Nothing but the truth?

Nothing but the truth?

Posted March 19th, 2012 by debritz

A few days before US National Public Radio's This American Life "retracted" an episode based on Mike Daisey's one-man show about conditions in Apple Computer factories in China, I was listening to an interview with a British comedian.

It was a BBC broadcast, but I can't remember her name (sorry, I didn't expect to be writing about it). However, I do remember what she said: that she often "appropriated" stories from her friends and others and included them in her monologue as if these things had happened to her.

It struck me at the time that this must be a common practice among standup comics. After all, who is really going to get an hour's worth of material based on recent events in their own lives? It did not really occur to me that what she was doing was unethical.

My point is that, at some level, we expect comedian to lie, or at least "stretch the truth" for humorous effect.

But do we expect it as part of a presentation that purports to be true and makes damning accusations about an individual or a corporation? Or does the fact that it was presented in theatrical context somehow make it different?

Truth is in the eye of the beholder, and the people who took Daisey at his word - including This American Life host Ira Glass - have a right to feel wronged.

Daisey must have known that what he was saying on stage was not true, and he presumably felt that the ends justified the means.

But did he realise that telling these untruths for dramatic effect would bring a valid cause - to improve the conditions of sweat-shop factory workers - into disrepute? And could he have foreseen the damage he'd do to his own reputation and that of one of America's most trusted news sources?