The Tech Press and the Truth

I was rather angered by how the tech press handled the Mike Daisey affair. They seemed to me to be dancing with glee at the prospect of having their consciences somehow cleared because the man delivering the message of the treatment of workers at Foxconn had turned out to be something of a fabulist. Daisey certainly erred when he implied that his theatrical story was documentary truth. But the tech press was way too happy that Daisey had been caught fibbing about details, which of course allowed them to entirely forget what the whole point of Daisey’s crusade was to begin with.

I couldn’t quite see why they would be so blind to such an important distinction. Daisey’s mischaracterization of his theatrical play as journalism aside, surely the tech journos would understand that in the context of theatre, of storytelling, one relays a truth without necessarily telling The Whole Truth. That’s what art does. I found it hard to believe so many in the tech press couldn’t — or wouldn’t — understand this. (Let alone Ira Glass, but that’s another thing.)

Then today I read a piece at PandoDaily by Farhad Manjoo, whose work I normally very much enjoy and find refreshing for its clarity and boldness. Manjoo has decided, long before any dialogue has been written, that the Steve Jobs biopic by Aaron Sorkin will suck. He has pre-reviewed the nonexistent film, and found it to be offensive.

Manjoo first complains that one need only look to The Social Network to see how Sorkin apparently didn’t understand what Facebook really is (a “product” and not an “idea,” which I suppose is a fair point), and took too many liberties with relationships and portrayals.

I would presume that most of you would think, well, it’s just a movie. Let him take whatever liberty he wants! You’d think that, right?

But Manjoo truly opened my eyes to the blind spot of the tech press with this section (emphasis mine):

… Sorkin has said that he was glad Mark Zucker­berg didn’t coop­er­ate with The Social Net­work, because then he’d have to had to make the char­ac­ter more life­like: “I feel like, had I met Mark, I would have felt a cer­tain oblig­a­tion to make the char­ac­ter sound like Mark, walk like Mark, all of those things,” he told New York mag­a­zine.

Sorkin also said: “I don’t want my fideli­ty to be to the truth; I want it to be to storytelling.” Seri­ous­ly. Sorkin actu­al­ly said that. He doesn’t care about the truth.

Hold on, this is supposed to be some kind of scoop? Is Manjoo really, seriously under the impression that he’s somehow nailed Sorkin as a fraud with this quote?

I’m appalled to think so, but it seems to be the case.

I’m almost embarrassed to have to spell this out, but perhaps it’s necessary. Movies, theatre, television, what have you; even when these things are produced with actual historical occurrences as their bases, their end goal will almost never, ever be to merely report the facts as they happened. Rather, the prime objective of artists will always be to make the best possible art, to tell the best possible story. Sometimes that will mean sticking closely to historical fact, sometimes it will mean veering sharply away from reality. But Sorkin is 100 percent correct. His fidelity is not, and should not be, to the “truth,” the facts, but to realizing something special with that particular work, a something from which its own truth emerges.

This is perhaps part of why the Daisey episode drove the tech press into a frenzy of schadenfreude. Not only were they free to use their iPhones without guilt, but they were also completely confused about what it means to tell a story versus reporting on an event. I admit it’s unfair to paint the entire tech press with this brush, but Manjoo’s piece is awfully revelatory and I think this is at least a pretty strong hypothesis.

That said, Mike Daisey did cross a line by implying his story was genuine reportage, but the truth of his play is not therefore diminished. And whatever Sorkin does with the story of Steve Jobs, it will rise or fall on its own merits. Not as a documentary about the man, but as a film with a script and actors to speak the lines.

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