This American Lie

March 19, 2012

This week’s episode of This American Life is bound to ignite as much controversy as the episode it retracts: Mike Daisey’s critical story of factories in China used by Apple (and others) to manufacture electronics like iPads and iPhones. Parts of Daisey’s story was fabricated, which Daisey defends by saying that the theatre show from which it is excerpted serves to raise awareness about the issue by combining personal experience with other accounts.

It’s painful to listen to the “Retraction” episode. Daisey’s long silences before responding to questions from TAL host Ira Glass serve as a uncomfortable confirmation that he was willing to ignore the journalistic standards of This American Life to draw attention to himself and his own show. But just as unfortunate was the fact that Glass and his TAL team didn’t successfully fact-check the story before airing it. I’d say that the latter is the more important takeaway from the episode, but I’m afraid that it will be the less reported of the two.

Throughout the episode, Glass painted a story of This American Life as victim. He asked Daisey again and again why he lied to the show’s producers and to Glass himself. He assured listeners throughout the show that public radio programs had high standards and that they follow thorough processes for fact-checking.

But they didn’t work. And other than calling the airing a “screwup” and saying that they never should’ve aired the show, Glass didn’t apologize.

Was it wrong for Daisey to air his story on a show like This American Life? Definitely, and I agree with Glass’s “worldview” that Daisey’s performances should be marked as fictional. But for a host of reasons, sometimes sources lie. It’s a journalist’s job to find out what is true and what is not – and when there’s doubt about part of a story, it should be labelled as such (especially when the source in question sells a series entitled “All Stories Are Fiction”). The responsibility for the retracted episode is in Glass’s hands, not Daisey’s.

Why didn’t TAL producers corroborate the story with others who had visited the factories in question? Why didn’t they talk to Marketplace’s Rob Schmitz, a public radio reporter featured in the retraction episode who “heard the story and had questions about it”, before running the original monologue? Schmitz had been to numerous Chinese factories and had talked with some of the Apple supplier workers who were mentioned in the story.

The tragedy of the original story is that all stories about Apple supplier factories will now be tainted with uncertainty and doubt. That could’ve been prevented if the story never ran at all.

The retraction attempts to place the responsibilities of journalism on the subject of the story, not on the journalist. That’s the real tragedy.