close enough for jazz

I’m a PBS nerd and I’m also a NPR nerd. I’m especially a “This American Life” nerd. And you know what’s happened on This American Life, right? You heard about their retractionof a story that was an adaptation of Mike Daisy’s stage show “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs”? Because there was stuff in it that wasn’t factual? Because there’s, like, a big difference between a theater piece and a work of journalism.

Now, I must tell you I have a bias against journalism. Or journalists, really. They may be very precise about The Facts, but that doesn’t make them very precise about The Truth, which is a different thing. The journalists I talk to tend to have a story in mind and they’re looking for facts that substantiate that story. And we all know by now that confirmation bias means that they’ll just ignore anything I tell them that doesn’t fit into their story. They’re interested in facts, not the truth. That’s my experience.

And I think The Truth is more important than The Facts. And I think what Mike Daisy gave us is The Truth.

My sister has this saying, “Close enough for jazz!” which she uses flippantly, like “Good enough for government work.” But also as in, it’s not about precision, it’s about meaning and relationships, ya know? You may fudge the facts in the service of the truth. Close enough for jazz.

Journalism is about facts. Art is about truth. I think the opposite of facts is lies. I think the opposite of truth is ignorance.

Of all disciplines, I think only science captures both facts and the truth, and science is incredibly slow and deep, the way evolution is slow and deep or the way plate tectonics are slow and deep. On Chris Hayes’ show, they talked about how “It’s much more complicated than that,” applies to Michael Moore and to the Kony video and to Daisy’s piece – to any reality-based art and to any activism.

And that’s a sentence I use over and over again on the blog and in my class – It’s much more complicated than that – because how can I convey in these media the real complexity of the science, particularly when people need not just the science itself but ALSO basic instruction in the nature of scientific inquiry, its shortcomings, its role as a process rather than an outcome… And by the time I get two sentences into that, people have stopped caring. They want truth, not facts.

What Mike Daisy tells us is that art’s about making people CARE in a way that straightforward fact can’t. And that’s activism too, which lies somewhere between journalism and art, right? He said

And everything I have done in making this monologue for the theater has been toward that end – to make people care. I’m not going to say that I didn’t take a few shortcuts in my passion to be heard.

I can’t help but feel a lot of sympathy with that point of view. Because he did make me care. He told me the truth… even if he fudged the facts. It’s not rocket science; hell it’s not even journalism. It’s art. The facts aren’t his job; the truth is.

(There’s a Venn diagram in here somewhere, waiting to be drawn – overlapping bits of truth and fact and caring, with journalism, art, science, and activism.)

(None of this applies, I should specify, to the times when he plain old lied to the producers at TAL. That’s just one human talking to another, that’s just his defensive fear that his story would be drained of its power if it were stretched and diluted with ordinary fact. That’s not art; that’s just human beings.)

You guys, I ALWAYS fictionalize my stories about other people’s sex lives. Part of that is to protect anonymity, but part of it is to make the story a better, clearer, more compelling illustration of the point I want to make. I leave out details, I speed up the narrative, I simplify the conflict. Human beings aren’t characters; you can’t tell a story about humans, only about characters. So I build characters out of fragments of humans, and I shape stories from fragments of their lives. Occasionally I take a painterly liberty with literal fact, interpreting to create a reality more real than the literal reality.

Storytelling is too powerful a pedagogical tool for me to abandon it simply because it demands the culling and processing of facts in service of the truth.

I struggle constantly, reaching for ways to make people care about the things I care about, make them understand what I understand. But mostly people can only be made to care about a few small things at a time. Science and the deep, slow truth of reality are too big for most people to care about most of the time.

And I am thinking about where a blog fits in the journalism/science/art/truth-ignorance/fact-lie web – particularly a blog written by an actual expert. You expect truth from me; you expect facts. But you only read when you care. The power of a blog is that it allows truth and facts to accumulate over multiple posts, yet when people link to my blog, they link to a specific post that moved them or enlightened them. How much should each individual post be truth, how much fact, how much science?

Anyway, I think it’s more complicated than that. But here, have this blog post. It’s close enough for jazz.