Arts & Culture

This American Life Contributor Jack Hitt on "Making Up the Truth"

By Erica C. Barnett March 16, 2012

Note: I can't write about This American Life contributor Jack Hitt's one-man show without noting that another TAL contributor, Seattle monologuist Mike Daisey, was busted publicly today for fabricating many elements of his piece "Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory," about abuses at Apple's iPhone factory in Shenzhen, China, which was the most popular piece This American Life ever aired. Which makes the title of Hitt's show, "Making Up the Truth," more than a little topical.

It probably won't shock anyone reading here that I'm a bit of a This American Life fangirl: Ira Glass and his amazing posse of intrepid reporters and storytellers might as well have been minted for coast-dwelling, awkward, overeducated ladies like me. But by far one of my favorite folks on Glass's show is Jack Hitt, a charismatic but soft-voiced Southerner whose work on TAL has included pieces about a building super who turned out to be a Brazilian mobster, an Alabama immigration law that has had some major unintended consequences, and possibly the most disastrous production of "Peter Pan" ever. He also wrote a now-legendary piece for the New York Times Magazine  about the consequences of abortion law in El Salvador, which bans abortion in every circumstance.

His one-man show about brain science and storytelling, Making Up the Truth, runs three days at the Northwest Film Forum, starting tonight at 8:00; tickets are available here.

PubliCola: As a fellow Southerner (I'm from Mississippi; Hitt's from South Carolina), I have to start with the most important question: How did you manage to ditch your accent?

Jack Hitt: First of all, I don't know about you, but when I land on the tarmac in South Carolina it's like some tractor beam takes hold of my jaw and I'm talking like i do at home. The other thing that needs to be said is that the accents on the [Atlantic] shore are more pronounced and drawly. ... Charleston was a slave port town so as a result, for most of its history, 80 percent of the residents were black, and the the majority accent was Gullah. Our accent was just a slightly watered-down version of Gullah.

PubliCola: Your show is called "Making Up the Truth," and one of the premises is that we all have amazing stories to tell, if we'd just recognize them. How do you go about finding stories?

Hitt: As a teenager, one of the people I grew up with was this man named Gordon Langley Hall, who was one of the first people in the world to  beomce a transsexual. There were television crews on our street for years. Eventually, she got married, had a kid---there was this whole amazing epic, some of it absolutely true, and some of it debatable. But because I lived this story, I became the guy who had these odd stories.

PubliCola: One of the things you talk about in your show is this idea that people, ordinary people, are surrounded by stories like this all the time, and that they filter them out  as a way of coping with too much information. Explain what you mean.

Hitt: As I became a journalist on the radio, everybody would always ask, "Is any of that true?" And that always sort of bothered me. And I found myself in the company of these odd scientists who actually are studying how the brain conjures a story. And the the new thinking now among many of them is that the only thing the brain is, is a story. It's a story-generating machine. The brain is kind of in a constant conversation with itself. What they believe is that our sense of self is just narrating our story all day long.

It explains how we have these different ideas of ourselves. When you go back home, you find yourself behaving in this odd way. The science now explains how that works. The science also shows that as we take in this sensual data, the brain is editing that as it comes in. It actually tailors an Erica-like world for Erica, and it puts together a Jack-like world for Jack.

There's this wonderful story out of Boston, where this cop was running after some bad guys and he passed by some cops beating the crap out of this guy---who turned out to be an undercover cop---and basically leaving him for dead. And the only person they knew who went by then was this guy named Kenneth Connelly. But his story was deemed to be silly---how could you miss a bunch of cops beating the crap out of a guy?

Well, Daniel Simons [a psychologist at the University of Illinois] realized that in fact, this was a very possible story. So he did this experiment where you're supposed to run through the woods and your job is to follow someone who's running in front of you. And meanwhile, three people are having a fight right off the path. And something like 60 percent of the people who ran this test did not see the fights.

[Simons is] the guy who figured out inattention blindness and confirmation bias ways in which we force reality to adhere to what the brian thinks it ought to see. What they're saying is that without the brain as a filter, we would live in a sort of Darwinian state of being constantly panicked by reality. There's a kind of greater layer of chaos beyond our senses, and our senses are keeping the world less chaotic than they might be.

PubliCola: It seems like racial profiling must be related to that idea of confirmation bias.

Hitt: There's one story where they ask people to press a button that says "good" or "bad" and they ran these different pictures. And if the word "good" appeared below a black person's face, it would take something like half a second longer to press a button. Even the most liberal, the most socially conscious person, has an embedded tendency toward racial profiling.

PubliCola: You wrote a piece in 2006 for the New York Times Magazine about abortion politics in El Salvador, where abortion is illegal in every circumstance. Do you think we're heading in that direction in the United States?

Hitt: It's one of those social issues that make everybody crazy... Obama has, in the past, not been very clever about creating these larger arcs of messaging to political effect. But now, he seems to be quite effective at it. In may he's going to be talking at Barnard---basically, to all of the top women in the country. I think this whole election is going to be a giant referendum on women.

Politics is all about being better at analyzing demographic shifts. Every four years, a whole new group of 18-year-olds have moved into the voting ranks, and four years of 70-, 80-, 90-year-olds have died, so you have an enormous shift of voters.

One of the huge things that has happened in America is the amazing public shift on same sex marriage. In 2008, neither candidate would come out and say anything but "civil unions, civil unions," and now the guy defending gay marriage before the Supreme Court is Ted Olson, a superconservative. Ellen DeGeneres is the new spokesperson for J.C. Penney. This is like Main Street, Kansas. And so the Million Moms, this conservative group, comes out and says we're going to boycott J.C. Penney and we're going to keep it going until Ellen DeGeneres is no longer a spokesperson. And the CEO came out with this amazingly strong statement: "No, Ellen is the spokesperson. Deal with it. And then, a week later, the million moms just gave up entirely. Apparently it was just the biggest flop ever

Well, this was two weeks before the Rush Limbaugh thing with [Georgetown Law student Sandra] Fluke. The centrist women's vote, which is always sought out by both parties, is the Ellen DeGeneres talk show demographic. They don't like racism, they don't like homophobia, they don't like mean words being spoken about people because of who they love. Rush's audience---they're 82. They're not big purchasers. The advertisers bailing on Limbaugh [more than 100, at last count]---I think these two events are related. This is really just a giant movement. It's the free market doing what conservatives love for it to do. They look at the Ellen audience and they say you old grouchy guys, you're morbidly obese, you don't buy anything, you're angry, so we're going to sign with the other audience.

PubliCola: Obviously, there's been a ton of hand-wringing in recent years about the death of print media. Yet radio seems to hang on. Do you think it's a viable media in the long term?

Hitt: I think it may be the dominant medium in the country right now. The audience for "All Things Considered" is double-digit millions bigger than any TV news shows. It's true that print is in big trouble, but so far, the new media hasn't generated huge sums of money. But as a result, radio has become the dominant broadcast medium in the country. And the second thing is that there's this other model---much older: The old patronage model. That is to say, a rich guy buys your paper and keeps it alive. He says, I love your paper, y'all just keep doing that paper thing that you're doing. The Atlantic and Harper's are all owned by millionaires---the co-founder of Facebook just bought the New Republic---that's a great tradition.

Jack Hitt performs his show, Making Up the Truth, tonight and tomorrow night at the Northwest Film Forum, 1515 12th Ave., at 8 pm; tickets are available here.
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