Sunday, March 18, 2012

This Chinese Life

Or is it??
It's been a bad time for Ira Glass and his staff at the public radio program This American Life. This week, they had to publicly acknowledge that an episode of their quirky radio program was not true. Or at least not entirely true.

I won't recount the entire controversy, because it's been rehashed elsewhere ad infinitum. But, briefly, the January episode featured performance artist Mike Daisey reporting on a trip to the infamous Foxconn factories in China, where Apple products are made. He tells of meeting underage workers, an iPad factory worker who'd never seen a working iPad, armed guards outside the Foxconn factory, workers crippled by industrial pollutants, and more. But when a China-based reporter for another public radio program, Marketplace, heard the Daisey story, he knew that it sounded wrong, so he did actual reporting, and what he found was that Daisey lied, made up things that didn't happen, pretended to be in places he wasn't, tried to cover up his tracks, pretended to see things that had happened at factories (and at companies) hundreds of miles away.

There's enough reporting out there to let us know that Apple's Foxconn factories are bad places to work, so it's amazing that Daisey thought he had to fictionalize it to make it attention-grabbing. But he did, Ira Glass and his producers didn't catch it during their fact-checking, and the program aired. Now, Glass and his producers are bravely admitting the shortcomings of themselves and of Daisey.

I have to admit, I'm not a fan of This American Life, and the reason why is not unrelated to how they got themselves into this mess. I could never get past the serious, sometimes heart-wrenching stories being narrated while in the background hip music plays. The music is basically saying, "This isn't important. Life is quirky, innit?" That sound combo always struck me as the producers trying harder to be hip, rather than relying on the power of the journalism.

Well, their correspondent in this now-retracted story does not claim to be a journalist. (So why use him?) He is a performance artist. (So why use him?) His story had problems during fact-checking. (So why use it?) They went ahead with it even though they couldn't corroborate all of Daisey's claims. (So why use it?) I'm not being snarky when I say that This American Life's producers are having something of a journalistic come-to-Jesus moment as they look at what went wrong.

You can listen to the retraction episode (named, naturally, "Retraction") on the TAL website. It's a fine episode, and one that I hope is heard by every journalism student (and working journalist) in the country. Though I don't care for their program, I think Glass and his cohorts deserve serious praise for confronting the errors – theirs and Daisey's – that went into that episode. They are serious; from what I could tell from listening to "Retraction," they appear to be leaving no stone unturned and no sacred cow unexamined. In so doing, Glass & Co. are doing more than restoring their reputations; they are giving listeners an important lesson in why journalism has standards and why being right is more important than being hip.
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