03/21/2012 03:30 pm ET Updated May 21, 2012

Truth, Lies and the Allure of Fact-based Journalism

This American Life has gotten more attention for a retraction than it has for any show in recent memory. Not that the show is exactly suffering, but the combination of truth-telling and apology over its piece on Mike Daisey's The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs has struck a nerve. Pundits from Felix Salmon, in a long post this weekend, to his Reuters colleague Jack Shafer with his take, to The New York Times' David Carr in another article decry Daisey's argument that drama differs from journalism, and that the art demands a certain reordering and heightening of reality. In other words, drama may involve things that did not happen. Who can argue with this? In fact, to agree with Daisey's argument means you are essentially condoning lies and fabrications. And yet, not to defend Daisey (I haven't seen his monologue and I've always found the end-justifies-the-means argument self-righteous and manipulative), but he's part of a venerable tradition that has rarely been so robust as it is today.

Salmon argues that Shakespeare, despite his readiness to write plays about historical figures, for instance, never told a lie. "He never sat down in front of thousands of people to tell a first-person story, over and over again, about events which he had simply made up. He never ended that story with an exhortation which would carry no weight if his audience thought the story was a fiction." Well, technically that may be true. But part of Shakespeare's magic is his remarkable ability to suspend an audience's disbelief, to bring them into his reality. His fictions are as real as the evening news (more real actually, since the evening news, like most journalism, is merely a cobbled-together assemblage of facts and attitudes, depicting a certain thin, often flimsy, reality). He does exhort you at the end of his plays, just in ways that are more subtle, more morally sophisticated, than Daisey's "sign a petition against Apple" moment. Daisey's problem, I suspect, is that he is not an artist in Shakespeare's league (this is obvious -- but then who is?) and to achieve his effects he must indulge in what, once revealed, seems like gross fabrications. He borrows the power of the truth business to create drama. He's like the politician that lies about his résumé. But is the lying pol better or worse than the demagogue who speaks from the heart?

Let's face it, if it's worth going after Daisey for fabrications in the cause of drama, it's worth going after most Hollywood movies with some historical basis (was The Social Network true to the facts? Was The Hurt Locker accurate? Was Game Change or Shakespeare in Love?), most of Michael Moore's oeuvre, the Joseph Kony YouTube, reality television and nearly every political ad in the Republican primaries, including the "documentary" against Mitt Romney's days in private equity. Several years ago, a controversy erupted over Matt Taibbi's famous attack on Goldman, Sachs & Co. -- the "vampire squid" piece -- for its factual inaccuracies and distortions. Taibbi supporters (and Taibbi himself) defended the piece as accurate enough: The ends justified the means, the larger message mattered more than details (later, Taibbi admitted that Rolling Stone fact checkers tried to get him to take the metaphor out of the article for accuracy reasons). Indeed, among some commenters, economic and financial ignorance was lauded. Not to defend Goldman, but throughout the financial crisis, cable television could traffic in nearly any crazy story about that firm, certain that it had the crowd on its side. It's one the reasons you can't dismiss the Greg Smith resignation letter: He did actually work there, and no one has yet questioned his facts. In short, there are greater truths and lesser truths, which we accept every day. Objectivity is widely accepted as a snare and a delusion. And without the crutch of objectivity, facts begin to slither away. In a world where Glenn Beck can prattle on paranoid nonsense on Fox News for years, or one in which cable outlets like the History Channel can traffic in wild conspiracies, apocalypse sightings and evidence of aliens, is there any wonder we struggle with these matters? How many bloggers, pundits, Internet commenters consciously or unconsciously trim their facts to make a more compelling argument? Better yet, how many don't?

Did the late Spalding Gray tell the absolute truth in Swimming to Cambodia? Did Goya accurately represent the horrors of the Peninsular War in The Disasters of War series? Did Stendhal or Tolstoy accurately capture the Napoleonic Wars? What artist, good, bad or indifferent, doesn't claim to be telling the truth? Shafer, drawing on a recent book, is annoyed that Truman Capote claimed perfect recall in reporting In Cold Blood, one of the first to deliberately mix journalism and drama, which was clearly untrue as were some of his facts. As Salmon points out, This American Life itself is part of that tradition of theatricizing journalism; the hour-long retraction itself was highly charged, like many episodes of This American Life. How many memoirs and autobiographies lie -- or even worse, fail to recall accurately, or see the world from their own self-interested perspective. Does the lie have to be deliberate, with malice and forethought? Or can the lie lurk beneath the solidity of fact? Where is the line drawn?

I favor facts and accuracy, being journalistically inclined (I started off in journalistic life as a fact checker, a statement, by the way, that contains a slight, inadvertent and meaningless misstatement of fact). These days that's like announcing some insane political position. I also agree with Shafer when he notes that resorting to lies in a dramatic context often suggests a deficiency of talent (or maybe it's just laziness and pandering); it drives me crazy, particularly at the movies. But for all the self-righteousness unleashed upon Daisey, I would offer one exhortation before signing off: Look around. There are sinners everywhere.