The unanswered questions about ‘This American Life’ and journalism

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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.


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