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Saturday: The Retraction

I’m posting what turned out to be a lengthy comment to a post that lizpolaris wrote on Correntewire about the retraction Ira Glass was compelled to issue on a recent This American Life’s episode.  The episode featured a writer, Mike Daisey, who is performing a traveling monologue about his trip to China to investigate Foxconn, the factory that makes Apple products.  You can listen to the original episode here and the retraction here.

lizpolaris’s post puts Glass squarely in the duped journalist category, typical of NPR journalists over the past 10 years.  This has not been my experience after years and years of listening to Glass.  To the contrary, I find him to be a very responsible journalist.  In fact, I hear genuine skepticism in many of his shows.  For example, I don’t think Obama fooled him for a second.  Glass doesn’t come right out and say it, because that’s not his job, but he’s dropped a sufficient number of clues over the past several years.  Anyway, my point is, he’s reliable and rarely given to repeating lefty positions without thinking.  My daughter who just turned 16, has been listening faithfully to This American Life for the past 4 years and it’s one of the rare radio shows I approve of with few reservations.  Glass and his production team are one of the best around.

That doesn’t mean they’re perfect or don’t make mistakes.  This is one of those mistakes and it’s painful to listen to the retraction.  You can tell that Glass is upset, even though in the original episode, his natural skepticism already alerted this listener to feel that Daisey was “embellishing” at best.

Lizpolaris also seems to give a pass to Mike Daisey for his monologue show about Foxconn, the subject of the original episode and the retraction.  Glass should have known that Daisey wasn’t obligated to tell the truth, she says.  He’s an entertainer, sort of like Rush Limbaugh is an entertainer, I guess.  The degree to which you excuse Mike Daisey’s lying on stage probably correlates to the degree to which you believe Apple and Foxconn are evil bastards.  Mebbe they are, mebbe they aren’t.  But whether they are or not, the truth is not served by an “entertainer” reinforcing the confirmation bias of his audience by telling them heartwrenching stories that turn out to be lies.

So, here’s my comment, which expresses my frustration at my own side of the political spectrum for accepting tabloid style “true stories” because they fit its worldview and how that tends to make some lefties less credible and, ultimately, less helpful to the people who need their informed advocacy:

Wait, are you blaming Glass?

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 Daisey 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 Daisey, *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 Daisey 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 Daisey’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 Daisey 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 people 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. [I’ve read a lot of tirades about big pharma that are fantasies but for some reason, the left steadfastly refused to interview the people who clarify their misperceptions.  To them. Big pharma is evil so the left can say anything it wants.  It doesn’t matter if it’s true.] 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 Daisey’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 Daisey’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.)

Daisey 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 Daisey 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 Daisey 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 Daisey 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 Daisey 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.

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5 Responses

  1. Weeell, explosions don’t embellish ;-). Lies aside, the facts remain that these manufacturing plants that produce our toys (Apple being a big player in the toy market) have pretty awful working conditions.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/26/business/ieconomy-apples-ipad-and-the-human-costs-for-workers-in-china.html?_r=1

    • You should listen to both episodes from beginning to end before you make that pronouncement. There is a legitimate reason to be angry with apple, but there are also mitigating circumstances. Plus, apple is taking the heat for something that all hardware manufacturers do. There is no doubt that apple has a lot to answer for, and the most important thing has an indirect effect on the working conditions at foxconn. If you don’t find out what that thing is, you can’t possibly help the workers of Foxconn and lobby for them effectively. All you end up doing is making a pronouncement of disgust that goes no further than an expression. It is uninformed and worthless.
      So, verily I say unto you, listen to both episodes, especially the last 12 minutes of the retraction to know what is really going on at Foxconn and then you will know exactly what kind of pressure to put on apple. You might be surprised to find that some apple executives are also wrestling with this moral dilemma but not nearly as vigorously as they should.

  2. I heard the original T.A.L. Mr. Daisy broadcast and I believed it on the strength of Ira Glass’s reputation for care and truthfulness. I may not get to hear the retraction-broadcast.

    But from what I have read and heard, it seems clear that Mr. Glass takes his show’s hard-earned reputation for truthfulness and accuracy
    very seriously and is therefor willing to perform a forensic autopsy on
    how his show got fooled by what may be a very slick con man. One hopes the con man is also forensicly autopsied and that he ends up with exactly whatever reputation he deserves.

    It will also be a learnable moment for some about the difference between actual facts and political lies and the excuses used to justify such lies.

    • Amen. I appreciate Glass’s efforts to clear up the story even though it makes TAL look like they fell down on the job. But there’s very little of anything positive I can say about Daisey. The ends do not justify the means and in this case, he not only jeopardized his own reputation, he risked TAL’s as well.
      Not good.

  3. Well said, rd.

    It seems to me a lot of people on the Left (like a lot on the Right) just “know” who the good people are and who the bad people are. And at that point facts just become a tactical issue.

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