“Important if true.”
In truth, it was also something of a sales pitch: Read this story!
That old headline, which is still occasionally used for effect, came to mind as I thought about the connections between the Mike Daisey “This American Life” fiasco and the fact-challenged elements of the new book “The Lifespan of a Fact.“
These two fictionalized works go further than that old headline. They eliminate the conditional “if,” which acknowledges uncertainty, and declare instead: “Important because true.”
Yeah, a much better — though inaccurate — sales pitch. That’s exactly the point.
Daisey claimed his monologue was factual and based on personal experience. That’s how he sold it to “This American Life” and a lot of radio listeners and media who wrote about him and the issue after the broadcast.
“The Lifespan of a Fact” has been sold to consumers and reviewers as a book that recounts “seven years of arguments, negotiations, and revisions” that took place between an author, John D’Agata, and his fact checker, Jim Fingal.
Though no sales numbers have been released publicly, The Atlantic wrote that the book “has managed one of those periodic book release PR juggernauts that writers privately fantasize about.”
Both works were wrapped in the cloak of accuracy and journalistic rigor to make them more attractive and affecting — to sell them and to gain attention.
News organizations, of course, do this all the time. So do others. It’s now common to see companies and governments create products that look like journalism, be they fake news websites selling supplements, or manufactured news reports created by a PR firm to help the government look good.
Journalism non-fiction can be a pretty effective sales and marketing strategy. Until it isn’t.
The cloak comes off
When both works were revealed to be not as factual as pitched, it didn’t take long to shrug off the cloak of accuracy.
The authors and performer retreated behind claims that they aren’t journalists, that they reject labels such as non-fiction, and that their work still speaks to a larger truth, even if the basic facts don’t.
Let’s first be clear about one important point: official materials for both works label them as non-fiction. Here’s part of the playbill for a recent run of Daisey’ monologue, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington, D.C. (emphasis mine):
“This is a work of nonfiction,” it declares.
Important because it’s true.
On a related note, a representative for the publisher of “Lifespan” told me in an email that the book’s back cover classifies it as “Literature/Essays” as a way to signal to readers that it’s not non-fiction. Fingal said the same in an email.
“I’m not really comfortable putting a label on what the book is, since part of the point of the book is to challenge these … categories and what they mean for reader expectations,” he wrote. “The back of the book describes it as ‘literature/essay’ which seems close enough / in the spirit of what the book is intended to be.”
But then you look at the copyright page and the Library of Congress cataloging information tells librarians and booksellers a different story (emphasis mine):
The Library of Congress Cataloging-in-publication Data facilitates “book processing for libraries and book dealers.”
That means the book is likely to end up in the nonfiction section of bookstores and libraries. It’s what happened at the New York Public Library, for example. The book is shelved in the non-fiction collection. The Boston Public Library does the same, putting it in a section that also contains “Poetry For Dummies” and a biography of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis that focuses on her work as an editor.
Lessons for journalists
The takeaway for journalists from the Daisey incident is to be very careful when attempting to bring a work or person that comes from outside of journalism into the journalistic framework. Regarding “The Lifespan of a Fact,” the lesson is to not treat marketing materials as factual documents.
Of all people it’s Fingal, the fact checker and co-author of “Lifespan,” who makes a good point about the perils of bringing a work from one tradition to another: This is from his essay about the Daisey retraction published yesterday by Vice:
When a work that operates by one set of rules – the conventions of monologists or memoirists – is catapulted into another realm – that of fact-based journalism – the author must be prepared for an audience he may have never imagined when he wrote the work to begin with.
True. The organization bringing the author into the world of journalism must also realize that it is their job to adapt the work, to be clear about standards and practices and, ultimately, to be responsible for the accuracy of the work. “This American Life” seemed to understand their role, but they failed to execute.
Fingal’s piece for Vice ends with him posing interesting questions about audience expectations, and how artists and others should address them:
What if Daisey was right that people going to the theater – or to a comedy show – should engage with the work they see differently than the articles they read in the newspaper? Do we owe it to the artist to learn a little more about their intentions beforehand? How should the artist best cater to the audience? Does an artist need to provide a disclaimer before each performance?
I’d argue that both Daisey and “Lifespan” provided disclaimers in the above materials, and that both disclaimers are false or at the very least confusing.
Which I think was pretty much the idea: it served the sales pitch.