Ira Glass’ guilt trip

Mike Daisey’s story on Apple didn’t fit the narrative requirements of This American Life. His contrived confession did.

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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.

Jesse Brown is the host of TVO.org’s Search Engine podcast. He is on Twitter @jessebrown




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Ira Glass’ guilt trip

  1. The narrative arc is present in almost everyone’s life – conflict is what drives the human experience. Which is why we pay attention to it when it appears in the media. Daily news has its place, for sure, it collects and presents the details of everyday life – but rarely makes sense of it. People tell each other stories: “Did you hear about so-and-so? They were trying to do something and then a powerful thing got in their way.” To this we say “Then what?”.  The best narratives though, will present both sides of the story – that powerful being has a reason for what its doing – people vary rarely act out of pure malice. So perhaps Daisey should have spoken to Apple and asked why they treat their workers so poorly, etc. Why didn’t Ira Glass and his fact-checkers check the facts? If they did, then does it matter if Daisey was there or not? It’s a creative way of presenting the truth – I don’t knock it in the slightest – as long as its true.

    • sidenote: I have not actually listened to This American Life – ever

  2. This issue wouldn’t have received nearly the amount of publicity had it not set off a world record wave of cognitive dissonance.

  3. Retraction is a powerful piece of audio, and the pull-quote you used at the top is equally challenging.  What struck me the most in the NPR broadcast, were the drawn out, awkward pauses, that appeared not to have been edited for time.  More than once, I found myself checking to see if my audio player had paused.  The story provides a lesson for broadcasters, but I think if we all limited our stories to first hand truthful accounts, our personal conversations would be far less interesting.

    • FYI This American Life is a PRI broadcast, not an NPR broadcast. It just so happens that the radio station that produces it is affiliated with both PRI and NPR: therein lies the confusion.

  4. There’s a writing style making the rounds. Many people are getting good at it, and I think it’s because the electronic media allows us to comment on everything. Everything. It’s basically a set of thoughts around a cadence, similar to the kind you hear on CNN or places like that, on TV. A cadence that makes them sound more dramatic.

    What are it’s hallmarks? One is asking a question then answering it. And dividing sentences up – with dashes. Partial sentences. Then there’s making one sentence it’s own paragraph.

    I’m getting pretty damn sick of it.

    When things were written out in longhand, and published in books, which people read, which they don’t now, the cadence had to be achieved almost all linguistically. Please. Read. Books.

    Those things that look like instruction manuals only thicker.

    Having said that, thanks.

    Frank Conway

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