What Genre is This?
The retraction will likely bring out two constituencies. First, there will be the Apple devotees who simply cannot imagine that Saint Steve or his legacy can be criticized. That resurgence should be squelched promptly by the fact that there have been a plethora of other reports of Apple's troubling policies. Second, there will be the right-wing press who no doubt will take this as an indicator of how the ultra-liberal media juggernaut that is NPR needs to be brought down a notch or two more.
In any case, this episode highlights another recent essay, this one in The New York Times Sunday Book Review a couple weeks back. The issue is how to sort out journalism from fiction from creative non-fiction in reasonably clear ways.* Responding to "The Lifespan of a Fact", Rebecca Solnit sent this letter to The Times in which she suggests why it is important to get that task right:
To the Editor:And that is why the retraction the folks at "This American Life" have issued is important.
I was so pleased to see Jennifer B. McDonald take on and take a stand on one of the big issues in contemporary writing, the mixed-up, messed-up mash-up between truth and fiction. The potential for serious damage grows as this approach creeps out from memoir (where maybe you’re sort of entitled to lie about yourself, if not anyone else) and into works about strangers, including people who — as the stalwart fact-checker Jim Fingal points out — are not going to be publicly represented any other way, and about politically and culturally complex figures and events. When I teach, I tell my students that it’s a slippery slope from the nasty thing their stepfather never really did to the weapons of mass destruction that Iraq never really had.
A good artist is not hindered by her responsibility to both subject and readers, but stimulated to go deeper, look harder, write better. Maybe that’s because the stories don’t belong to you. You belong to them.
* I took up this matter a while ago in this series of posts on Ryszard Kapuściński.
P.S.: You can find the report that led "This American Life" to retract their segment on Apple in China here. I will note that part of what provides the background to this episode is the ridiculous notion that moralism is the proper response to political-economic exploitation or hardship. As one of the people interviewed for the follow-up suggests: “Foxconn bad. iPhone bad. Sign a petition. Now you’re good. . . . That’s a great simple message and it’s going to resonate with a public radio listener. It’s going to resonate with the New York Times reader. And I think that’s one of the reasons he’s had so much traction.” (The 'he' is Mike Daisey, who produced the initial TAL segment.) Of course, the point of my initial post on Apple and working conditions in its supply chain were directed specifically at that error.