More About the This American Life Retraction

Mike Daisey had a perfectly good point about the shallowness of Steve Jobs. Too bad he took “dramatic license”. The more interesting part of the story for me is why This American Life (TAL) producers were fooled by Daisey and how they reacted when this became clear.

Suppose I make a short film in which Michael Jordan misses ten free throws in a row. Ten separate free throws, spliced together. Every detail is true, but the whole is false. Mostly he made free throws. You are never going to learn how false my film is by fact-checking it.  Because every fact is true. That was the first big mistake made by TAL producers. They assessed Daisey’s story by fact-checking. In their retraction they say nothing about this point and seem unaware of it. Had they assessed it more broadly they might have become aware of the exaggerations.

The second big mistake made by TAL was to accept the standard journalistic view that you should get “both sides” of a story. If Person X claims Y, try to find someone who disagrees. If a Democrat says such-and-such, find a Republican to comment. In the Daisey story broadcast in January, the TAL producers took Daisey to be saying “Chinese factories are bad” and countered this, in standard journalistic practice, by finding someone who would defend Chinese factories: New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, of all people. Yeah, the salaries are low but they are better than rural jobs, said Kristof. I could have said that. Kristof knows almost nothing about Chinese factories — that was perfectly clear. Thinking they needed “the other side” confused TAL producers and wasted their time. Instead, they should have asked someone who knows a lot about Chinese electronics factories to comment. Again, if they had done this they might have realized that Daisey was not telling the truth. Most journalists know not to demonize. But many of them haven’t learned not to polarize.

From the retraction broadcast it is obvious that Ira Glass is furious. He lied to us! was the dominant note. Given how furious he is it is perfectly understandable that he and the rest of TAL didn’t manage to reach even one interesting conclusion the entire show. They simply wanted to set the record straight quickly, which is fine. If there are more stories about this, in-depth ones, I am afraid Glass is going to conclude We wanted to believe. That is going to be his deepest comment on this. I hope I’m wrong. I don’t agree with that assessment. I think the real problem is We wanted things to be simple. In particular, they wanted (and still want) the simple-minded view of the world taught in journalism school to be correct. The one in which experts can be trusted, every story has two sides, and truth can be ascertained by fact-checking.

A medium-sized scandal in American journalism is the mainstream journalistic view of global warming — of course humans have caused it (= AGW). To say otherwise is “anti-science”. The question has complexities (e.g., how models are tested, how scientists distort stuff) that journalists ignore. I don’t think journalists “want” to believe anything about global warming. I think what they really want is simplicity. It makes their jobs easier.  A considerably larger scandal is the free pass given to medical schools and drug companies and their first, let them get sick attitude. The recognition that that this is horrible and there are alternatives seems beyond the thinking of most journalists who cover the subject. Again, the notion that our health care system is predatory is complex. Much simpler to believe it is good and not question basic assumptions. Both scandals — AGW and health care — are well in evidence at The New Yorker, an even more respected outlet than TAL, where Elizabeth Kolbert blindly accepts AGW and Atul Gawande, Michael Specter, and Jerome Groopman accept the first let them get sick way of doing things.

12 Replies to “More About the This American Life Retraction”

  1. Honestly, I don’t see why you are defending Daisey in your opening here.

    Are you not aware that Apple’s supplier responsibility report began while Steve Jobs was CEO, and that the only things that Daisey added to what they publish turn out to be lies?

    Seth: I don’t think Daisey’s lies are interesting. He lied to make a better story. He took “dramatic license”. Not the first person to do that — see David Sedaris, James Frey, and so on. TAL’s failure to catch those lies is more surprising, that’s why I discuss it at length. I think I have more to learn from it.

  2. “First, let them get sick” is partly appropriate modesty. Sometimes a treatment which seems plausible (like hormone replacement) isn’t such a brilliant idea.

    Seth: Yes, there is something to that. By first, let them get sick I mean three things: (a) Too little attention paid to fixing small problems, which become larger problems. Small things wrong are ignored until they become big things wrong. Because drugs are so dangerous, they cannot be used on small problems — the risks outweigh the benefits. An example is gingivitis. I believe it indicates too much inflammation all over your body, not just in your gums. (b) Too little interest in nutrition, which is a major cause of illness. (c) Too little interest in prevention.

  3. Not quite correct:
    – There was no hexane poisoning
    – There was no mangled hand
    – There were no guns at the gates when Daisey arrived at the factory.
    – There were no bunks stacked to the ceiling.

    I certainly agree with you that not every story has two sides (or can be intelligently “polarized”), but if the fact checking had been done, the problems with his narrative would have been caught, and the broadcast would never have happened.

    I also think Daisey is a major-league bastard who doesn’t haven’t the decency to feel shame when he lies to millions of people. That puts him a few rungs below James Frey, which isn’t saying a whole lot.

  4. i agree generally, but think you’re very wrong when you say the problem isn’t that journalists tend to want to believe certain things — many if not most journalists at reputable, influential press believe a certain narrative about the world and see their job as political, speaking truth to power, etc.

  5. One of the mistaken assumptions here is that “New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof” might shockingly get something wrong. Just because he works at the NYT, he knows something? Or anything?

  6. It is a continuing trend: Gleick and his fabricated Heartland memo, Breitbert and his out-of-context editing of Sherrod’s speech, and now Daisey and his spin on Apple factories. These people created lies to tell what they consider to be the true underlying story; they were motivated to influence the world to make it better.

    Interestingly enough, the brilliant David Simon in his ‘The Wire’ series developed the character of a reporter, Scott Templeton, who also wrote articles based upon lies, but Scott had different motivations. Scott Templeton did not care to influence the world to make it better; he simply craved money and glory. Sometimes professional storytellers anticipate reality and yet just miss.

  7. Nancy, agreed.

    Interestingly, the Public, the theater where Daisey is currently performing (the show closes Sunday) revealed yesterday that they also hadn’t known that he was lying in his monologue about what he had witnessed, saying “…we wish he had been more precise with us and our audiences about what was and wasn’t his personal experience in the piece.”

    So even the playhouse was expecting a higher level of integrity.

    Seth: “So even the playhouse was expecting a higher level of integrity.” That’s a good way of putting it. There is such a thing as too much dramatic license. And Daisey’s defense that his work is “theatre” does not please an actual theatre owner.

  8. Wonderful post Seth! I think you are correct. A bias for the simple story is behind a lot of this. Life is complicated! That takes a lot of the “conspiracy type thinking out of the equation.” I had as default model “journalists are dumb” but I have had some really sharp students as declared journalism majors so I was always troubled by my “simple story”.
    p.s. Thanks so much for Shangri-La! The flax oil has raised my HDL, allowed me feel in control of my weight, and improved my gums. My dentist after a 2-3 year absence by me asked “who is taking care of my teeth.” No one but the flax oil, brushing, and Seth! Thanks!

  9. I really like your Michael Jordan example and will probably use it elsewhere. Firsthand testimony is a powerful thing.

    Or imagine applying Daisey’s technique to the US military. Take the worst examples of injured soldiers that you could find in the news anywhere in the country over a few-year period. Tell a story in which you personally met all of these people as individuals, in a context that suggests the injury rate must be many orders of magnitude higher than it is. Give those soldiers words and actions that fill out the needs of your story to make it especially poignant and close with a call-to-action to email some high mucky-muck to “do something”. Come to think of it, I’d be surprised if this hasn’t been done yet. Somebody call Michael Moore, I’ve got a pitch for him… 🙂

  10. TAL’s audience wants to a) feel good about liking This American Life and b) feel OK about using Apple products. Scapegoating Daisey kills two birds with one stone. But it seems to me the producers are just as much to blame as Daisey for this story being presented as “journalism.”

    Tom, if you listen to the retraction show, Daisey quite evidently feels shame.

    Seth: “The producers are just as much to blame.” I agree and have yet to see this point made even once in all the journalistic comment (e.g., James Fallows, The New Yorker). Apparently journalists prefer to blame non-journalists (Daisey) for bad journalism. It doesn’t make complete sense but there it is.

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