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Fact Vs. Truth: About that Whole This American Life Retraction Thing

Mike Daisey: We have different world views on some of these things. I agree with you truth is really important.

Ira Glass: I know but I feel like I have the normal worldview. The normal worldview is somebody stands on stage and says ‘this happened to me,’ I think it happened to them, unless it’s clearly labeled as ‘here’s a work of fiction.’

The recent hubbub over This American Life’s retraction of their recent-ish episode, “Mr. Daisey Goes to the Apple Factory” has been thrilling to watch over the 24 hours of the announcement.

As someone that reacted strongly to the original episode and appreciated what seemed like a rise in investigation into the labor conditions of the devices I surround myself with, I felt like this was a necessary work in the same way that TAL’s “Giant Pool of Money” basically made clear the whole financial fiasco of the past few years in less than an hour. At its best, This American Life allows listeners to feel and empathize with big (sometimes confusing) ideas. It also  allows listeners to connect with people whose lives are nothing like their own. I felt kinship with Chik-Fil-A fanatics, prison inmates, and a mom with a certain contempt for the Little Mermaid.

Which all makes me wonder just how necessary “fact” is in my learning “truth” from episodes of This American Life.

Last month, while stuck in the middle seat of an airplane, I read The Lifespan of a Fact. It (like The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet) is one of those books I immediately felt the need to buy numerous copies so I could hand it to friends, strangers, anyone(!) and say, “Here, read this, please, it’s incredible just open it up and look at it!”

I mean seriously, look at this book:

The heated exchanges between an author and fact-checker surround the original, submitted manuscript. It is an initially confusing text to dive into and it is a worthwhile addition to BSRAYDEKWTDWT.

At the end of the day, The Lifespan of a Fact asks the same question that rears its head in the current This American Life retraction. Namely: what is the role of truth in advocacy, in journalism, in connecting human empathy with human crisis.*

My overall feeling sides with Ira and Co. and the browbeaten copy-editor, Jim Fingal. I tend to think that fact triumphs artistic revelry. Even when the writer or artist or media producer is really really good. At the same time, Daisey’s performance shed light on issues in a style that connected with people across the country. John D’Agata’s article on depression and suicide and Las Vegas gave me an insight into the town that now challenges how I see the city.

I doubt that anyone fact checks David Sedaris. And when Jonathan Franzen suggested that David Foster Wallace made up accounts for his non-fiction works, most people tended to think Franzen was a jerk.

We derive truth less from statistics and dates and transcribed quotes than from the nuanced tacit knowledge of being, exploring, and feeling. Though this is not a defense of Daisey (I suspect he, like Franzen, is also a bit of a jerk), I do wonder what is the role fact when I think people tend to listen to This American Life for truth.


*and lest you think that this book is a factual representation of author and fact-checker locked in a timeless tussle … again truth trumps fact.

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