If you're like most Prospect readers, you're an overeducated, latte-sipping, NPR-listening elitist, which means that this weekend you probably heard This American Life's extraordinary hour-long retraction of a story they aired a few weeks ago featuring Mike Daisey, whose well-reviewed stage monologue "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs" discusses Daisey's ambivalence about his love affair with Apple products and includes accounts of Daisey's visit to the Foxconn factory in China where many Apple products are manufactured. Briefly, TAL did an episode featuring Daisey's stories, but it turned out that many of them were embellished. He used his own experiences, then added to them things he had heard or read about, saying he had actually seen things like underage workers and workers poisoned by the hexane used in the manufacturing process (there was an incident involving hexane poisoning, but it didn't happen at the plants Daisey visited). Essentially, Daisey wrote his stage monologue to be as compelling a story as possible, but then TAL called, and he presented parts of it on their show without telling them what was real and what was made up.
When they discovered this, Ira Glass and his team decided to create an object lesson in journalistic responsibility. For context, consider the place that corrections usually occupy in journalism. Newspapers contain a small correction box on an inside page, where days or weeks after an error occurred, it is corrected in a spot virtually nobody reads. Television news programs almost never offer on-air corrections. Ask a journalism professor how corrections ought to be done, and the first thing he or she will say is that the correction ought to be given at least as much prominence as the original mistake. Which never, ever happens. Except in this case.
Granted, This American Life is a weekly program, which means they have plenty of time to put together a program like this. That luxury isn't really available to your average newspaper. But the program they did ought to be mandatory listening for every journalism student. They walked through exactly what their process was, how they allowed Daisey's fabrications to get through, and what it took to find out the truth. And they confront Daisey himself—the interview with him, in which he puts up a feeble defense but admits most of his lies, is profoundly uncomfortable but undeniably compelling as we listen to Daisey essentially narrate the crumbling of his career (here's the transcript).
As James Fallows says, what's so infuriating about Daisey's deceptions is that they were so unnecessary. "Do we care whether Upton Sinclair had actually seen the packinghouse cruelties he described in The Jungle? Whether any family exactly like the Joads was known to John Steinbeck—or exactly like George Bailey's or Mr. Potter to Frank Capra for It's a Wonderful Life? Charles Dickens and Oliver Twist? You get the point. Mike Daisey could have had 98% of the intellectual/social impact of his monologue, and zero % of the dishonesty and now disgrace, if he had described it as an attempt to convey the truth of a situation through imagined details."
Once he took his piece off the stage and onto This American Life, he should have told them what was true and what wasn't. But by that time, he was in too deep. And TAL made a mistake in not checking on his details more thoroughly. But they more than made up for that mistake by giving all their listeners an explanation, in the most high-profile way they could, of how it happened. It also made for great radio! Not only that, they've elevated their credibility about as high as it could go.
One postscript: Apple has gotten a lot of attention on the subject of conditions for workers at the plants that make iPads and iPhones. But look down at your computer. Is it a Dell? Or an HP? Or a Lenovo? Or a Toshiba? Or a Sony? Well guess what—your computer was probably made in China, too, either at a Foxconn factory or one much like it, or maybe worse. Apple gets the attention because its products are the most fetishized, but the other big electronics manufacturers take advantage of the same global system of cheap labor and high-volume manufacturing that Apple exploits.
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