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This American Lie: The Importance of Truth in Journalism

Opinion | April 9, 2012

When I think of the radio show This American Life, one of the first things that comes to mind is reputability. I have always associated the program with in-depth storytelling, deliberate fact-checking, and genuine broadcast journalism. The host, Ira Glass, for those who haven’t heard the show, has a very engaging voice to listen to, and his team has a knack for finding interesting stories that feel much shorter than the program’s hour-long broadcast time.

The show is generally very well-loved and draws many thousands of listeners each week. But in January, their episode entitled “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory” became one of their most popular ever. Over 850,000 people downloaded it, and a few hundred thousand more streamed the episode offline. The episode was adapted from a dramatic monologue by a man named Mike Daisey. It detailed the injustices and labor law violations of the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen, China, one of Apple’s main suppliers. Daisey tells the story in the context of his supposed experiences while visiting various factories in Shenzhen and meeting “hundreds” of factory workers. His monologue is sprinkled with seemingly poignant anecdotes from underage workers, laborers suffering chemical poisoning, and individuals with labor-related injuries.

All of this was well and good until a few weeks ago, when it came out that much of Daisey’s story was fabricated. Many of the individuals he “met” on his journey, and quoted so powerfully, were in fact figures of his imagination based off of alleged stories he’d heard about factory conditions in China. Entire scenes of his story, it turns out, didn’t happen at all. This is upsetting for many reasons. First off, the most direct implication is the simple disappointment of finding out a gripping story is fictitious. So many people listened to the episode because it was compelling and raised many important concerns about labor abuse and the questionable origins of our precious devices. Daisey is an engaging narrator who speaks in a way that grabs a listener’s attention, and frankly, his audible emotion makes the story so believable. The effect of hearing that his claims are fallacious is much like a child discovering the unreality of Santa Claus, in a weird sort of way. But there are many other more important concerns than this one.

By fabricating fundamental elements of this story, Daisey undermines the pieces that were, in fact, true. There are many unjust conditions in factories all over the world, including factories in Shenzhen. If Daisey’s motivation in doing this project was to expose these atrocities (though one cannot help now but question his true motives), then surely he could have found an effective way to articulate legitimate problems that do exist.  There are reports of workers with N-hexane poisoning in factories in China, just not the Foxconn factory. And Daisey didn’t meet them. By exaggerating and falsifying his accounts of Foxconn, he implied that the truth of the situation wasn’t interesting enough to be alarming. Evidently, it wouldn’t have sufficed in the context of his monologue to cite reports and audits that have been conducted. The only way that Daisey could think to make his audience pay attention was to present half-truths—and blatant lies—as personal testimony. And in so doing, he told the world that the actuality of the situation was permissible to overlook.

The fabrication also makes the sporadic truths difficult to differentiate from the lies. It’s hard to know where the invention stops and reporting begins, and Daisey’s own word is no longer one that can be relied upon as a source of legitimacy, so his whole piece goes down the drain.

Perhaps the most upsetting part of this revelation is that it makes This American Life seem unreliable. This was an isolated incident in which trust was employed over meticulousness, and Ira Glass openly acknowledges the carelessness of this decision. In his decision to disregard the common expectation of truth in journalism, Mike Daisey single-handedly created an environment of doubt surrounding the show that so graciously hosted him.

In response to this unsettling discovery, the This American Life team felt obliged to produce an explanatory episode. This episode, titled “Retraction,” was posted several days before the show’s usual release date. News sources all over the country jumped onto the dramatic story of a reputable news source under fire. The “Retraction” episode is a fantastic piece of journalism; it’s a shame that it needed to rise up from the wake of such unfortunate circumstances. The show is in the usual three acts, interviewing Daisey’s translator, Cathy, followed by Daisey himself, and then Charles Duhigg, a New York Times reporter who wrote a lengthy piece about the Apple working conditions.

“Retraction” is quite painful to listen to, as Cathy unravels Daisey’s lies, Daisey himself fumbles with absurd and incongruous explanations, and Ira Glass grows increasingly irritated. I’ve listened to my fair share of This American Life and hearing Glass’ audible frustration is heartbreaking.  At one moment, while interviewing Daisey, he comes out and says, “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. I feel like I vouched for you with our audience based on your word.”

In their effort to make up for their fateful mistake and the ensuing consequences, the people behind This American Life produced a powerful piece of storytelling, clarification, and honesty. The piece is outspoken and forthright about both the facts and the seriousness of their blunder. “Retraction” clearly displays This American Life’s commitment to the truth, more so than Daisey’s episode ever undermined it.

It goes without saying that truth is fundamental to all journalism. There have been many infamous examples in the past where a reporter or writer has abandoned their responsibility as a deliverer of facts and tarnished their stories with fiction. In every case, such as that of Stephen Glass, or Three Cups of Tea author Greg Mortenson, the way the world looks at nonfiction writing and reporting is permanently altered. It is critical to the world of journalism that the public can trust the press. When instances such as this one comes along, where the questionable source isn’t even a member of the traditional news media, the entire forum for discussion becomes unreliable. It is possible that Mike Daisey didn’t realize the magnitude of the problem he was creating, but even so, his actions are inexcusable. One can only hope that This American Life’s eloquent “Retraction” broadcast has undone as much of Daisey’s damage as possible.