insignificant actions applies to many environmental issues too.

  5. harrywr2 says:

    Is it O.K. to lie on the way to telling a greater truth?
    The question is one of time frames. Lie’s have shelf lives.
    If the greater truth needs to exist past the shelf life of the lie then the greater truth will end up being damaged by the lie.

  6. Jeff Norris says:


    You maybe writing about this theme for a few more weeks

      Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock’s office is conducting a civil investigation into nonprofit governance issues concerning the board and management of CAI. This includes reviewing allegations of improper financial benefit to Greg Mortenson through the royalties, speaking fees, and travel reimbursements associated with the books Mr. Mortenson wrote, as well as financial oversight of the nonprofit by Mortenson and its board of directors.
    The investigation is not focused on determining the truth of information included in Mr. Mortenson’s books or whether that amounted to fraud.
    The investigation of CAI and Mr. Mortenson is a high priority for this office, and we expect to make public the results of our investigation sometime in mid-March

  7. Keith Kloor says:

    grypo (2),

    So you don’t see any existing cautionary lessons from the Gleick affair? Cause even without the issue of the memo’s legitimacy, I can think of a few. (And BTW, I believe the truth will come out about the memo in due time.)

    Jonathan (4),

    Yes, Salmon’s essay was excellent and I linked to it in a parens at end of my post.

    Jeff (6)

    I had the 3 Cups of Tea controversy in mind while writing this post. 

  8. BBD says:

    Is it O.K. to lie on the way to telling a greater truth? The short answer is also the right one.


    And it is even worse to tell lies on the way to telling a greater lie.

    In his recent American Thinker piece, Singer repeats a lie he has told before:

    But what if there is little to no warming between 1978 and 2000?  What if the data from thousands of poorly distributed weather stations do not represent a true global warming? The atmospheric temperature record between 1978 and 2000 (both from satellites and, independently, from radiosondes) doesn’t show a warming.  Neither does the ocean.

    Here’s Singer, lying in comments on the Nature blog, November 2011:
    But unlike the land surface, the atmosphere has shown no warming trend, either over land or over ocean “” according to satellites and independent data from weather balloons.

    Here is the truth. Satellite. Radiosonde. OHC.

    But were the sceptics howling on that thread? Did anyone even *acknowledge* the lie Singer repeated? No and no.

    In fact prominent ‘sceptics’ lie about the science continually. Day in and day out. When this is pointed out to the fan club, its members go deaf, dumb and blind.

    I think our ‘sceptical’ friends need to bear this in mind before making any more fuss about Gleick.


  9. Keith Kloor says:

    At his blog, Roger Pielke Jr. writes

    “The Mike Daisey case ought to prompt some soul-searching among scientists (who seek to communicate to the public and policy makers) and journalists more generally, as the issues implicated by his fabrications are far more common than many would like to admit.”

    I largely agree with this and the thrust of Roger’s post, though I do disagree with him on his interpretation of this Mike Lemonick article

  10. OPatrick says:

    Keith @7
    So you don’t see any existing cautionary lessons from the Gleick affair?

    How does that question follow from what grypo wrote? And surely if you expect the truth to come out about the memo in due course wouldn’t it make sense to draw lessons from it then?

    Other than the Gleick case are there other examples of miscommunication that you want to point to in the climate debate? Your article seems to imply this is common and it is certain that a large number of your readers will interpret it in that way, though only in the one direction. So could you be more specific?

  11. grypo says:

    For Gleick, there are cautionary tales for prominent people in getting involved in unethical behaviors, but this is much different than what happened with Daisy, until the Heartland story develops further.  

     I believe the truth will come out about the memo in due time 

    While I also believe this could be probable, it begs the question, do you know something we don’t about this?  

  12. grypo forgets that Gleick
    1. lied to heartland
    2. lied to the 15.
    Those lies dont matter.
    As far as stories go, you must be aware that one of the archtypal motifs in all forgeries frauds and hoaxes is the untraceable provenance trick.
    When I hear Gleicks story about getting a note in the mail, I’m reminded instantly of other forgers and frauds.
    My favorite is the Starchild skull.

  13. jeffn says:

    The Daisey story is reminder of a couple of the dangers of arrogance.
    First is the ease with which arrogance makes you lazy- “I know X, therefore it is simply a waste of time to prove X, to answer questions from those who doubt X, or to consider any data that contradicts X.” Call it the Hockey Stick problem.
    The second is the messianic complex- you so love the world that you will do whatever it takes in order to hasten mankind’s recognition of your awesome power to heal. Doubters must not only be ignored – but damned for their heresy. Call it the Gleick/Curry yin/yang syndrome.
    As for this being “far more common than many would like to admit”- well, yeah, and it’s a big problem. After DDT, Hurricane/AGW claims, anti-nuclear hysterics, the Population Bomb, fracking, the “cheap and easy” conversion to windmills etc etc etc. the safest response to any green-gang press release is to assume it’s 99% BS and you’ll never find out which 1% is true. 
    That’s problematic on an issue where “science” has jumped in bed with the advocates who write the press releases. Add to that a refusal to be questioned (much less doubted) and a media that’s happy to publish the releases as Gospel (as This American Life initially did with Daisey), and you have recipe for a disaster- a pedestal nobody can climb down from. Witness the fact that in many quarters Ehrlich is still “highly respected,” Romm is still “essential” reading to many.
    By the way- I wonder what the reaction would be if it had been the Cato Institute that called out Daisey. A demand for donor lists, probably- right BBD?

  14. grypo says:

    I didn’t forget that and that should be rather obvious.  I’ve mentioned his unethical behavior.  But people who want a full version of the truth might want to parse out behaviors a bit.  

  15. Speaking for myself, I think the evidence does suggest that Gleick probably forged the strategy memo himself, which would put him in the same ethical space as people like Mike Daisey, or Jason Russell of Invisible Children, Inc. (creator of the Kony video).

    I’m not as optimistic as Keith is about the truth eventually coming out about the strategy memo, though I’d certainly like to get proof one way or the other. 

  16. harrywr2 says:

    Here’s Singer, lying in comments on the Nature blog, November 2011:
    But unlike the land surface, the atmosphere has shown no warming trend, either over land or over ocean “” according to satellites
    Dr Singer said ‘atmosphere’…not the ‘Lower Troposphere’.
    Here are the graphs for various altitudes of the atmosphere
    Some portions of the atmosphere are warming…other portions seem pretty flat and other portions are cooling.
    So what is the truth…you pointing to the lower troposphere trend(a small portion of the atmosphere)  as a rebuttal against Fred Singers statement as to the trend for the atmosphere or Fred Singer’s original statement?
    Standard radiative physics says adding ‘greenhouse gases’ to the atmosphere will cause the lower troposphere to warm and the stratosphere to cool. By volume the stratosphere is larger.
    Science of Doom provides very good information on radiative physics.

  17. BBD says:

    Steve Mosher
    But Heartland lies all the time. Singer lies on behalf of Heartland (see above # 8).
    Is this going to be another thread when the real lies that really matter are ignored in favour of much hypocritical shrilling about how evil Gleick is?

  18. BBD says:

    By the way- I wonder what the reaction would be if it had been the Cato Institute that called out Daisey. A demand for donor lists, probably- right BBD?
    See # 8 and # 16.

  19. MarkB says:

    The first time I heard about Daisey was this story. And the first question I thought it raised was why did the material go on the air. Glass himself admits it shouldn’t have, so I’m not claiming any great insight here. I haven’t listened to the retraction show, but from the coverage it seems like Glass never looked in the mirror. Obviously, the story was just too good for him to hold it back. Glass knows his audience, and he knows that the story would support their prejudices. And he was right, based on downloads.
    In fact, of course, conditions at Apple-related factories are BETTER than in other facilities. Chinese people are lined up by the thousands trying to get jobs at the factory Daisey visited. This fact has been very well reported – journalists have made minor careers covering this stuff. Needless to say they will never be invited on This American LIfe to tell their stories. Because the fact that Chinese factories run by Chinese for the Chinese market are much worse for workers than those supplying American corporations for  the American market. As Glass knows, that fact will not entertain the pseudo-anti-corporate yuppies who listen to his show.

  20. Roddy Campbell says:

    MarkB – read the transcript of the retraction show and see what you think.

  21. Tom Scharf says:

    “Fraudulent but accurate” does immense damage to your cause.  It allows the perpetrators off the hook, and after the initial big stink is over, subsequent unveiling of “not fraudulent but accurate” stories are dismissed by the media and the public.  

    The threshold for being taking seriously becomes much higher, almost to the point of requiring a confession by the perpetrator.  Plenty of examples of this all across the political spectrum.

    Credibility is something you need to earn, and once lost, is difficult to earn back.  With AGW this is particularly problematic because they are basing the immediate call to action on unverifiable predictions.

    As far as Apple goes, the media is in the tank for Apple 100x more than they are for climate change.  Compare coverage against Microsoft, Samsung, etc.  They absolutely fawn over them.  Puff pieces galore.  The amount of free advertising they get is incredible.  Front page articles at every media outlet for each new product release.  You can’t buy that anywhere.  Immensely frustrating to competitors.

    On the other hand, it is clearly what people want to read about, so be it.  Some journalists are off the chart fan boys (Pogue, etc.).  Case in point is I saw a huge number of stories on the retraction, and never even was aware of the original story. 

  22. MarkB says:

    Some people see the practice of changing the subject in discussion threads like this one to be a moral failing. While that may be, I prefer to think of it in terms on intelligence. Life is full of little intelligence tests. After all, we don’t need out intelligence to fill in multiple choice questions with #2 pencils in classrooms. In this case, the test is, when confronted with a challenge, do you respond with a relevant answer, or do you change the subject?
    Your test has been scored.

  23. BBD says:

    Mark B
    Wriggle, wriggle, wriggle.

  24. BBD says:

    harrywr2 @ 16
    Please, don’t embarrass us both by trying to pretend that Singer wasn’t lying. I have a certain amount of respect for you and I’d like to keep it that way.

  25. kdk33 says:

    I understand Singer is in the pay of “big oil”, and smokes cigarettes.  He probably drives an SUV and hangs out with Richard Lindzen. 

  26. BBD says:

    I’m more concerned about the lying he does. And claiming that neither the atmosphere nor the oceans have warmed since 1978 is a lie. A serious one.
    I find Singer’s lie here far worse than the phishing and alleged faking of the memo by Gleick, not least because Singer is *repeating* his falsehoods. Knowingly.
    Here, again, are the relevant graphs:


    Either Singer is abysmally incompetent as a scientist or he is shockingly dishonest. Yet all we hear about is PG. That’s the index of the utter hypocrisy of the ‘sceptic’ camp.

  27. […] morning he posted “The Seduction of Narrative,” a piece that helpfully aggregates some of the best commentary on the big misstep by the […]

  28. Sashka says:

    The averaging by volume is clearly a dishonest argument. Of course the averaging must be mass-weighted.

    That said, I believe the GCMs reproduce stratospheric cooling even worse than they do lower tropospheric temps.

  29. Hoi Polloi says:

    Greenpeace calls it “emotionalizing” :

  30. Tom Scharf says:

    The only thing worse than the intentional abuse of the facts, is how many people seem to think it just doesn’t matter.

    Woz supports Mike Daisey’s message and says you should too: 

  31. Mike Mangan says:

    I’m very happy to see that our opponents actually believe that Fred Singer and Heartland are the source of their problems.  Yessirree, that’s the reason why you have almost no political support left in Washington. That and the secret fossil fuel funded conspiracy that pays people like me $12.62 a month to spread fear, uncertainty, and doubt are the ONLY reasons why we have not taxed carbon pollution accordingly and started lowering the planet’s temperature by our shining example.

  32. Steven Sullivan says:

    KK, I hope you’ve also seen this funny/weird/sad account of a reporter (I’m using the term loose’y) making sh*t up in the service of a ‘higher truth”, and the fact-checker who wouldn’t let it go:  

  33. harrywr2 says:

    BBD Says:
    Please, don’t embarrass us both by trying to pretend that Singer wasn’t lying.
    BBD I have no concern whatsoever if you choose to embarrass yourself.
    Pointing out that something is ‘technically correct’ but doesn’t convey an ‘accurate picture’ is a far more effective debating technique then calling a ‘provable fact’ a lie.

  34. kdk33 says:

     find Singer’s lie here far worse than the phishing and alleged faking of the memo by Gleick, not least because Singer is *repeating* his falsehoods. Knowingly.

    I don’t know if Singer was lying or not.  It isn’t important enough for me to investigate.  But I find your comment most interesting.

    Apparently, you consider ‘lying’ a crime.  More serious than fraud.  This is utterly ridiculous, of course.  Lying is, often as not, in the eye of the beholder.  If lying were a crime, who would run for office?

    More importantly, this highlights the underlying flase premise that leads you to believe it is OK, to suppress free speech.  Namely:  that you’ve been granted an absolute (perhaps devine?) ability to know truth, hence the ability to know lies.  Moreover, you assume you are unique, and , since others lack that special talent, you are entitled to protect the ‘little people’ from liars. 

    It is a paradigm you won’t give up easily, but one which you (and everyone else) will be better off were you without.

    Lying is part of free speech.  People do it.  It isn’t nice.  But it usually isnt’ so easy to tag.  Granting the authority to do so is a very, very bad idea.

  35. BBD says:

    I don’t know if Singer was lying or not.
    Try looking at the graphs then. I linked to them twice above and again in this comment.
    Pointing out that something is “˜technically correct’ but doesn’t convey an “˜accurate picture’ is a far more effective debating technique then calling a “˜provable fact’ a lie.
    It’s astonishing watching you lot go to any lengths – however absurd – to defend Singer’s lies. Which I am now obliged to repeat, along with the relevant graphs.
    Tell me, despite your risible attempt to gloss over the lie about atmospheric temperature not rising, how do you explain away the lie about no ocean heating?
    The atmospheric temperature record between 1978 and 2000 (both from satellites and, independently, from radiosondes) doesn’t show a warming.  Neither does the ocean.



    You have destroyed your credibility on this. For nothing.

  36. kdk33 says:


    Whether he lied or not is not the point.

  37. BBD says:

    The point is that you cannot criticise Gleick unless you also criticise Singer otherwise you are guilty of rank hypocrisy.
    And look at you: you still cannot bring yourself to admit – though confronted by irrefutable evidence – that Singer is lying.
    Which makes you both a denier and a hypocrite.
    Not to mention the idiot who can’t explain why the Earth’s surface temperature is 15C *without* invoking those positive feedbacks that just don’t happen.
    You’ve made an absolute clown of yourself recently. And you know it, in your heart of hearts, don’t you?

  38. Thanks for mentioning my post on the subject… I think this echoes back to the idea of reality-based and non-reality-based communities (ala Rove via Suskind 2004) and our willingness to accept plausible plot devices and twists which suit the way we think a story goes. No doubt this is not the first time, and I highly doubt it will be the last we see “accidental” embellishment, especially in modes of journalism that adopt this narrative approach. The only thing that’s change is the public’s agency to backlash and contest fabrications. 

  39. jim says:

    To the point of the post: There was no surprise about Dainey’s story. It was filled with exaggerations, as are many of the stories told on “This American Life”. 

    WRT the slave labor at the Foxconn iProduct factory, Daisey and TAL could not see the forest for the trees. Slave labor in China? Duh. China is an authoritarian, near totalitarian, state! Foxconn ‘buys’ plantation-like factories and slave-like workers from the Chinese government. Daisey got the message completely wrong.

  40. UnfrozenCavemanMD says:

    grypo said on March 19th, 2012 at 7:54 am, “The comparison of Daisy to Gleick only works if he is found to
    be the writer of the fake memo.”

    No person who has looked seriously at the Gleick affair, and who also understands the principles of Bayesian probabilities, has much doubt that he is the forger of the memo. Prior to Gleick’s confession, it was the appearance of his idiosyncratic writing style and terminology in the forged memo that directed suspicion towards him.The real problem is that the Gleiks and Daiseys (and Dan Rathers, etc.) of the world have a very large audience of people who prefer to deal with feelings and values over truth and facts. If a false story reinforces their values and validates their feelings, (especially if it comes from a person they perceive as deeply caring and passionate), they will accept it as the Truth. To question such a story would tantamount to doubting their own deepest values, and rejecting their most genuine feelings.These people, when pressed very hard with the most blatant falsehoods, will fall back on the “fake but true” interpretation, and accept it as a fable that teaches an important life lesson, even if it is made up. In the case of Apple and Daisey, the important life lesson is that you should feel guilty about enjoying the marvels of technological affluence, because surely somewhere, someone is being abused and exploited to bring it to you, and you therefore should pay tribute to those who claim to advocate for the oppressed that you have inadvertently exploited by buying technology.

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