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Fact checking David Sedaris: Does comedy need a disclaimer?

David Sedaris

In my large Irish family, our stories get better with age. It’s not that we lie about what’s happened to us, but when we get together for holidays or family events, we usually tell the same stories and they get better every time.

They start out as true of course, and the people, places and events all stay the same, but over time the funny parts get a little more funny, the dialogue a little more snappy and clever, and the reactions from onlookers a little more outrageous.

It used to drive my wife crazy, but now she just warns our daughters to be a little skeptical when “Daddy’s telling a story.”

NPR now finds itself in similar situation with humorist/commentator David Sedaris.

I remember first hearing David Sedaris on NPR’s Morning Edition when I was the local host at WILL-AM in Urbana, Illinois. It was just before Christmas in 1992, and this guy was describing what it was like to work as an elf in “Santa Land” at Macy’s department store. It was hilarious, and had me, and the board operator, and the weather guy laughing out loud.

Sedaris has since become better known with more essays on NPR, a handful of books, and appearances on This American Life.

Guess what? While Sedaris truly worked as an elf at Santa Land at Macy’s department store, he kind of exaggerates a bit when he tells the story to get more laughs. In fact, it turns out, Sedaris has often embellished and exaggerated his stories to make people laugh.

Apparently some critics of NPR and even some folks at the network and at This American Life (heard on many NPR stations but distributed by Public Radio International) are shocked, SHOCKED!, to discover not every part of every David Sedaris story is, well, 100 percent accurate.

Their concerns were even covered in an article in the Washington Post.

The producers of This American Life are understandably sensitive about this in the wake of their retraction of a program featuring Mike Daisy’s account of visiting Foxconn in China. Daisey admitted to making up facts and people in his story about his visit to a Chinese factory that makes iPads for Apple.

But c’mon – Daisy’s account of his trip to Foxconn was presented as journalism, as factual, as something that should generate outrage. Sedaris gives us accounts of being an elf, visiting a nudist camp, and working for a moving company in New York City.

Does public radio really need to fact check these stories to keep our journalistic integrity intact? Am I to believe that every poem ever aired on NPR from large animal veterinarian and cowboy poet Baxter Black was entirely true? Do we live in a world where Glen Beck can say whatever he wants because “he’s an entertainer, not a journalist,” but a comedian on public radio needs to verify every detail of a monologue?

There’s a big difference between Daisy and Sedaris. Daisy claimed to be exposing exploited workers in China, Sedaris tells stories of being exploited by having to wear a pointy hat and answer to the elf name Crumpet.

There’s talk that in the future, NPR should tell their audience, just so they can be sure, that parts of an essay by a comedian like Sedaris may be fictional. Does the public radio audience really need to be told that a segment featuring David Sedaris and talking animals is not entirely true?

I completely support transparency, and support never trying to fool the audience. Video dramatizations in news programs should be clearly labeled as such (although labeling animation as dramatizations may be going too far). But if 60 Minutes does a segment on comedian Ricky Gervais, do they need to put up a graphic that says “portions of Mr. Gervais’s comedy sketches may be embellished or exaggerated?"

We should never try to fool the audience, that’s unethical. But I think we can assume the audience has some common sense.

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