There was an interesting article today in the Washington Post about David Sedaris, who’s been getting kudos for awhile now as a contributing writer and storyteller for “This American Life,” the ever-popular NPR program. As the Post states, “Starting with his reading on NPR of a now-beloved story about his experiences as an elf for a Macy’s Santa Claus, Sedaris has grown into one of America’s preeminent humorists.”
The problem, it turns out, is that many of these “realish” stories have had a lot of fabricated characters and events in them, even though they were marketed as true stories, which is what made them so interesting. It seems that truthfulness is really important to journalistic organizations such as NPR.
In this period of amazing pressure to create really compelling and interesting content 24-7, it’s really challenging to create enough to meet the demand and to stay top of mind. I mean, are there really that many really amazing stories out there every day, especially TRUE ones? Who has the time to dig them up? Wouldn’t it be easier to take a pretty average story and maybe gussy it up a bit with a few fictional enhancements? What’s the harm if it makes the point and closes that sale?
In defending Sedaris, NPR execs said things like “…we just assumed the audience was sophisticated enough to tell that this guy is making jokes and that there was a different level of journalistic scrutiny that we and they should apply…” Sorry, not good enough. It’s never made clear on the show that these stories are fictional. Seems like folks are trying to get some journalistic mileage out of them by placing them in the context of real journalism.
So what?, you say. The point of all this whining is this: your company cannot afford to take this kind of license when you present yourself. You must be truthful, open, transparent. You must own your weaknesses and engage your customers to find solutions to them, with their input. You must struggle for missing excellence just as they do. Taking shortcuts or making good stuff up just doesn’t work anymore. Once your credibility is shot, like Sedaris’s might be, then it’s really hard to get it back, if you ever do. Ask JP Morgan. Or Jim Bakker. Or John Edwards.