The unanswered questions about ‘This American Life’ and journalism

It’s rare for a program to dedicate an entire episode to retracting a previous episode and to issue a press release explaining why. “This American Life” has put time and resources into retracting “Mr. Daisey Goes to the Apple Factory.”

But just as the vetting process for the episode didn’t manage to reveal the true story of Mike Daisey’s trip to China, the retraction itself leaves many unanswered questions. The show dissects Daisey’s lies, but says little about the editorial process at “This American Life.”

Ira Glass admitted that airing the initial Daisey program was “a screwup” and that they “should’ve killed” it when Daisey didn’t provide a way to reach his translator. Glass explained that a producer spent days talking to Daisey via phone and email, “spoke with 13 people who are knowledgeable about Apple or about electronics manufacturing in China,” and read related reports.

What we don’t know is how any of that compares to the vetting for other “This American Life” episodes. Does the show have a rigorous fact-checking system like that of The New Yorker, which sent the Church of Scientology 971 questions for a story last year? Or is it more like the honor system, in which producers assume that a contributor is being honest unless something doesn’t add up? Judging by Glass’ description on the show, the answer is somewhere in the middle.

What remains unanswered

Here are the questions we’d like “This American Life” to answer:

  • What specifically is the fact-checking process at “This American Life”? Does this apply to all stories? If not, which ones?
  • As this show was being produced, did the staff have an opportunity to raise concerns about the reliability of Daisey’s account? Would their input have mattered?
  • Besides the decision to go forward without hearing from the translator, has the staff found other specific failings in its editorial process?
  • Who specifically decided that this story was fit to air?
  • In light of the translator’s account, has the staff considered why they discounted the opinions of their sources who doubted Daisey’s contention that Foxconn employs underage workers?
  • Did the staff consider whether there was another way to air this story without relying solely on Daisey’s account?
  • Will the show change its vetting procedures as a result of this incident?
  • Will staff be hesitant to bring performers and others into journalistic stories in the future? Will they handle those situations differently?
  • Are listeners to understand that all of the stories on “This American Life” should be viewed as literal truth-telling, up to the standards of journalism?

“This American Life” isn’t ready to answer these questions right now.

We emailed to ask if Glass would discuss the show’s editorial process, but office manager Emily Condon said the show isn’t doing interviews, in part because of the deluge of requests and because a couple of producers who worked on the show are traveling. “We feel that the show we ran this weekend addresses the issues at play in depth,” she said in an email.

Fictional journalism/journalistic fiction

“This American Life” is such a fascinating and revealing show because it’s not like anything else. A few years ago, blown away by its deconstruction of the subprime mortgage crisis, Steve Myers explained why the show is so compelling: “ ‘This American Life’ has developed a way to tell stories that sound fictional, but are narrated by interesting people you can’t help believing.”

That episode won Peabody, duPont-Columbia and George Polk awards, and it’s not the only one with such laurels. Just last month Glass won a Polk award for the episode “Very Tough Love,” about the severe punishments meted out by a drug court in Georgia.

On the other hand, the show has a long history of airing personal narratives that don’t seem to be particularly journalistic.

The staff of “This American Life” seems to relish staking out that middle ground:

We think of the show as journalism. One of the people who helped start the program, Paul Tough, says that what we’re doing is applying the tools of journalism to everyday lives, personal lives. Which is true. It’s also true that the journalism we do tends to use a lot of the techniques of fiction: scenes and characters and narrative threads.

Meanwhile, the fiction we have on the show functions like journalism: it’s fiction that describes what it’s like to be here, now, in America. What we like are stories that are both funny and sad. Personal and sort of epic at the same time.

This dual sensibility is a big reason that “This American Life” has legions of fans. The challenge, though, is how the show sets expectations for listeners who may hear an in-depth exploration of the perfect break-up song one hour and a critical examination of patent trolls the next.

Glass got at a similar issue in the retraction episode when he asked Daisey if he would start telling people that his monologue was a work of fiction with some true elements. When Daisey argued that the theater audience has a mushier conception of truth-telling, Glass responded, “People take it as literal truth. I thought that the story was literally true seeing it in the theater. [Producer Brian Reed], who’s seen other shows of yours, thought all of them were true.” Last weekend, Daisey amended his show as a result of the retraction.

People may have the same questions about what they hear on “This American Life.” In a comment on a Poynter story about the Daisey retraction, Reuters deputy social media editor Matthew Keys asked, “This American Life is certainly a good storytelling program, but should it be regarded as journalism?”

In the original Daisey episode, Glass did call it journalism, describing Daisey as an “amateur reporter” who used “investigative techniques” that few reporters would use. But “he’s not a reporter, and I wondered, did he get it right? And so we’ve actually spent a few weeks checking everything that he says in his show. … We have gone through his script and fact-checked everything that was checkable.”

Again in “Retraction,” Glass emphasized the show’s journalistic standards:

I was a reporter and a producer for the big daily news shows before I started this program, and we follow the same rules of reporting here that I followed there. We vet and we check our stories and when we present something to you as true, it’s because we believe in its factual accuracy.

And yet now we listen differently to a few stories broadcast years ago on “This American Life” that perhaps are too good to be true. One describes a terrible experience with a FedEx shipment. Another brings you behind the scenes of Mount Vernon’s highly selective field worker internship, complete with wry jokes about slavery.

In another, a man tells some incredible stories about what it was like to work as a telephone psychic. The man says one caller told him that her father had beaten her with a bicycle chain when his pro football team failed to score. Now her husband was having sex with another woman. In the next room. While she was on the phone with the psychic.

The person who brought those stories to “This American Life”? He was a journalist: Stephen Glass. Read more


4 important truths about Mike Daisey’s lies & the way ‘This American Life’ told them

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. Read more


Slate retracts story it says didn’t meet verification, fairness standards

Hat tip to the folks at the great Retraction Watch blog for spotting this notable Slate retraction from Wednesday night:

On Feb. 17, 2012, Slate published an article titled “The Celltex Affair: An Ethics Scandal Strikes the World of Bioethics.” Because of shortcomings in the editorial process, the article did not meet Slate’s standards for verification and fairness and should not have been published. We withdraw the article and apologize to Dr. Glenn McGee.

McGee is a well known bioethicist who has been the subject of many press reports. (He’s often described as controversial.) Late Wednesday night McGee confirmed on Twitter he had resigned from his post at Celltex Therapeutics as of February 28. Retraction Watch has more background, which is helpful since Slate unpublished the offending piece and replaced it with the editor’s note. Slate editor David Plotz isn’t offering additional details. He told Retraction Watch:

Because of shortcomings in our editorial process, the article did not meet Slate standards. That is all Slate is going to say about the matter.

That’s not exactly a satisfactory explanation. What are these shortcomings and how are they being addressed? Have they played a role in other Slate reporting, and will those articles also be unpublished and retracted? How is it the story remained online from February 17 until the 29 without the publication realizing the problems with the story and the editorial process?

As for the piece itself, some parts of it have survived the unpublishing. For example, there’s a brief excerpt in a blog post by the article’s author, bioethicist Carl Elliott:

The most troubling question about this entire affair turns on the relationship between McGee, Celltex, and RNL. Did McGee help whitewash two deaths from stem cell treatments and parlay that whitewash into a corporate position?

Even phrased as a question, that’s a significant accusation — and apparently one that Slate came to realize it could not stand behind.

Retraction Watch got this comment from Elliott:

The withdrawal seemed to me to be driven entirely by fear of litigation. Their main fear seemed to be my referring to McGee’s unpleasant departure from Albany Medical College, which had been reported in Scientific American.

Correction: This post originally said the quote from Carl Elliott had come from Jim Romenesko’s site. In fact, Romenesko was quoting the post by Retraction Watch. Read more


Dominion Post retracts story that ignored ‘basic principles of reporting’:

On January 30 we ran a story about a 17-year-old Pakistani woman who claimed she had been forced into marriage and held hostage by her ex-husband and his family in Newtown, Wellington.

The story relied on a detailed account from the woman herself that was supported by ethnic women’s support organisation Shakti. We subsequently received information, visual evidence and other material from the ex- husband and his family, which casts considerable doubt over the woman’s allegations.

The Dominion Post acknowledges that some basic principles of reporting were not adhered to and it retracts the woman’s allegations.

The Dominion Post apologises to the ex-husband and his family for any embarrassment and humiliation the story may have caused them.

Dominion Post


Marketplace, KQED explain how fabricated commentary got on the air

KQED, a public radio station based in San Francisco, has for 13 years been publishing first person commentaries under the Perspectives banner. The NPR member station airs roughly 250 Perspectives a year, and KQED communications director Scott Walton said this week marks the first time they’ve ever had to retract one.

As detailed in my previous post, a Perspectives commentary that aired on KQED January 11 — and subsequently was re-aired by American Public Media’s Marketplace on Monday — turned out to have included fraudulent claims. The man in question, Leo Webb, said he was a former Army sniper with 17 kills, and a former minor league pitcher to boot. Neither KQED nor Marketplace were able to confirm those details after suspicion was raised by comments on both of their sites and by at least two blogs.

Walton said efforts to locate Webb have been unsuccessful thus far. Perspectives editor Mark Trautwein previously told the blog “This Ain’t Hell” that “Mr. Webb has been subsequently placed in a VA live-in care facility specializing in PTSD so I’m unable to seek his response to your comment at this time.”

So how did Webb end up on the air in the first place?

Walton said the Perspectives series often finds its contributors through other organizations, such as NGOs and foundations. These contributors are referred to the station because they have a unique personal story. That was the case with Webb, though Walton declined to name which organization referred him to the station.

“We have a mission and big push on right now to make sure that voices that aren’t always heard on public radio are heard,” he said, noting this can include people who are marginalized or disenfranchised by society.

Deborah Clark, the executive producer of Marketplace, said her program also has a goal to “bring in a diversity of voices that aren’t heard very often.” (Walton and Clark also spoke with Erik Wemple today.)

This drive to find untold or ignored stories helped Webb get on the air. Clark said in the case of her program, Webb’s tale “didn’t receive the standard editorial vetting from us that it should have.” She said it would be standard procedure for the program to contact the military to verify Webb’s claims prior to airing his words. That didn’t happen.

Walton said KQED also didn’t contact the military prior to airing the piece, nor did it check any databases of minor league baseball players to confirm Webb’s account that he played Double A ball for the Chicago Cubs.

“There is a [vetting] process and part of it is that the person does work worth the editor of the piece quite a bit, so you generally have an idea that person is who they said they are,” he said.

Webb recorded his commentary live in studio with a KQED editor, but it appears no attempts were made to check his story or details.

Walton said it’s a challenge to vet “someone who doesn’t have a job and doesn’t really have a track record.” Though as Clark noted, it’s straightforward to confirm someone’s military service.

Walton said the station was unaware of concerns about Webb’s claims until after the piece aired on Marketplace Monday night. At that point, he said, comments began piling up on that show’s site and blogs like “This Ain’t Hell” began asking questions. Clark said her program was alerted to concerns thanks to listener comments.

“We aired it on Monday and on Tuesday we started reading on our website listener comments questioning the veracity,” she said. “Immediately we started looking into it, and as soon as we realized there were big questions about its veracity we retracted on Wednesday.”

Walton said his station is reviewing its vetting procedures.

“Right now our news director, executive director of news and public affairs and any of the editors in our radio division are sitting down and talking about creating news processes and vetting processes,” he said.

Clark said her team is doing a similar review, but also noted they have a vetting process in place — the problem is it wasn’t followed.

“We verify identity and basic claims of stories,” she said. “that goes for both the subjects in pieces and commentaries. It’s pretty standard journalistic practice.”

Thursday night, Clark released the following statement:

On January 30, Marketplace aired an outside, first-person commentary, titled “Returning Veteran has Few Marketable Skills.” Listeners questioned the veracity of the piece, and when we looked more closely into the matter we found it had likely been fabricated.

Our responsibility to listeners, members, partners and ourselves, is to provide accurate, trustworthy information, in context, without conflict of interest. We didn’t meet that obligation in this instance, and for that we apologize. We’ve retracted the commentary completely, and we’re using this experience to learn how we can do our jobs better.

Thank you for your engagement with Marketplace, and for holding us accountable to the highest journalistic standards.

Read more

‘Marketplace’ retracts commentary from man who claimed to be an Army sniper, baseball player

American Public Media’s “Marketplace” program has retracted a commentary it aired this week from a man who’s been camping out at Occupy Oakland and claimed to be an ex-Army sniper.

Leo Webb’s commentary, “Returning veteran has few marketable skills,” said he had 17 confirmed kills in Iraq and was once a pitcher for the Chicago Cubs Double A club. (The post was tagged with the phrase “My Life Is True.”) Neither his Army service nor his claim about the Cubs was true. Here’s the editor’s note now posted to the site:

Editor’s Note: A commentary by Leo Webb, ”Returning veteran has few marketable skills,” prompted questions from listeners about Webb’s account of his service as an Army sniper in Iraq. A subsequent investigation found that the Army has no record of Webb. Webb also said he pitched for a Chicago Cubs minor-league team. Inquiries to the Cubs and to Minor League Baseball found no record of Webb. Marketplace has an obligation to provide accurate information. That was not met in this commentary. It has been retracted and the text and audio have been removed from the web site.

Webb’s claims raised flags for some listeners and readers prior to the retraction. For example, one reader posted this comment to the story on the Marketplace website:

Before we get too concerned about what “*real* support” might exist for “veterans like Mr. Webb,” let’s make sure Mr. Webb actually exists.

Read more

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