Dr. Lawrence Pintak, Founding Dean of The Edward R. Murrow College of Communication, responds to the recent This American Life controversy surrounding their story on Apple's manufacturing practices in China. This commentary appeared today in the Columbia Journalism Review.
Over the weekend, as just about anyone with electricity knows by now, the public radio program This American Life fell on its sword over its bad Apple episode. The gesture was a noble one. As CJR’s Ryan Chittum put it:
With the stunning news that This American Life is retracting its episode on Apple and Foxconn after finding that Mike Daisey misled them about fabrications in his story, it’s worth noting that Ira Glass and TAL are showing how a news organization should act when hit with a scandal like this.
The gesture was indeed something of a model for a journalistic outlet when it learns it has been misled. But I can’t shake the notion that what some consider Ira Glass’s classy response to the episode was just a tad self-serving, letting his program off the hook too easily for allowing it to happen in the first place.
Some background for those who haven’t turned on a radio in the past few days: In early January, This American Life, which is produced for Public Radio International by WBEZ Chicago, carried a lengthy segment by a man named Mike Daisey. The segment documented in minute detail the worker abuses he said he witnessed at plants in China that produce Apple’s iPad. It would have been a riveting piece of investigative journalism. Except that it wasn’t either investigative or journalism.
Daisey is a theatrical monologist. This American Life essentially passed off as factual reporting an excerpt based on his stage show, called The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. And—surprise!—it turns out Daisey never witnessed most of what he so dramatically recounts for his theater audiences. That inconvenient fact was discovered by Rob Schmitz, Shanghai correspondent for American Public Media show, Marketplace.
As the dean of a journalism school and the head of a major public radio network in the Pacific Northwest that airs This American Life, I could do little but shake my head as I listened to this weekend’s This American Life edition, in which longtime host Ira Glass did his own version of Casablanca’s Captain Renault (“I’m shocked, shocked to find gambling is going on here”), attempting to cover negligence with outrage.
“I have such a weird mix of feelings about this,” he tells Daisey during “Act Two” of the weekend’s program (according to the official transcript), “because I simultaneously feel terrible, for you, and also, I feel lied to. And also I stuck my neck out for you. You know I feel like, I feel like, like I vouched for you. With our audience. Based on your word.”
But therein lays the rub. Based on Daisey’s word. In the original broadcast, Glass tells listeners:
Our staff did weeks of fact checking to corroborate Daisey’s findings.
In fact, by their own admission, This American Life’s producers never spoke to anyone Daisey allegedly interviewed or the Chinese translator who accompanied him. Memo to Glass: Fact-checking is about more than reading think tank reports. In the segment, Glass says his team asked Daisey for a phone number for the translator. Daisey claimed the number no longer worked. That is, apparently, as far as it went. But Marketplace’s Schmitz found her though a simple Google search.
In this weekend’s mea culpa, Schmitz spoke with Cathy Lee, the translator who worked with Daisey, and she told Schmitz that much of the story was fiction. At one point, Schmitz noted that the translator didn’t seem at all angry with Daisey:
Cathy Lee: He is a writer. So I know what he say is only maybe half of them or less actual. But he is allowed to do that right? Because he’s not a journalist.
Glass & Co. should have seen the red flags long before they ever made the first edit. Five minutes on the Internet would have turned up this headline from an October 1, 2006 New York Times review of one of Daisey’s shows:
THEATER REVIEW: Telling Tales About the Past, And Maybe Fudging Facts
In the article, critic Jason Zinoman makes this observation about Daisey’s stories:
It does make one wonder about their veracity. Without a text to work from, it must be tempting to introduce a little white lie here and there: an evocative detail, say, or a new sequence of events to improve the narrative?
A few months later, on January 21, 2007, the same reporter said Daisey’s work embodied “…a preoccupation with alternative histories, secrets large and small, and the fuzzy line where truth and fiction blur.”
And in a December 8, 2009 review, Zinoman observed:
Lately Mr. Daisey has become known as a polemicist. And when connecting disparate narratives to make sweeping claims about the way power works, his manner can resemble that other gifted star of the monologue, Glenn Beck.
Certainly nothing there to worry the fact checkers at This American Life.
A Chinese translator in Shenzhen intrinsically knew what Ira Glass and his team forgot, or conveniently ignored: There is a difference between a journalist and a writer—or an entertainer.
The About Us section of the This American Life website says the show consists of “mostly true stories of everyday people, though not always.” The problem with that? Passing off as journalism the work of a performance artist with a track record for conflating fact and fiction has inflicted yet another wound on public radio and the journalism industry as a whole.