Daisey on the Shame Chain

Near the end of last week, I'd wanted to weigh in here on the cancellation of HBO's "Luck" - the ending of which was directly caused by accidents that led to three horses being euthanized during filming. The story leading up to the plug being pulled on "Luck" had me intrigued because it allowed for a curious peek inside the chasm between PETA and the American Humane Society. But I was also drawn to the evolving intrigue around this horsey story because I just plain love(d) the show. It seems that I'm one of the few who saw the snap once again in David Milch's writing and the conflict-heavy brilliance possible inside the world of racing. As luck would have it, we hit the road last Thursday for a long weekend in the Bay Area. A nice big chunk of which for me meant getting back to the satisfying face-to-face work of research in the field as it relates to much grander narrative ambitions. As has been the case up to now and will still be going forward until such time as having some announcements to make, I don't talk about sources. In effect, this blog parses out parts of the story of a story in progress. Things that interest me as I go along get sporadically posted here - all, hopefully, related to the broader theme. I make up my own rules, but they adhere somewhat to a basic sensibility - I'm not doing journalism, but I treat the people I speak with as if I am doing so. Then something happened over the weekend which made me do a full stop as a small storm of pseudo-journalistic inappropriateness rumbled over the horizon.

"This American Life" ran its "Retraction" of Mike Daisey being featured on their show in January of this year (the most popular episode in their history dating back to the mid-90s). In that original airing, Daisey excerpted and repackaged parts of his stage performance "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs". I wish Daisey's mistake and the subsequent reaction didn't belong to an entire category of such trainwreck stories. James Frey and Greg Mortensen (to name just the most obvious two) have already primed the memory pump. Yet to hear Daisey being interviewed by Ira Glass about the way he outright lied and spun the truth and bent over backwards to lump together an otherwise compelling story about the supply chain for Apple products manufactured in China is to hear a man's reputation come crashing down around him in pieces. I was stunned. I was saddened. I was impressed by "This American Life" immensely yet again. I thought about my own time in China last fall "reporting" for my own book. And I'm still thinking about what it means if someone with a mission to tell a larger truth gets caught with even a few lies mixed into the work.

I can't help but think of my own work and a conversation I continually have (both with myself and others) about the way in which I am pursuing this project. I believe it is possible to write a book that is somewhere between "journalism" and "memoir" - a book that bridges bookstores categories that run from "history" to "current affairs" to the full range of indie bookseller classifications that encompass "animal rights" and "nature" and "politics and culture". In fact, I've been spending a great deal of time lately thinking about just that - if the bridge between categories is something appropriate to use when writing a book. Mike Daisey's experience (and that of Frey and Mortensen and countless others who've seemingly ambled down this same road where they feel like the rules don't apply to them) is very much on my mind today. Whatever happens to him hereafter, I think a lesson might be applicable for all sorts of writers. I think it could be summed up as follows:

If you tweak the truth, someone will follow up and find it. Period. Luck has nothing to do with it.