“Is bending non-fictional truth OK only if we laugh?” is how I ended this 2007 post on creative non-fiction. Then, like now, This American Life was at the center of concern about the veracity of creative nonfiction.
This year, however, we have more material to scrutinize than just America’s best radio show. The Mike Daisy incident, coupled with ubiquity of Kony2012, has me thinking about the power of stories, and how our attraction to the narrative affects our ability to process pure data.
David Carr points out that the “the parts of [Daisy's] show with which his audience connected so viscerally were the ones that seem to have been based on nothing more than a need for drama.” And that shouldn’t be a surprise.
In 2006, Mark Breitenberg argued that the “narrative is the condition of memory. We remember stories better than separate elements because narrative structure is so deeply embedded in our history and in our brains.” The notion of our fundamental tie to the story underlies much of George Lakoff’s work. In Metaphors We Live By, Lakoff wrote, “our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.”
If we are predisposed, through evolutionary or cultural forces, is Daisy being unrealistic when writes, in defense of his lying that “story should always be subordinate to the truth?” Did Jason Russell do anything wrong when he drew the attention of over 100 million people to events in Uganda– even if he did so by bending the truth, recasting the issue and by being, in Ethan Zuckerman’s accurate description, “emotionally manipulative?” Sam Gregory acknowledges that “simplification is necessary for some audiences. But when does it go too far?” Zuckerman worries that “if we need simple narratives so people can amplify and spread them, are we forced to engage only with the simplest of problems? Or to propose only the simplest of solutions?” Are Sam and Ethan fighting an uphill battle against human cognition? It’s a question in which even the Pentagon is interested.
The roots of the Greg Smith phenomena also lie in our quest for a compelling narrative. His “Today is my last day at Goldman Sachs” missive quickly became a meme, most famously generating Darth Vader‘s Why I’m Quitting the Empire. Even at the height of the anger of the Goldman Sachs bailout, did any journalist or frustrated taxpayer produce anything that caught the public imagination in the way that Smith’s personal story has? (It was not a spook, but, inspired by Smith’s resignation, ProPublica’s Cora Currier looked at 10 years of SEC investigations of the company.)
As I did above, Dan O’Neil looked to his own archives to make sense of Daisy. He turned the Wayback Machine all the way back to 1997 to revisit “trut.” (Apparently, there were crazy conspiracies about drug dealing contras back in 1997.)
Tabloids like Star and Globe are leading practitioners in a new standard for honesty, and they don’t deserve to be held out with two fingers like a stinky rag…The quotes are completely made up but they seem to represent something true. The quotes end up being what the person would have said had they been honest and if they had actually spoken to the reporter who wrote the story.
I offer as an additional data-point the importance the story to my toddler who, before drifting into sleep each night demands “More story! More story!”