In the wake of This American Life’s very public retraction of Mike Daisey’s Apple exposé this past Friday, plenty of people have been quick to invoke the name of John D’Agata when discussing Daisey and his particular version of performance-piece-meets-journalism.
The comparison is a natural one: D’Agata, as you will remember from recent reviews of his Lifespan of a Fact, is best known for his unabashed and unwavering defense of his right to bend, alter, and even rewrite facts in the name of a larger Truth. And, much to the displeasure and discomfort of journalists who traffic in the lower-case version of same, D’Agata’s work is packaged to look an awful lot like a piece of journalism, despite his repeated declarations that he is not a reporter.
At first blush, Daisey’s “What I do is not journalism” defense sounds straight out of the D’Agata school of reasoning. But Daisey is no D’Agata, and conflating their work is a mistake.
Daisey lied, to his publisher and to his audience, and he did so in order to present his version of reality as objective fact both to Ira Glass and to TAL’s 1.8 million listeners. D’Agata commits neither of those sins. He is upfront with editors about the liberties he has taken, which in turn allows them to make an informed decision on whether and in what form to publish his work—as Harper’s did when it spiked the essay at the center of Lifespan, and The Believer did when it ultimately published a modified version of it (as “What Happens There”). Daisey didn't afford TAL that same luxury; as a result, the show’s producers were left devoting an hour-long episode to explaining how things went wrong.
More importantly, D’Agata is ultimately honest with his audience as well. He manipulates facts, yes, but he does so intentionally and, to varying degrees, openly—all with the goal of challenging the reader to question what truth is, including the very one he is presenting. One can debate whether D’Agata accomplishes what he sets out to do, but it’s unfair to ignore his intentions.
D’Agata’s 2010 book-length essay About a Mountain is partly based on “What Happens There.” It is 236 pages long, 36 of which are taken up with notes. On page 189, after he has gone to great lengths to detail the cosmic significance of the number nine, which he has told us all along is the number of seconds 16-year-old Levi Presley fell after jumping to his death, he writes:
I think we knew, however, that he really fell for eight. …
At some point it came clear while I was visiting the Presleys that in fact I had not spoken to their son the night he died.
It was clear as I left Vegas that some other boy had called.
Clear that if I point to something seeming like significance, there is the possibility that nothing real is there.
Sometimes we misplace knowledge in pursuit of information.
Sometimes our wisdom, too, in pursuit of what’s called knowledge.
If a reader feels betrayed when confronted with an unreliable narrator four-fifths of the way through what he thought was a work of straightforward nonfiction, that’s his right, and I certainly won’t begrudge him for it. But there’s no way that reader can be confused about D’Agata’s detachment from the traditional fact-checking rigors of journalism.
There comes a point in almost all of D’Agata’s most well-known essays where he likewise lets his reader in on the open secret that his version of events does not necessarily align with reality. It’s not always a straight-out admission—it can come as a subtle wink—but it’s there, deliberately, if you go looking for it. With Daisey’s piece there’s no such disclaimer. You would have had to go looking for it in China.