Storytelling, Truth And Consequences

from the not-everything-is-just-a-story dept

I really like telling stories. Quite a bit. At times, my friends will make fun of me for this, because if there's an opportunity when hanging out to tell a story, I often can't resist. An old friend has referred to it as "uncle Mike's story time." My wife likes to joke about the stories I use often -- that these are "date stories" -- because I probably told her a bunch of them back when we were dating, and she assumes that I told them to others prior to her as well (that might be true). She numbers the most common ones (e.g., "date story 37") to highlight how frequently I use some of them.

Of course, as someone who likes to tell stories, I also love listening to stories -- both for the stories themselves, but also for the craft of storytelling. In the last few years, in particular, I've been listening to lots of podcasts that really focus on storytelling -- The Moth, This American Life, Snap Judgment, Radiolab. They're all fantastic. Of course, if you're just doing pure storytelling for the sake of amusing or entertaining people you're talking to... a certain amount of embellishment can happen. Hell, it can be common and almost expected. Not all my stories do that, but there are a few that would be just that much better if you change a little thing here or there. I once thought it might be fun to put a bunch of my usual stories (the "date stories" I guess) into a book, in which each story would include one exaggeration or outright falsehood -- and the final "chapter" would be to explore what was not quite true in each story, and why I used it (and if it was really necessary). I still think this would be fun to do if I ever actually had the time (I don't).

I've been thinking about this a bit following all of the controversy over This American Life's big retraction of the Mike Daisey episode, in which he used that storyteller's license to exaggerate key parts of the story about what he saw in China when he went to check out the Foxconn factories where Apple products are made. On Sunday, Daisey finally gave the apology he should have given a week ago, in which he admitted that he fabricated and exaggerated in the interest of the story, and that in doing so he didn't live up to his own standards.

But what's interested me even more is that I've seen a few different people call attention to the fact that others have called out This American Life in the past for supposed "true stories" that turned out to be anything but. Four years ago, for example, Jack Shaffer at Slate called out Malcolm Gladwell and TAL for a story that Gladwell did on TAL about his "experience" as a young reporter at The Washington Post (now the owner of Slate). That story was actually done for The Moth -- a regular storytelling event/group/thing, where the key thing is the story, not so much the truth. Almost exactly a year before that, there was a similar article in The New Republic, by Alex Heard, calling out TAL and contributor David Sedaris in a ridiculously long article highlighting a bunch of fact checks that suggest Sedaris' famed stories aren't always in the same time zone as the truth. There have also been other "memoir"-type stories on TAL that I would be willing to bet were similarly exaggerated.

Some have questioned why This American Life did a full hour episode on the Mike Daisey situation, but brushed off the criticism of Gladwell and Sedaris. And I think what it comes down to is exactly the reason it took Daisey so long to come to terms with why people were so upset about his story. Daisey comes from a tradition that is much closer to where Gladwell and Sedaris' stories came from: to entertain people, not to make a larger point. Daisey has been an active public storyteller for a decade or so (he's also active in The Moth). The problem was that with The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, he went past storyteller into advocate.

He wasn't just trying to entertain. He was trying to make people "aware" and to make a difference. When you shift from one mode to the other, the rules change. And Daisey missed that.

The thing is, it's really not hard to separate the two. I don't tell exaggerated stories on Techdirt, in part because this isn't a "storytelling" forum, but also because this site depends on everything on it being as credible as possible. It's quite easy for me to understand the context and when the discussion is real and important, and when I'm just talking with some friends about a funny story. Similarly, I have no reason to doubt Gladwell's detailed research works (even if there are reasonable complaints about his occasional mistakes) include purposeful embellishments "for the story." Context matters and I think most people can separate them when talking about different subjects.

The issue with Diasey was that he took the storytelling tradition, and tried to make it out to be a "news" story in which he was really seeking to get things to happen. And that's where things fell down. If you're going to do that, your story has to check out. I'm not bothered by Gladwell or Sedaris' exaggerations (though I must admit to not finding Sedaris that entertaining -- but Gladwell's WaPo story is hilarious). If Daisey was just telling stories for the sake of storytelling, there wouldn't be an issue. But as soon as he made the story part of a campaign to create change, he had a responsibility to be factual. That he couldn't separate the two was a major mistake, and it's not even clear that his apology fully recognizes that fact.

Storytelling is a useful tool for entertainment. Storytelling can also be helpful in the interest of causing people to change behavior or to become aware of some real situations, but there are different standards that people expect in that kind of storytelling, and failing to live up to those ideals has serious consequences, as Daisey is starting to figure out now.

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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 28 Mar 2012 @ 2:37pm

    Joel Coen has a good quote about this

    "If an audience believes that something's based on a real event, it gives you permission to do things they might otherwise not accept."

    If you say something outlandish (such as a person disposing of a body through a woodchipper), people might think "Well, that's stupid no one would do that." But if you tell them "This is a true story!" then people are more apt to believe. And of course, the woodchipper part was true.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Joe Publius (profile), 28 Mar 2012 @ 2:45pm

      Re: Joel Coen has a good quote about this

      Huh, this must why I feel like I've seen more horror/thriller movie trailers with "Based on True Events" statements tacked on them.

      I for one buy it. I'm pretty sure a young lady spending the night alone in an older house has happened at least once.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    weneedhelp (profile), 28 Mar 2012 @ 2:39pm

    "uncle Mike's story time"

    Aww shit, the AC's are going to have a field day with this one.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Almost Anonymous (profile), 28 Mar 2012 @ 3:03pm

    Oh rly?

    """The issue with Diasey was that he took the storytelling tradition, and tried to make it out to be a "news" story in which he was really seeking to get things to happen. And that's where things fell down. If you're going to do that, your story has to check out."""

    Your news story has to check out... unless you have the word "News" in your name, in which you are allowed to lie and distort, because it's really only entertainment.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    PRMan, 28 Mar 2012 @ 3:50pm

    "I don't tell exaggerated stories on Techdirt"

    Sometimes you do. I have often been disappointed when reading the article after your headline.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
      Anonymous Coward, 28 Mar 2012 @ 10:37pm


      Hyperbole headlines are pretty common place on Techdirt - it's designed to drag people in who are using RSS feeds or catching things on twitter.

      Mike isn't beyond framing things in seriously warped ways just to get a more juicy angle on something - even if it's a crock from the word go.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Suzanne Lainson (profile), 28 Mar 2012 @ 4:04pm

    Politicians get away with falsehoods all the time

    I have no problem with people calling out Daisey for not being truthful. But what disturbs me is when the media is lax about fact checking so much else of what passes for "news."

    There are politicians making stuff up all the time, and while some bloggers do try to point out BS when they hear it/read it, the journalists interviewing these politicians or writing articles about them often don't challenge the politicians on the spot or don't clarify in the articles what is false information.

    So I am upset with the double standard in reporting. It's okay when some people lie but not when others lie.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

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