In which Ira Glass discovers he is gullible
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 over...it 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?