This American Life and the Grey Area Known As "Truth" - News and Information Week


This American Life host Ira Glass at a book signing in 2009. Photo by Timothy Vollmer.

Both host Ira Glass and his popular radio series, This American Life, fell under intense scrutiny this past week after it was revealed that one of the stories airing on the show was dishonestly reported, and that the alleged journalist who did so acted knowingly. The piece was a newscast by author and actor, Mike Daisey, titled, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” which examined exploitation of Chinese workers in the production of Apple iPads. Of course, there’s been press coverage of this issue in the past, but nothing quite as revealing and explosive as Daisey’s account. The story was a huge hit for the program until recently when the man who was said to have “outed Apple’s abysmal labor practices,” turned out to be simply a great narrator, convoluting a few facts with a tale that was primarily made-up.

Surprised and ashamed, Glass confronted Daisy during an hour-long retraction episode of the broadcast on March 16.

“Two months ago, we broadcast a story that we’ve come to believe is not true,” Glass said on the show. “We did fact-check the story before we put it on the radio. But in fact-checking, our main concern was whether the things Mike says about Apple and about its supplier, Foxconn, which makes this stuff, were true. That stuff is true. It’s been corroborated by independent investigations by other journalists, studies by advocacy groups, and much of it has been corroborated by Apple itself in its own audit reports.”

Glass goes on to address the lack of due diligence concerning other aspects of the piece, commenting, “I can say now in retrospect that when Mike Daisey wouldn’t give us contact information for his interpreter we should’ve killed the story rather than run it…Instead, we trusted his word. Although he’s not a journalist, we made clear to him that anything he was going to say on our show would have to live up to journalistic standards. He had to be truthful. And he lied to us.”

When directly questioned by the host, Daisey replied, “I think I was terrified that if I untied these things, that the work, that I know is really good, and tells a story, that does these really great things for making people care, that it would come apart in a way where, where it would ruin everything.”

Daisy has also risen to his own defense in a speech this week at Georgetown University, stating he is not a journalist, but an artist, and a purveyor of what he’s deemed “counterfeit truth,” or theater disguised as journalism. For some, this is not nearly an acceptable apology, yet it does beg the question as to where lines are drawn between news and story, and how the public can ascertain a real journalist in the age of media sensationalism.

We spoke to Paul Cuadros, an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, on the subject, and whether news had to be spectacular to be worthy of note.

“There’s been a progression here in the focus of online media,” explains Cuadros. “Years ago, there was a melding, a coming together at broadcast stations between the entertainment and news divisions, so we see that happening in the industry and things get blurred. We’re seeing information as entertainment, that’s why you hear the term ‘infotainment.’ It’s easier to sell products like advertising, and everyone’s just trying to break through… We get our news on the Internet now, not on the six o’clock broadcast.”

Accordingly, Cuadros feels it’s imperative for the public to consider what medium they are referring to when assessing the accuracy of a piece. The tagline, “based on a true story,” means something significantly different in a film than it does a magazine feature, for example. Movies are expected to take creative liberties in their works, but news outlets cannot. For a show like This American Life, there was a standard approach to be honored.

This American Life has been skating with this idea that you can mix entertainers in your one-hour broadcast with news features,” observes Cuardro, calling the program a “theme-oriented” show. “Sometimes they have reporters to go and visit a place… They may use that in their Act I segment… and then in Act II, I’ve noticed recently, they will often bring in a comedian. It’s still about the same theme, but it’s a very different thing, meant to entertain, meant to find relief. Sometimes, it’s the best part of the four acts because it’s commentary that cuts through the theme to examine the problem. In this case, the issue was that Daisey was the performance part, but he said he went onsite as a reporter and blurred the lines.”

Cuadro stresses the need for both transparency and clarity to avoid such high profile discrepancies in present-day journalism.

He also adds, “For This American Life, they must consider brighter lines in the roles people play on their broadcast, so everyone knows what’s going on.”

Daisey, nevertheless, continues to stand by his work. He wrote on his blog this week, “You certainly don’t need to listen to me. Read the New York Times reporting. Listen to the NPR piece that ran just last week in which workers at an iPad plant go on record saying the plant was inspected by Apple just hours before it exploded, and that the inspection lasted all of ten minutes. If you think this story is bigger than that story, something is wrong with your priorities.”