Back in January, “This American Life” ran en episode entitled “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory,” an excerpt from Mike Daisey’s one-man show The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, which presents an account of Daisey’s visit to an Apple manufacturing facility in China. The episode quickly became the show’s most popular broadcast to date, and stirred up a lot of empathy and even social activism from its listeners. However, yesterday, “This American Life” ran an entire episode retracting the story, after having discovered that Daisey fabricated large parts of his story. According to Ira Glass, the host and producer of the show, Daisey was reminded several times that his story had to meet journalistic standards, not just theatrical ones, in order to be presented as part of “This American Life,” and Daisey agreed. Of course, as it now appears, he took quite a few dramatic licenses.
In yesterday’s episode “Retraction,” Marketplace’s China correspondent, Rob Schmitz, speaks with Daisey’s translator, and Glass speaks with Daisey himself, trying to work out which parts of the story are true and which are false, and in the case of Glass, trying to figure out why Daisey lied. It’s amazing to hear Daisey break down when speaking to Glass — there are long, breathy silences, clear emotional struggle, and one moment where he admits that he loses his nerve to say something and has to force himself to get it out. He admits his wrongdoing — not in his theatrical work, but in his presentation of that work as journalistic truth. When Glass presses him about why he was so evasive, he admits, “I think I was terrified that if I untied these things, that the work, that I know is really good, and tells a story, that does these really great things for making people care, that it would come apart in a way where, where it would ruin everything.”
Though some news outlets are calling the whole incident embarrassing — and it is, of course, a little embarrassing — our takeaway is relatively positive. The fact that they chose to produce an entire hour-long episode on the fact of the retraction — rather than trying to sweep it under the rug — is admirable. This situation, hairy as it may be, makes us trust “This American Life” all the more, for identifying a mistake, going after it, and exposing it to the public, even at the risk of their own credibility.
Listen to the entire episode here.