Fact checking is a real process, but what “This American Life” did wasn’t fact checking.
When the news broke that “This American Life” was retracting the episode “Mr. Daisey Goes to the Apple Factory,” Ira Glass made an effort to be clear that the show has verification standards, but that they fell short in this instance.
The press release about the retraction show referenced the “fact checking before the broadcast of Daisey’s story” and the original show included this from Glass:
This process of fact checking took days with long emails and conversations with Mike. Brian [Reed] spoke with 13 people who are knowledgeable about Apple or about electronics manufacturing in China. He combed through Apple’s own reports about worker’s conditions, he combed through reports by watchdog groups.
There is a tradition of fact checking that goes back roughly 80 years, and over that time standards and practices have been established. What “This American Life” did prior to airing the Daisey broadcast came close, but it was not fact checking. It shouldn’t be described as such, or used as an example of the failure of fact checking.
I’m not saying TAL didn’t try to verify Daisey’s story, or that they were negligent. Rather, my point is if they’d practiced real fact checking chances are the outcome would have been different.
It appears the most important parts of Daisey’s monologue — his account of what he saw, what people told him, who he met and where he went in China — were the precise parts that were not checked. Ira Glass admits this in the closing part of the TAL retraction show:
I wanted to say, before we leave this subject, that I and my co-workers at This American Life take our mistake in putting Mike’s story on to the air very seriously. As I said earlier in the program, when Mike told us that it would be impossible for us to talk to his interpreter for fact-checking purposes, we should’ve killed the story right there and then, and to do anything else was a screw-up.
Killing the story was one option, but it’s not what a fact checker would have done. I imagine they would have attempted to locate the translator themselves, just as Marketplace reporter Rob Schmitz did when he decided to look into Daisey’s story:
I just typed “Cathy and translator and Shenzhen” into Google.
I called the first number that came up.
That statement from Schmitz highlights TAL’s fatal decision in its vetting process.
When given a roadblock by Daisey, they chose not to check around it. This is a cornerstone of fact checking: a writer may mean well, but he cannot be taken at his word. The point of fact checking is to independently verify what he wrote, said or quoted.
Daisey tells you the translator’s phone number doesn’t work anymore? Ask him for the number and try to find her on your own. Does he have a picture of her? Where did she live? Did she mention any other clients she’d worked for?
Or, you know, Google her and see what turns up.
You could call up the factories in question and ask if they remember Daisey and his translator coming for a visit that month in 2010. (It’s not hard to hire a translator or fixer in China to help with all of this.)
There are plenty of people with experience as fact checkers who can be hired for a reasonable hourly fee, a fee TAL could afford. But TAL did some vetting and called it a day when Daisey set up roadblocks.
This is the puzzling piece of this incident: “This American Life” is one of the great journalistic storytelling institutions in the world. But they somehow didn’t verify the facts that underpinned this remarkable first-person story.
It’s ultimately a failure of storytelling.
Mike Daisey’s worst lie never made it to air, or into his monologue.
There are obvious challenges related to adapting a theatrical monologue into a journalistic radio piece. Yes, verifying and fact checking the material can be difficult. But in order for that to even be possible, Daisey needed to understand the culture of journalism and what’s required in terms of accuracy. He needed to understand it, acknowledge it, and embrace it. And the team at “This American Life” had to be convinced he was sincere about being part of the process and culture.
TAL producer Brian Reed attempted to convey these standards to Daisey in an email.
“Being that news stations are obviously a different kind of form than the theater we wanted to make sure that this thing is totally, utterly unassailable by anyone who might hear it,” wrote Reed in a email quoted from in the TAL retraction show.
“I totally get that,” Daisey wrote back. “I want you to know that makes sense to me. A show built orally for the theater is different than what typically happens from news stations. I appreciate you taking the time to go over this.”
This is the most important of all the lies Daisey told in his monologue and to the people he worked with at TAL.
When given a very clear description of the standard for accuracy the show needed to meet, Daisey responded with a theatrically sincere email that was deceptive bullshit. He plays just dumb enough to thank the producer for explaining this concept to him. (As if now he gets it.)
Daisey also repeats back what the producer wrote to convey that he understands it. This repetition of what someone has just told you is classic active listening; it builds a connection between you and the person. It makes them feel good, like they’ve really been heard.
This lie shows Daisey’s total commitment to doing whatever it took to get his story on the show. It enabled him to tell all of his other lies to a wider audience because it helped convince the team at TAL that Daisey was a genuine participant in the vetting process, rather than the subject of it. I believe this made it more likely that Reed and others would accept Daisey lies.
That email reply is Daisey the performer making sure he is as convincing as possible.
It was the same Daisey who, when confronted with his lies, posted this on his blog:
What I do is not journalism. The tools of the theater are not the same as the tools of journalism. For this reason, I regret that I allowed THIS AMERICAN LIFE to air an excerpt from my monologue. THIS AMERICAN LIFE is essentially a journalistic - not a theatrical - enterprise, and as such it operates under a different set of rules and expectations.
As if he wasn’t told that. As if he didn’t parrot it back to put the producer at ease and make sure his story got to air.
What a reprehensible manipulator.
Liars eventually believe their story is true.
Emboldened by the “This American Life” broadcast and his newfound attention, Daisey began to embody the character he’d created: a trustworthy crusader with the moral and factual authority to comment on Apple and media coverage of the company.
Nothing represents this misrepresentation better than Daisey’s recent blog post, “David Pogue is only competent to review gadgets.” That post rocketed around the Web, getting linked and tweeted by many journalists.
Sitting high on his stallion, Daisey gave a recent article by The New York Times writer a thorough Fisking. It was a devastating critique of the way Pogue covered Apple’s reaction to concerns about conditions at its overseas suppliers, and Daisey made valid points.
But with Daisey exposed as a liar, the valid parts of the critique lose their impact. The sections of the blog post that question Pogue’s work and integrity are now laughable coming from Daisey:
Whether it comes from ignorance or deception, the stakes in labor, for working people’s lives every day, are too important to be left to the likes of Mr. Pogue.
He had an opportunity to study this story. He’s had the time to read and get up to speed. He could have been in the forefront, telling it, and instead he’s in the rearguard, behind the mainstream press who is doing technology journalists’ job for them, picking at the leftovers, making faces, and wondering when he can get back to slagging off the new Samsung tablet and embracing the next Apple device.
I’m not asking that Mr. Pogue agree with me. I’m saying he has shown he isn’t competent to have this conversation from the platform of the New York Times.
Having lied to “This American Life” in order to have his work appear in a journalistic framework that added credibility and brought him and his cause greater attention, Daisey still felt qualified to question someone else’s ethics and qualifications.
This kind of thing has happened before with Daisey, as Glass revealed during the retraction show. Here’s the host describing a New York Times article about a previous Daisey monologue about James Frey:
… a New York Times review of your monologue about James Frey that says in it, this is The New York Times, ‘Daisey admits in the monologue that he once fabricated a monologue because it connected with the audience. After telling this lie over and over it became so integrated into the architecture of his piece that it became impossible to remove, or perhaps to distinguish what really happened.’
This serves to prove the fourth truth:
Fooling the media is a justifiable means to an end for some people.
At some point Daisey made this calculation: My message, my monologue, and this cause are more important than the basic facts. The cause is more important than conforming to what “This American Life” and its listeners expect.
Once he squared that in his mind, he was going to keep lying and not look back. No code of abstract journalistic ethics or queries from a producer would change that. (Another reason why real fact checking was needed…)
Here’s what Daisey told Glass during the retraction show:
I think I was terrified that if I untied these things, that the work, that I know is really good, and tells a story, that does these really great things for making people care, that it would come apart in a way where, where it would ruin everything.
Mike Daisey thinks his work is serving a higher cause and purpose, and that makes him exactly the kind of source who needed to be thoroughly fact checked.
Daisey’s New York theatrical show closed on Sunday. The audience gave his final performance a standing ovation.