The Ira Glass Retraction: Half full or half empty?

If it is the mission of journalism to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, then Ira Glass found a perfect public radio story in the theatrical testimony of Mike Daisey.

Here’s what Glass, host of "This American Life," said on the air after he first witnessed Daisey’s staged monologue about the alleged exploitation of Chinese workers by Apple:

“A couple weeks ago, I saw this one-man show where this guy did something onstage I thought was really kind of amazing. He took this fact that we all already know, this fact that our stuff is made overseas in maybe not the greatest working conditions, and he made the audience actually feel something about that fact. Which is really quite a trick. You really have to know how to tell a story to be able to pull something like that off.

“And I bring this up because today we are excerpting that story here on the radio show. The guy's name is Mike Daisey, and he makes his living doing monologues on stage. He's been doing that for years, though you're going to hear, in this story, that he turns himself into an amateur reporter during the course of the story, using some investigative techniques, once he gets going, I think, very few reporters would ever try, and finding lots of stuff I hadn't heard or seen anywhere else. Not like this. ...”

As it turned out, there was a reason Glass hadn’t seen it: The stuff -- as old time reporters used to describe the fictionalized reporting that came out of police raids on opium dens -- was “piped.”

Some basic fact checking by a skeptical reporter on Marketplace led to the exposure of key lies, exaggerations, fabrications (call them what you will). No guards with guns, no 12-year-old girls working 60-hour weeks, no maimed worker rubbing his stump across the magic surface of an iPad. Glass thought he found Upton Sinclair. He wound up with James Frey.

As I listened to Glass’s interrogation of Daisey on the episode retracting his report, I could not help but recall Oprah Winfrey’s pillory of Frey, author of "A Million Little Pieces." I was a guest on Winfrey’s show that day. Question after question led to a Frey admission that some aspect of his so-called memoir – first peddled as a novel – was not factual, but was either an exaggeration or fabrication.

A great cultural divide exists in the world of writing between those who believe that the standards of memoir should be journalistic, that no scene, memory, or dialogue can be fictionalized. Others, many others, in fact, believe that memoir should be understood as some hybrid between fact and fiction, a process in which inexact memories are hammered into a believable, compelling narrative.

Oprah’s audience assumed Frey’s book was truthful or factual (choose your word). They stood and cheered when he walked across the stage. As lie after lie was revealed, they hissed and booed, not just in solidarity with Oprah, but in collective outrage that some contract was broken between author and audience.

There came a point in the "This American Life" retraction episode when Glass asked Daisey about whether his theatrical work should now include some kind of disclaimer at the front end, a transparent admission that elements of his monologue stray from the truth or the facts (pick your language).

Daisey makes a case that theater is not journalism and apologizes for letting his dramatic work be aired on a show that claims to adhere to news telling standards. For those who follow the memoir debates, Daisey goes on to make a familiar claim: that a theatrical work aspires not to actualities but to a higher truth. It seems to dramatize all aspects of an experience to make an audience pay attention, to make them care.

I agree with Daisey on that point. I never sit in a theater and believe that what I am about to experience is “factual,” in any sense of the world. In the theater, key moments are not factualized, but fictionalized. Few film documentaries follow the discipline of practical truth telling that I expect from professional investigative journalism. When I see a photo gallery – say of American soldiers pissing on a corpse – my second instinct, after shock, is to ask, “I wonder if that was staged,” or “Could this be an example of photo manipulation?”

Isn’t it interesting how we use the word “staged” to mean “not real.”

This learned skepticism forces me to the conclusion that Ira Glass’s framing of his retraction of Daisey’s story is designed, in the end, to sidestep his greatest failing. My evidence comes from Glass’s argument with Daisey that when someone gets up on the stage and says “this happened to me” or “I saw this,” that common sense argues that the testimony is true or factual. In other words, “I believed you because you acted as if it were true."

In fact, the staged monologue, the memoir recollection, the autobiographical anecdote are among the lying-est venues on the face of the cultural earth. How many examples do we need in journalism and literature to remind us that if a story is too good to be true, it probably is, or that, even if I trust the author, I have as an editor, publisher, or producer the duty to verify.

Trust, but verify.

The more significant the potential impact of a story, the greater the duty of a gatekeeper to prosecute it, to ask over and over, “How do we know this?” “Who told you that?” “How many sources do you have for that?”  “What did you see with you own eyes?” “Do you have any documentary evidence to substantiate that claim?”

There is investigative journalism, but no such thing as investigative theater. And Ira Glass knows it. He knows it from the perspective of a veteran producer, who understands how to magnify the dramatic tension in a radio narrative. Why, then, did Glass choose not to prosecute the story until it was exposed as a fake by another public radio reporter? Why did he brush aside earlier warnings and inconsistencies?

I have a theory and nothing more. Here it is: Ira Glass wanted the story to be true. He let down his guard – and his audience, who also wanted the story to be true. They wanted it to be true primarily for good reasons, because its exposure might lead to reforms and saved lives. That purpose would link them to Daisey’s chain of intent. But they also wanted it to be true because a badly bruised Apple fits neatly into a master narrative about corporate greed in America, a story that will continue to play itself out in presidential politics.

Rather than being what is pretty good about America  – ingenuity, creation of wealth, service to middle class customers -- Apple’s piece of the pie can be seen anew, through Daisey’s story, as just another company, led by just another robber baron, building profit and corporate share on the bodies of the poor. This is the perpetual fantasy of the left.  I always imagined that Ira Glass was too smart to become its victim.

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    Roy Peter Clark

    Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty member, dean, vice-president, and senior scholar.


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