Ira Glass bills his popular public radio program, “This American Life,” as being “Funny. Dramatic. Surprising. True.”
So Glass apparently was appalled to find that a show he broadcast in January – which was at turns funny, dramatic and surprising – was not entirely true.
Last week, Glass retracted the show he had run on Jan. 6 featuring author and actor Mike Daisey, in which Daisey talked about harsh conditions under which workers at plants in China make Apple’s iPhones and iPads. The show consisted of excerpts from a stage show Daisey had been performing as a monologue since 2010, and it included material Daisey said was based on a trip he had made to China to see the situation for himself.
Glass, who will appear in Durham tonight, spent his entire hour on the retraction, including an interview with Daisey in which Glass asked him point by point about falsehoods in the original show, and another interview with a reporter for The New York Times who has covered Apple and its Chinese manufacturing operations.
The retraction was a first for Glass, a journalist, storyteller and humorist who is scheduled to talk about how his program comes together in tonight’s appearance at the Durham Performing Arts Center. But the episode with Daisey illustrates a longstanding challenge that grows more acute as news-gatherers seek also to entertain their audiences: the occasional blurring of the lines between journalism and art.
Glass, who declined to discuss the Daisey episode further this week, took responsibility for having vouched for the veracity of Daisey’s story by giving him an audience on his show. Glass said he and his staff vetted Daisey’s claims and that what Daisey said about Apple has been corroborated by journalists, labor advocacy groups and Apple’s own annual audit reports.
But when they asked Daisey for the name and phone number of the translator he had worked with while in China to verify encounters he said he had there with underage workers, and with workers who had been injured or poisoned on the job, Daisey said he didn’t have it.
Right then, Glass said, “We should’ve killed the story.”
During the retraction show and in a blog post later, Daisey defended his work. While he shouldn’t have presented it as journalism – it’s theater, he said – he suggested that it had served a larger purpose by bringing the working conditions in Chinese plants to a much greater audience than they would otherwise have had.
Glass’ show is carried on 500 stations nationwide and has an estimated 1.7 million listeners each week. The original episode has been downloaded more times than any other since “This American Life” premiered in 1995.
Fact vs. fiction
Jean Folkerts, the Alumni Distinguished Professor and former dean of the UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication, thinks audiences appreciate the difference between fiction and fact. They can be moved by both, but they don’t want one to be presented as the other.
“I think you can use dramatic license within a factual setting,” Folkerts said. “You don’t have to create something that’s not real in order to do that.
“It’s harder than just making things up,” she said. “But it’s worth it in my opinion.”
In Internet discussions about the incident, Glass is praised for having called Daisey out as a liar and acknowledging his own part in what some have called a hoax. Those who have agreed with Daisey’s argument that his means justified his ends – that fabricating details is a small sin if it raises American consumers’ consciousness about the devices they carry in their pockets – has been compared to other incidents in which journalists lied or repeated a source’s lies.
“Fake but accurate” is a phrase that evolved from the use in 2004 by CBS’ “60 Minutes” of memos purporting to have been found in the personal files of President George Bush’s former commanding officer in the Texas Air National Guard. Though CBS later issued a retraction and said the source of the documents had misled the network about how he had obtained them, Dan Rather, who had reported the story, maintained years later that the truth of the story still stood.
Janet Cooke won a 1981 Pulitzer prize for a feature story she wrote for the Washington Post about an 8-year-old heroin addict. She gave back the award after having to admit she had made the story up. She later said she had been under pressure from editors at the paper and that she had heard rumors that such a child did exist.
Individually, Folkerts said, none of these misdeeds do much damage. But cumulatively, she said, “It doesn’t help journalism’s credibility, and its credibility is not very high right now. The numbers have dropped over the years.”
Sarah Cohen, Knight Professor of the Practice of Journalism and Public Policy at Duke University, said the problem with mixing fact and fiction and presenting it as journalism is that, “When you’re working with quasi-truth, the actual truth then gets buried. The reason people care is that when you mess up the truth with some fiction, how are people supposed to know what to believe and what not to believe?”
Cohen said she grew up in an era of “information deprivation,” but that her students have the opposite problem.
“They have information overload. But most of it’s bad,” she said.
They’re aware of this. Cohen said her students are very brand-conscious, and they don’t believe everything they read, watch or hear. They have sources they trust, and one reason people are so upset about Daisey’s deceit of “This American Life” is that Ira Glass is one of those sources.
In the long run, Cohen said, the incident shouldn’t hurt Glass’s credibility or journalism in general.
“It’s one more example of being lied to by a source,” she said. “In my class, we have one whole week on sources who lie. It’s been a problem since day one. This reminds everyone to stay vigilant.”