Once again, I’m thinking through connections between two recently discussed ideas. Last month, it was academics on Wikipedia; today it’s relationships between fact and story telling. Ethan Zuckerman’s recent ruminations on activism and journalism provide a summary and synthesis of one set of ideas, and a piece Michael Wilson contributed to the New York Times City Room at about the same time provides the other.

Fact rings false

Wilson describes reactions to a scene in the television drama “Mad Men” that draws from a 1966 New York Times article. In the TV series, set at an advertising agency in 1966, civil rights protesters have water dropped on them from the offices of the Young and Rubicam advertising agency, high above the sidewalk where they are picketing. When the protesters go up to the office to demand an apology, one comments, “And they call us savages.”

Television critics have apparently panned the scene, and particularly the “savages” line. But according to Wilson, “Mad Men” producer Matthew Weiner and his fellow writers based the scene closely on an article in the 28 May 1966 edition of the Times. The story describes protesters at the Office of Economic Opportunity being heckled by Young &  Rubicam executives, having water dropped on them, and demanding an apology in the Y&R office. Times reporter John Kifner happened to be on the scene, and his story quotes Vivian Harris as saying, “And they call us savages.”

Despite the 2012 television script’s adherence to the 1966 newspaper article, television critic Mike Hale insists, “It [the ‘savages’ line] just rings so false.” Another critic, Matt Zoller Seitz, similarly tells Wilson, “It’s good to know that all that actually happened, but it’s still a terrible line in context of the scene.”

I found the interplay of historical fact and artistic verisimilitude interesting. Critic Hale suggests that the Mad Men line is “false” even though it uses the same location, the same advertising agency, and even the same words reported in the 1966 New York Times article. There is no suggestion that the Times article was false or inaccurate, but what was presumably ‘true’ for newspaper readers is nonetheless ‘false’ for television viewers.

Ethics of attention

Zuckerman’s piece synthesizes a larger debate about fact and ‘truth’ in media. He starts with Mike Daisey, a story teller and monologist whose “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” and more specifically the version of the story excerpted on the radio program “This American Life” has garnered a great deal of attention among journalists, the blogosphere, and social media. Daisey’s monologue tells of a trip he took to Shenzen, China, to find where the Apple computer products he loves are made, and describes brutal working conditions at the factory. It has since come out that the monologue mixes Daisey’s actual experiences in Shenzen with second-hand stories from other parts of China and with fictional elements. This American Life has published a “Retraction”, an episode  in which reporter Rob Schmidtz analyzes the factual and the fictional elements of Daisey’s story and program host Ira Glass confronts the story teller about presenting fictional elements as though they were reportage.

Ethan Zuckerman connects Daisey’s story with the “Gay Girl in Damascus” blog and the “Kony 2012” video, among other recent events. “A Gay Girl in Damascus” purported to be the daily weblog of woman activist in Syria who suddenly went missing in June 2011. It was later learned that the blogger was actually Tom McMaster, an American man who created an alter-ego to draw attention to the crisis in Syria (though some argue he did it more to draw attention to himself).

“Kony 2012” is a video posted to YouTube by a group called Invisible Children on 5 March 2012 and viewed by more than 100 million people. It describes Joseph Kony, leader of the Lords Resistance Army in northern Uganda from the 1980s until 2006 and currently a fugitive wanted in connection with war crimes. Unlike Daisey or McMaster, Invisible Children is  not accused of fabricating the details of its video. However, they have been criticized for oversimplifying their story in a way that may provide false impressions. For example, it is not clear from the video that Kony fled Uganda in 2006. The video is also criticized for placing Americans at its center and not presenting the voices of Ugandans.

Zuckerman brings together these incidents to encourage discussion and thought about the ethics of attracting attention.

We’ve seen a rise in the ability to create media and advocate for your cause and your viewpoint over the past decade. And there’s been a massive rise in content available to all of us – and an accompanying rise in ability to choose what we pay attention to – over the past two decades. The result is an increasingly fierce battle for attention.

With stories like Daisey’s and Kony 2012, the conversation switches from the practical question of seizing attention to the ethical questions of attention.

Zuckerman encourages readers to think about what is fair and unfair in drawing attention to a story, including how much simplification or alteration of facts is acceptable.

Truth, falsity, and genre

All of this has me reflecting on the relationship between narrative and ‘truth’ – a word that I think warrants scare quotes. Moreover, I find myself thinking about the nature of ‘truth’ in different domains.

The oft-expressed observation that fiction can be a means of addressing ‘deeper truth’ shows that there may be multiple ways of thinking about truth even within a relatively orthodox worldview. The cases summarized above, I think, reveal tensions between competing standards.

For critic Mike Hale a fictional story needs to feel believable, a feeling that does not depend on adherence to recorded events. Journalists, on the other hand, are expected to report events accurately, with the framing of events and ideas sometimes addressed as an ethical question.

For storyteller Mike Daisey, combining factual and fictitious elements is an appropriate use of “the tools of theater and memoir” to make people care about real events. Daisey says, “I don’t know that I would say in a theatrical context that it isn’t true.” Producer Ira Glass, in contrast, asks Daisey whether his theatrical performance shouldn’t carry a warning label “so that the audience in the theater knows that this isn’t strictly speaking a work of truth.”

For the producers of Kony 2012, the film is a useful entrance to the ‘ladder of engagement’, a series of steps by which an individual becomes aware of, then informed about, and finally active around a political or social cause. For many of the video’s critics, though, its over-simplification of events in the creation of an engaging narrative is a form of untruth.

[Hat tip to Alex Enkerli, who brought Ethan Zuckerman’s essay to my attention, and to John McIntyre, who pointed me to Michael Wilson’s article.]