The Trouble with Daisey

To my mind, the Mike Daisey controversy — in which _This American Life_ aired a segment of Daisey’s monologue only to discover, thanks to real journalistic fact-checking by a reporter working for a different show that Daisey is a dramatist and not a journalist — reveals something I have long thought about _This American Life_: they are lazy. They are lazy because they are convinced of their own superiority. At least, that’s the impression one gets from listening to the narration in their work. They may not in fact feel that way, but if that’s the case then they need to change how they frame their stories.

It’s the same smugness that permeated David Foster Wallace’s nonfiction work and which made him a *cause celebre* among the literati and technorati. Hipsters loves themselves an *enfant terrible*. (A lot of French phrases here, no?) It’s a kind of unfair advantage they have in investigating the lives of others and reporting it among themselves: they (we) are free to snigger all we want.

_RadioLab_ has occasionally slipped into this mode, and as the show’s popularity has increased they seem more and more happy to lapse into this mode and the other weakness of public radio and television, which is something like “documentary lite”, where telling some sort of story is more important than reporting the substance of a matter.

Don’t get me wrong. Storytelling is important, but really interesting stories come out of the data itself, not out of pre-conceived notion of twenty-four minutes or forty-eight minutes or whatever the current Discovery Channel or NPR (or PBS) redbook is for various shows. RadioLab’s flexible short and long formatting should allow them to get around this, but I suspect that once you discover a successful genre or voice and you gain an audience and you are making a decent living, it’s hard to want to try a different genre or voice or point of view in your productions.

And I suspect this applies to more people than _This American Life_ or _RadioLab_. We know it applies to authors — and here I confess that my favorite commute listening is Clive Cussler — and it probably applies to scholars and scientists: you have some success in an area that’s interesting to you and it gets you going, but then you keep mining it, even when all the work there is to do is done. Or you are done. But you have to keep going because now you have bills that are a good percentage of the peak of your productivity and to switch now to something else would be too dangerous, too risky.

Sigh. And so then we end up with the embarrassment of Mike Daisey on _This American Life_.