The ‘This American Life’ retraction

Logo from the radio program This American Life

Logo from the radio program This American Life (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is a bit of an old story but many people may not be familiar with it. Back in January, the NPR radio program and podcast, “The American Life” aired an episode where they allowed a spoken word artist named Mike Daisey to perform his stage piece about his visit to China and the shocking discovery he’d made while there about the worker conditions in the factories that manufacture Apple products. They did so with the understanding that the facts presented in the story met the journalistic standards for accuracy. Then earlier this past month, in an unprecedented move, This American Life broadcast an entire episode-long retraction.

I’d heard about the story but just got around to listening to both episodes for the first time. Both make for amazing listening, so I highly recommend them. But the most fascinating part of this is of course the retraction episode. Sadly, it’s a rare thing today to see professionals publicly admit they’d made major errors in judgment, own up to it, and apologize. And it just goes to show how much the crew at This American Life care about the truth.

But even more interesting about this show is that they were able to interview Mike Daisey about the inconsistencies in his story at length. That interview actually surprised me because Daisey doesn’t deny all the accusations as one would expect. Early into their interview, he seems to have an answer for everything.

Daisey reminded me of Stephen Glass, the young writer at The New Republic in the 1990s who was discovered to have fabricated most if not all of his articles partially if not entirely. Glass’ story was made into a great film a few years ago called “Shattered Glass.” In that film, we see Glass similarly having an answer for everything when confronted with inconsistencies in his work. It’s only after his Editor, Charles Lane, starts really digging and finds himself drowning in an ocean full of  excuses that when taken individually all sound plausible enough but together add up to an implausible whole. The real Charles Lane has an audio commentary on the DVD of the film, which itself provides  fascinating insight into the mind of a pathological liar. That’s not to say that Daisey is a pathological liar but his answers during the interview, especially in the beginning, feel much like Glass’ plausible lies that only crumble when presented in their totality.

But here, a completely different Glass, This American Life host Ira Glass, confronts Daisey and what we get is some very surprising confessions, often following some of the longest on-air silences I’ve ever heard as Daisey seems to slowly attempt to formulate the best lie only to give up and eventually cop to the truth, though he stops short of identifying his behavior as “lying.” Though he earlier rejected the notion of moral relativity, later on he attempts to distinguish standards of truth in journalism from standards of truth on stage, admitting to failing the former while still maintaining the same misrepresentation of facts is completely acceptable on stage knowing audiences are going to trust his first-hand accounts are not drastically altered for dramatic effect and accurately reflect events that really happened.

In a way, I’m actually glad this happened because this makes for a great teaching moment about critical thinking. Ira Glass flat-out states that once Daisey told him that he no longer had the contact information for the one person he says was with him on the entire journey, the one person would could verify some of his claims, that Glass should have pulled the story then and there. Ira Glass courageously takes full credit for the error in judgment, and I think the show is better for it. Now we know how committed This American Life is to being honest. And now millions of listeners will learn lessons in the importance of fact-checking and how to spot a phony.

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