Fallacy, Lies, Retraction–All Part of a Daisey Day in ‘This American Life’

Posted on March 22, 2012

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The title of this week’s episode of “This American Life” left no doubt about its theme. It was called “Retraction,” and it told the story, with raw honesty and naked regret, of how Ira Glass’ acclaimed and award-winning Public Radio broadcast aired a report on the Chinese workers making Apple products, which was filled with falsehoods and fantasy.

The original story, “Mr Daisey and the Apple Factory,” was monologist Mike Daisey’s (pictured above) story of traveling to China to find out how his beloved Apple products are made. What he saw horrified him to the point he created a  stage show he called “The Agony And The Ecstasy Of Steve Jobs,” where he recounted tales of 13-year-old workers, and those maimed and suffering from unsafe working conditions, all in the name of the next iPad.

It was emotional.

It was heartbreaking.

It was a beautiful story.

And most of it was pure crap.

“I have difficult news,” host Ira Glass wrote on the show’s blog. “We’ve learned that Mike Daisey’s story about Apple in China – which we broadcast in January – contained significant fabrications. We’re retracting the story because we can’t vouch for its truth.

“We’re horrified to have let something like this onto public radio. Many dedicated reporters and editors – our friends and colleagues – have worked for years to build the reputation for accuracy and integrity that the journalism on public radio enjoys. It’s trusted by so many people for good reason. Our program adheres to the same journalistic standards as the other national shows, and in this case, we did not live up to those standards.”

Ira Glass

For those, like me, whose week is not complete without a “This American Life” fix, who savor each multi-act story like it is part of our own past and present, it is heartbreaking to see our longtime and well-loved guide, Ira Glass, so heartbroken, to hear his  anger at being lied to, his disbelief that his show could have been duped, and pain that he put forth a product that was detrimental to his listeners. But the way he dissected the story and Mr. Daisey’s role in it was as strong  journalism as Ira has ever produced, and it is perhaps in the depth of such despair that his finest hour was truly aired.

The first act of the three-act show let China-based Marketplace reporter Rob Schmitz break down the errors in the story, through his own research and investigation, and using the interpreter that Daisey told Ira could not be found. Act 2 gave Ira and Schmitz the chance to confront Mike Daisey and basically ask him, “What the hell were you thinking?” And in Act 3, Ira sought out a real journalist, the New York Times’  Charles Duhigg, to get the real story.

In the end, Daisey’s defense was he was performing theater, not journalism, so he had a responsibility to simply tell a good story–and to do that the truth can become pliable, massageable, open to mutilation.

No, it can’t.

The beauty of journalism in its finest form is the story telling of the truth, the immersive descriptions that can bring any reader to a place they have likely never been and never will be. It is showing real characters in their natural state–warts and beauty. It is pulling out descriptions and anecdotes and quotes that may make real stories seem unbelievable–but knowing they are not.

After Duhigg related for Ira Apple’s real human rights record and actions in China, Ira questioned if he was supposed to feel bad about owning Apple products, because he wasn’t sure that he did. Duhigg’s response was journalism in a nutshell.

“It’s not my job to tell you whether you should feel bad or not,” he said. “…My job is to find facts and essentially let you make a decision on your own.”

And that, my friends, is what truth is all about.

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Posted in: General, Journalism