If you're one of the 1.8 million people who listen to the weekly radio program This American Life, you know the latest episode was an unusual one. Aired on Friday rather than Sunday, the show's host, Ira Glass, was in full damage-control mode after breaking the first commandment of journalism: Thou shalt not lie.
He devoted a full 58 minutes to retracting a show because he could no longer "vouch for its truth" after finding out some of the facts had been fabricated. You may have felt this was a little overblown. But think about what Ira was really doing. The show wasn't so much about covering his own ass as is was to tell listeners: "you can still trust me." And that should matter to you.
A word about trust: I'm going with the analogy of a ball. A ball of yarn. We each have one with the people (and radio programs) we care about and when things are good we are out in the sunshine throwing it back and fourth in a ripe old game of catch. Things get bad when a piece of yarn comes loose, it starts unravelling in the air, the clouds roll in and...you see where this one ends.
In January, the program known for its unique approach to journalism, using storytelling techniques like scene and character to explore issues, featured a piece by monologist and playwright Mike Daisey about Apple workers being exploited in Chinese factories, which he'd been performing in a sold-out off-Broadway show "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs." Though it was theatre, This American Lifers also believed the piece adhered to journalistic standards since Daisey had actually gone to a factory in Shenzhen along with a translator to conduct interviews.
Which brings us to the second journalistic commandment: Thou shall check facts. Ira and the show's producer Brian Reed did, just not well enough. Ira says they spent days going back and fourth with Daisey over email and in conversations, and that in addition to combing through Apple's reports about working conditions, Reed spoke with 13 people who were knowledgeable about the company's manufacturing in China.
What they didn't not do is act on the red flag. When they endeavoured to speak with his translator Cathy, who he names in the piece, he responded with two warning bells: 1) Daisey said the translator's actual name was Anna and 2) Her cellphone was no longer working. DING DING DING. But rather than hear alarms, Ira and Brian were deafened by what was probably a mix of trust and willing ignorance. The story was good (it ended up being the most downloaded in the show's history), and everything they had fact-checked so far about the monologue had panned out.
For a brief period of time, This American Life listeners, Ira, and Daisey were throwing that trust ball high and getting tans. But all it took was a Google search of "Cathy," "Translator," and "Shenzhen," and dialing the first number that came up for Marketplace correspondent Rob Schmitz to find out that much of what Daisey said was fabricated.
I won't waste space detailing those facts, but they ranged from big -- his translator claiming he fabricated the most dramatic moments of the story -- to small -- exaggerating the number of factories he visited.
If you haven't listened to "Retraction" (spoiler alert), Ira drags Daisey into the studio and interrogates him like a murderer who lied about being innocent. In an agonizing six and a half minutes of questions followed by long pauses, Daisey admits to making up parts of the story. And then the climax:
Ira Glass: "I have such a weird mix of feelings about this, 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."
Mike Daisey: "I'm sorry."
So why the drama? Think of your own relationships. When you find out someone important to you lied, what happens? You start to question other things. That time she went for "sushi" with a co-worker. That phone call he got late at night from his doctor (OK, you should probably never believe someone who says that). But, you get my point.
The relationship between listener and broadcaster or reader and writer is also based on trust. They give you a frame in which to absorb the material, and finding out that frame was crooked or cheap makes people mad. Hence the publish lashing over James Frey's "memoir" A Million Little Pieces, or Jon Krakauer's response to Greg Mortenson's "non-fiction" book Three Cups of Tea, aptly titled Three Cups of Deceit.
Journalists and non-fiction storytellers work hard to ensure the stuff they produce is true, and the integrity and drama of the work depends on this. How good would the This American Life episode about discovering the original recipe for Coca-Cola be if a historian hadn't really said it was accurate? Or, if the Barack Obama impersonator wasn't really down on his luck before he realized he looked like the guy running for president? Heck, what if all those "normal" people were just actors?
When that ball starts to unravel, it usually leaves one person sitting alone in a pile of string, and Ira rightly wanted to make sure it wasn't him. He fessed up to his mistake saying they should've killed the story after Daisey's evasive approach to his translator, had Marketplace reporter Schmitz on the show to tell his side of the story, had Daisey on for an interrogation session, and interviewed a New York Times reporter about the real working conditions in Chinese Apple factories. This is Retraction 101, kids.
Yes, Ira cheated on you, but he also bought you a diamond ring to make up for it (meanwhile, Daisey is still wasting time qualifying his "apology"). So go on, play catch with him, and leave Daisey in that pile of string.