Mike Daisey, Climate, and Greater Truths

David Roberts on how Daisey’s brand of storytelling, properly framed, could help advance the story of our changing climate.

Aaron Webb/Flickr

I wasn’t going to write anything about the Mike Daisey affair — Grist’s own editor Scott Rosenberg said what needed to be said — but the tone of the subsequent coverage, the high dudgeon and hand-wringing and self-congratulation among American journalists and commentators, has rubbed me the wrong way. So, perhaps ill-advisedly, I’m jumping in.

Daisey did something as old as theater itself: manipulated facts in service of narrative. He rearranged events, put himself in scenes he never actually witnessed, and collapsed people into composite characters, all in the name of telling a gripping and meaningful story. That’s all fine, of course, if you’re just doing theater and the audience knows what it’s getting. The problem, as Ira Glass points out in This American Life‘s extraordinary retraction episode (and as New York Times media critic David Carr echoes), is that the people who went to see Daisey’s show, or heard it on TAL, were under the impression that they were hearing an exposé, a piece of personal journalism. They thought they were hearing about stuff that really happened to Daisey. And he let them think that, even encouraged them to. He shouldn’t have done that! (As usual, James Fallows puts it best.)

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The Climate Desk is a journalistic collaboration dedicated to exploring the impact—human, environmental, economic, political—of a changing climate. The partners are The Atlantic, Center for Investigative Reporting, Grist, The Guardian, Huffington Post, Mother Jones, Slate, and Wired.