Over the past several months there has been a spate of interesting cases involving media ethics. In January, theater artist Mike Daisey’s one-man show highlighting Apple’s unsavory manufacturing processes in China was broadcast on the public radio show “This American Life.” Problem was that Daisey made up many of the sensational details in the show – a fact that, once discovered, caused “This American Life” to run an episode-long retraction. You may have also caught the bizarre news story about Jason Russell, the producer of a viral video about Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony, which had Russell being detained by police after he was found running around naked and yelling incoherently in his California neighborhood. Russell had also recently come under attack for blurring the line between activism and journalism.
It’s easy for people in this business, myself included, to rail against theater that masquerades as hard news, but this instinct is not very productive. Like it or not, traditional media has taken a backseat to YouTube videos, blogs, and podcasts. Today, everyone with a cell phone and Internet connection is a journalist – that’s just the world we live in.
But while it’s pointless to fight it, it is worth stressing, whenever possible, the fact that news and information that come from advocates is not journalism. It’s propaganda. Even if it supports a cause we believe in. And it’s in everyone’s best interest to recognize this distinction.
A perfect example of all this unfolded over the course of our abnormally warm spring, as global warming activists took the news of a poor sugaring season and ran with it, blurring the lines between weather and climate, turning sugarmakers into polar bears, making complicated issues simple to suit the (well-intentioned) narrative they were promoting. Over the last few months, I read separate news stories that told me that sugar content in sap is lower today than it was in the 1950s due to stressed maple trees, that the sugaring season is coming 11.4 days earlier than it used to, and that in recent years sap has been off flavor because of tree stress.
None of this jives with my experiences as a sugarmaker. The sugar content of our tree sap varies from year to year, tree to tree, run to run, and always has, and I’m not sure how I’d compare it to the sap my grandfather was collecting from different trees in the 1950s, especially since he didn’t own a fancy refractometer that spits out data to the nearest tenth of a degree Brix. And, yes, the season was early this year. But a sugaring season has no fixed start and stop dates, and never has. So if something has an amorphous beginning and end (that varies widely from region to region), how can we make a blanket statement that it’s starting 11.4 days earlier than it used to? And as far as taste is concerned, the syrup we made this year, despite the wacky weather, was as good as anything we’ve ever made and a lighter color than usual.
In each of these scenarios – Mike Daisey’s exposé of Apple, Jason Russell’s exposé of Joseph Kony, and an activist’s (or misguided journalist’s) invocation of maple sugaring as ground zero of climate change – mistruths are being construed as the lesser of two evils. This justification supposes that since there is good science that indicates that global temperatures are rising, and since there is documentation that some links of Apple’s supply chain are unsavory and exploitive, and since there’s evidence that Joseph Kony is a horrible human being, then a little hyperbole to bring attention to the problem is not only not bad, it’s potentially good.
On some human level, this line of thinking is perfectly understandable. If I’m telling a fish story, does it really matter if the fish was 12 or 20 inches? I mean, I caught a fish, after all. Such lies become even harder to resist when we’re arguing about emotional topics we “know” we’re right about. Daisey explained his actions this way when asked why he didn’t come clean about his Apple lies during fact checking:
“I think I was terrified that if I untied these things that the work, that I know is really good and tells a story, that does these really great things for making people care, that it would come apart in a way where – where it would ruin everything.”
But, of course, outside of fishing (and perhaps sports arguments), white, black, or rainbow-colored lies do matter, and they matter precisely because they can ruin everything. In the case of climate change, every time a media outlet reports, as Mother Jones did in April, that climate change is killing the maple sugaring industry and “once-flourishing maple trees are shedding leaves too early in the season and producing sub-par sap,” a global warming skeptic gets a free pass to say, “See? These people have no idea what they’re talking about” – or worse, that the whole idea of climate change is a vast left-wing conspiracy and the planet is, in fact, cooling. BS plus BS equals BS, and this whole important issue gets reduced to a partisan game of who can tell the biggest whopper.
I believe that the planet is warming up, that humans are contributing to this, and as the planet continues to warm there will be negative ecological consequences. But if we’re to build any consensus around environmental policy that seeks to address pollution and greenhouse gases, we have to speak to each other honestly.
Old school, fact-based journalism may have taken a backseat to populist internet reporting that blurs the line between theater and news, but journalists can still stand tall as beacons of integrity.
Journalist David Carr opened a New York Times piece on the Mike Daisey saga with this thought: Is it O.K. to lie on the way to telling a greater truth? The short answer is also the right one.