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In which Ira Glass discovers he is gullible

lizpolaris's picture

You may have already read the story, that This American Life radio show from NPR has retracted a broadcast they produced. Ira Glass, the show host, accepts responsibility and has created an entire hour-long retraction broadcast.

I'd like to focus on Ira himself, rather than the nuances of the story. In essence, TAL approached Mike Daisey about creating a broadcast, centered around his experiences investigating Apple factories in China - from which he had created a stage show he's presented around the country.

Here's the interesting part - TAL presented the information in the stage show, in which Daisey speaks in first person, as factually true to listeners. Glass said they fact-checked the show (too loosely, obviously) before it was aired and Daisey vouched for the validity of what he said. Subsequently, Daisey was interviewed in various mainstream media while presenting the same material as factual there as well.

Now, 2 months later, the story has unraveled and, as Ira wails plaintively in his retraction, "He lied to me!" [sniff]

It clear from the tone of the broadcast, Ira feels betrayed. Daisey admits that in creating his stage show, he wrote a story. It's not journalism, it's fiction - the kind used in memoirs and narratives - specifically tailored to evoke a response from the audience. So he rewrote some events into first person which didn't actually happen to him but which he heard or read about and believes to be true. Daisey's show is full of "I" statements - this happened to me and it's really true. Glass says in the retraction that he was moved by the Apple monologue show and that he's seen other shows of Daisey's - and he believed them ALL to be true because Daisey got up on a stage and said "This happened to me."

In my view, this is 100% Ira's naivete. Many narratives are put on stage, in movies, into books, saying "This is a true story." A few are considerate enough of the truth to say "Based on a true story" but most aren't. And the audience KNOWS that the story is probably, maybe even mostly, not true. Actors on stage saying "This happened to me" are actors. And the audience knows it probably didn't happened to them, at least, not in the way it's presented. I think of other 'true' works - 'The Vagina Monologues,' (probably they represent true stories but may not be literally true), "Angela's Ashes" (which claims to be factual based on what the author remembers as a 5 year old - really?), and "Let's Take the Long Way Home" (it's a little too easy to write about people who are no longer around to tell their own point of view). There are many others where the reader needs to take the 'truth' with a grain of salt. I'm sure the feelings and intentions of the authors are sincere.

Mike Daisey has written and performed many monologues. On the TAL retraction show his main point is that he's not a journalist, he's a story teller. He says he writes material in a way designed to move the listener. To which Ira says "I've seen your shows. I believed them all!" And I think this is the central point of the TAL retraction - Ira was gullible.

My question is - why? Here we have Ira Glass, a reasonably mainstream journalist, going to fictional stage shows and having no sense of skepticism about what he's seen. Why would he think to equate a stage show with literal fact? Daisey has a reputation for lying. At about 34 minutes into the retraction broadcast, Glass and Daisey talk about the James Frey memoir "A Million Little Pieces" which was revealed to be nearly entirely false. Daisey did a show about that. Glass relates that the NYT reported that "Daisey admits in the monologue that he once fabricated a story because it connected with the audience. After telling this story over and became impossible to distinguish what really happened." Amazingly, in spite of knowing this prior to airing the Apple broadcast, Ira feels betrayed that Daisey has done essentially the same thing again. However, it was the TAL staff which didn't closely enough follow up on Daisey's details to verify the facts as he presented them.

There are so many examples now of fiction presented as fact in major news stories. The entire Jessica Lynch saga, the comic-book story 'leaked' to the press about the Bin Laden raid, Judy Miller and David Ignatius helping the administration lie us into the Iraq War, countless more. We have David Gregory saying that fact checking is not the responsibility of journalists. Perhaps Glass is afraid this incident, his show, and his career, will now be lumped famously in with those egregious examples.

It's almost ironic that it's this particular story which merits a retraction on NPR - more of it is at least based on reality than some of the other one-sided, unchallenged, propagandistic pieces and interviews presented there every day. (Sorry, no links this morning.) Glass, in his righteousness, feels justified in devoting so much time to these corrections because of his personal sense of betrayal, his own feeling that he wasn't vigilant enough, that he should have been well, less gullible. So he subjects Daisey to the Oprah-style grilling applied to Frey on air. Daisey is essentially correct in saying he writes stage shows which are theater, which aren't journalism. He does admit his error in portraying the stage show as literal fact instead of an amalgam of stories. Why would anyone expect the tiger to change his stripes?

In my view, given the state of journalism today, few are surprised by this type of correction. NPR and TAL could have handled it with a short statement issued saying that Daisey's one man show contained an amalgam of stories gathered over time and written into a first person narrative show, as he has done before. So portions of the broadcast were not factually correct as first person representations of what Daisey observed in China. For more information about this story and further corrections, go to our website blah blah blah.

But poor Ira was dismayed - he's been (willingly) duped. Also, Glass feels he's in the right. At about 40 minutes in the retraction show Glass says "People take it as a literal truth. I thought the story was literal truth seeing it in the theater...I feel like I have the normal worldview...I think it happened unless it's clearly labeled 'here's a work of fiction.'" So Glass feels like he can represent 'normal' - that because he believed theater to be truthful, everyone else does too. Glass feels that his gullibility, his view of what theater is, is 'normal.'

This incident is an interesting look at a journalist and how he views journalism and how he thinks journalism works in the world. Hopefully, this was an awakening experience for him and other journalists as well. Can Glass now challenge his own belief in his worldview?

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Rangoon78's picture
Submitted by Rangoon78 on

by John Gruber at

Mike Daisey, in an op-ed piece published by The New York Times on October 6:

I have traveled to southern China and interviewed workers employed in the production of electronics. I spoke with a man whose right hand was permanently curled into a claw from being smashed in a metal press at Foxconn, where he worked assembling Apple laptops and iPads. I showed him my iPad, and he gasped because he’d never seen one turned on. He stroked the screen and marveled at the icons sliding back and forth, the Apple attention to detail in every pixel. He told my translator, “It’s a kind of magic.”

Daisey now admits this is false. This is what The Times chose to run on their op-ed page the day after Steve Jobs died.

Update, 30 minutes later: The Times has now removed the above paragraph from the piece, and prepended this editor’s note:

Editor’s Note: Questions have been raised about the truth of a paragraph in the original version of this article that purported to talk about conditions at Apple’s factory in China. That paragraph has been removed from this version of the article.

This isn’t over. “Questions” haven’t just been raised — Daisey has admitted it was a complete fabrication. Sort of a bogus move to pull the paragraph without saying what the paragraph claimed.

Neither nor Google have cached versions of the original piece.

goldberry's picture
Submitted by goldberry on

Because that would be really weird if you haven't listened to the original Apple story broadcast.
Daisy initially comes off as totally believable. He says he personally went to China and spoke to Foxconn employees. He tells all kinds of fantastic stories about the grueling conditions they work under. Then, Glass, to his credit, which you failed to mention, goes back to Apple and asks for a response. They don't want to be interviewed on the radio but they provide him with information from their own inspections and admit that they had problems with the way that Foxconn was running the plant. There was definitely some fact checking about what Mike Daisy was saying and he was caught bending the truth in several places.
All in all, the original episode was very well produced and my impression of Daisy, *from that episode*, was that he had a strong confirmation bias that didn't always gem with the truth. Glass did a very good job of figuring out what the facts were and how much of what Daisy said was factual.
Now, TAL comes out of Chicago Public Radio, not NPR. I'm not sure if CPR is part of Public Radio International but I do know that TAL has a partnership with NPR for Planet Money. So, there's an incestuous relationship there but it's not like TAL is an offshoot of All Things Considered.
Finally, I actually think that Ira Glass is doing a good thing here. He's acting like a real journalist. He was proactive about checking his facts the first time and the first episode demonstrated his skepticism pretty well. He did *not* just accept Mike Daisy's version of the story without question. He followed up. But that wasn't good enough for Glass. He himself was not satisfied with his own work. If only more journalists would do this and risk looking foolish for not completely writing Daisy off.
But the biggest problem with your post is the problem I have with a lot of lefty positions (and I consider myself a lefty). It is not good enough to simply have a position on nuclear energy or labor in china or vaccines or genetically modified crops. Facts matter. They matter quite a bit. If you don't have evidence to back up your claims or you just make shit up because it sells tickets and appeals to a particular point of view, that's just plain bad. It's disreputable, it's unethical, it's misleading and it is damaging to your credibility. It becomes a matter of faith. We just know they're bad, we don't need facts. How is that better than the right wing religious nuts?
For example, big pharma looks at the ignorant, uninformed ravings of the left when they write about stuff they know nothing about, and big pharma is fully justified in writing them off. The left comes off as unhinged because it is. What they believe from charlatans and lawyers, is not based on facts they have gathered without a preconceived notion. If you want to take on big pharma, you should ask researchers who worked there about big pharma because when you are armed with the facts and know where big pharma's real weaknesses are, you can be a much more effective activist against big pharma. I have looked at what lefties think of pharma and can tell you that you will never make a dent in their armor with the approach you're taking because it's mostly imagination fueled anger.
And in Daisy's case, it's particularly bad when you take your show on the road and try to pass it off as a fact to unsuspecting audience members who go to your gig seeking reinforcement of their point of view. You can bet that most of the people in that audience went to Daisy's show prepared to absolutely LOATHE everything Apple does with a white hot passion.
(BTW, one of the things Glass points out during the original episode is that Apple is not the only company who contracts with Foxconn. Every major American hardware company does it. You have to wonder why it is that Apple, who has been inspecting Foxconn and insisted on changes, is singled out. Didja ask yourself that? My own theory is that there's a tinge of envy here. Apple products are expensive and not everyone can afford them. Therefore, Apple must be taken down a notch.)
Daisy has actually damaged the case against Foxconn because now that we know he bends the truth to entertain his audience, nothing he says is credible. And Foxconn's employees deserve better than this. They deserve a true activist and advocate, not a business man who is further exploiting their lives for his own personal gain.
So, here you have a conman putting on a medicine show and telling gullible people what they want to hear and using their religion against them and during the show, it's *not* clear that Daisy isn't being honest. That it's all entertainment. And Glass is going to this guy and saying, "I've found out that you're not being honest with me or your audience and I want you to come clean because you made us look like fools." and for some reason that makes Glass look bad to you? How does that work? It's not logical at all.
More likely, Glass suspected after he talked to Apple that Daisy was playing fast and loose with the truth (that's sure what is sounded like to me) and after the first episode, he drilled down and put Daisy on the spot.
It is not Ok to mislead your audience. This is what Glass is saying. It wasn't right for Glass to not do all of his homework thoroughly and it's especially not right for Daisy to make his audience accept his point of view without question by passing it off as a fact based on what he claims is a personal trip to china for the purposes of an in-depth investigation.
Glass is doing you a favor. His reputation doesn't suffer a bit. He's going out of his way to be a proxy for you, the gullible listener, and showing what you must do to find the truth and hold people accountable for it.
So, kudos to Glass. You won't find a more honorable journalist on the radio. I like him even more after this.

lizpolaris's picture
Submitted by lizpolaris on

As soon as I heard it came from a person who wrote it into a stage show, I assumed there were parts that were exaggerated or extrapolated or something. Otherwise, why didn't his expose come out in the New Yorker or some other journalistic magazine? Wouldn't that reach more people than a studio audience? It didn't make sense.

Ira would say I'm not 'normal' in that I don't assume that anything I see presented in a theater setting is true, no matter what is said on stage about its veracity. He'd say, as you allege above, that all the audience is gullible listeners like he is. Well, with the state of journalism as it is today and with the primary presentation being given on a stage, I'm left wondering why Glass believed it.

And it think it's because he wanted to believe it. He admits TAL should have fact-checked it better. But it's easy to believe things that reinforce beliefs you already hold. How much we want to see the world in black and white terms. Apple is the big, bad corporation literally killing the little guys. Well, our world isn't that simple.

The shades of grey in this story range from the Dan Rather/Bush military service type (mostly true with one bad document not vetted) to the James Frey memoir type (complete fiction presented as truth). Daisey's stage play is a lot closer to Rather than to Frey, on that scale. He wrote it for the stage because that's what he does - not journalism. This should have been a huge red flag for TAL and Ira Glass from the get go - no matter what Daisey said. Did he feel pressured to aver it was true because TAL wanted him to? There's plenty of blame to go around here.

I hope Ira learns to question what he hears, whether it reinforces his beliefs or not. It's very hard to be skeptical all the time, but given the state of current media, we have to. Good on him for wanting to hold to a standard. Maybe this experience will show him how the rest of us non-journalists have to view everything we read - with doubt.

Jessica Yogini's picture
Submitted by Jessica Yogini on

From NYTimes: In a report for “Marketplace” on Friday, Mr. Schmitz acknowledged that other people actually had witnessed harsh conditions at the factories that supplied Apple. “What makes this a little complicated,” he said, “is that the things Daisey lied about are things that have actually happened in China: Workers making Apple products have been poisoned by hexane. Apple’s own audits show the company has caught underage workers at a handful of its suppliers. These things are rare, but together, they form an easy-to-understand narrative about Apple.”

Schmitz is the guy who revealed that Daisey had lied.

lizpolaris's picture
Submitted by lizpolaris on

I doubt that Apple is the only company whose products are made in this way at Chinese factories. I liked the end of the retraction story where the NYT reporter talks about the lack of worker protections in China.

Jessica Yogini's picture
Submitted by Jessica Yogini on

In Apple's case, since they are sitting on what may be the largest pile of cash any product-making company has ever sat on, there is a gratuitous quality to it. This pile of cash is after they pay their top people fabulously well and after any investments they need to make for the next generation of products. They literally can not figure out what to do with it they are making so much money. And yet they grind down their factory work force for every tiny bit they can.
Their plants are bad even by Chinese standards.
I read a report that a big part of their work force now is "interns". The Chinese government issued an order to colleges in provincial cities (ie not the top-tier schools where the party member's offspring go) that they can not issue a diploma for anyone who has not completed an "internship" at Foxconn. The "interns" are paid well below even Chinese minimum wage. The colleges went along because they are allowed to take most of even the sub-minimum wages as their fee for organizing the "internship". (Does any of this sound familiar from any other country?)
In other words, even while it is at a peak of success rarely seen anywhere in capitalist history, Apple runs its plants so brutally that even Chinese workers won't work there.
Some day we will look back at these times and it will really jump out at us that one of the most creative and dynamic (if not the most) company was that brutal.
There are many possibilities for how the creative class may relate to the working class. Apple demonstrates the most negative.

Jessica Yogini's picture
Submitted by Jessica Yogini on

I think that we can agree that letting "Apple is evil" be taken to mean "the others are OK" is wrong and that letting "they all do it" be an excuse for any of them is wrong.
I do think that Apple occupies a slightly unique position that makes exposing its vicious labor practices somewhat more important than exposing Samsung's.