Q. Do you ever wonder if this desire to make things more “narrative” is a problem?
A. Maybe if I were a better person or a different kind of a reporter I would see a problem, but I don’t. It’s hard to do something that’s compelling. The best way to get it across is to attach the traditional devices of narrative: all the things that make it engaging and interesting. I don’t see a down-side to it.
-Ira Glass, interviewed on The Sound of Young America, November 2007
The dust is settling from the Mike Daisey affair. If you missed it, Daisey is the theatrical performer who presented parts of his one man stage show on the public radio program This American Life. The piece was about the atrocious working conditions at the Chinese factories where Apple products are made. Last week it was revealed that while the claims made against Apple are true, Daisey’s account of witnessing these things firsthand was largely fabricated.
This American Life dedicated a full episode to a retraction of the episode. It is one of the most uncomfortable pieces of radio you’ll ever hear. Host Ira Glass dissects Daisey’s lies with Daisey present. The exchange is equal parts lawyerly cross-examination and maternal guilt-trip. The episode is called Retraction, but it could easily have been titled “How could you do this to me?”
Glass takes full responsibility for his part in airing the fabricated episode, but he seems very, very disappointed in that Mike Daisey. He can’t even bring himself to make his signature Torey Malatia joke at the end of the show. When it’s all said and done, Glass has apologized so thoroughly to his listeners that he emerges almost more noble and trustworthy than before the incident. This American Life will march on, lessons learned. Daisey, meanwhile, is left behind in a smouldering heap–his reputation tarnished, then set ablaze, its ashes buried, the burial site pooped on.
I listened to the Retraction episode as soon as it was posted last Friday. It hasn’t been sitting well with me.
To be clear: This American Life is a journalistic enterprise of a high order. Over the past 17 years, no program or publication has done more to make important news stories sound important. And it has achieved this largely through narrative. For a “serious” news story to become a This American Life story, it will need a carefully constructed narrative arc, it will require cinematic flourishes, great writing, dramatic music, and most of all, it will require a strong central character for us all to relate to. The same storytelling techniques used by David Sedaris to talk about his family life are applied by This American Life to frame major world events.
But real life events rarely work this way. Is there one individual whose true life story fully encapsulates the Iraqi war or the European financial crisis? If so, This American Life is looking for her. News stories like this have to be cast like Hollywood movies.
Mike Daisey knew that, and he wanted the part. So he lied to Ira Glass and to Glass’ fact-checkers. His guilt is so clear and so painful that This American Life made a story out of it.