Contrition is the rarest of acts in modern American journalism. When a mistake is acknowledged, it is typically with only a passing glance - small, poorly worded type inserted under the masthead of a newspaper, a quick mention by a host at the end of the show. Seldom are mistakes publically dissected or is work made to undue collateral damage caused by the error.
That is why Ira Glass is a hero.
When he was confronted with undisputable evidence that his program, This American Life -- produced by WBEZ Chicago and syndicated by Public Radio International -- went to air with a story that was based on false sourcing, Glass didn't simply issue a statement on the web, or a quick apology in the course of normal business. He dedicated his entire hour-long program this past weekend to setting the record straight. This was not just any story; it was the most downloaded podcast in the show's history, and it led to more than 250,000 people signing a petition.
It would have been easy to do otherwise. The thrust of his broadcast, about Apple's poor record of worker protections at its production facilities in China, was correct. Numerous outlets, including a long New York Times article, had reported on them.
But the source of the piece, a play by performance artist Mike Daisey, was based on fabrications. It was true that workers had been poisoned by the neurotoxin n-Hexane, used to quickly clean the glass of iPads. But Daisey's story of meeting these workers and watching their hands shaking was fabricated, at least in the way he told the story.
Glass could have fought. Many would likely have taken his side, arguing Daisey was a performance artist. This American Life could have fallen back on the defense that his monologue, "The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs," was of course punched up for dramatic effect. The story might have circulated online and debated by some in the media and at academic institutions.
Alternatively, Glass could have gone to air with a brief correction, noting the problematic nature of Daisey's piece but defending the substance behind the dramatization.
Glass chose a different path. He honestly confronted his audience, admitting his errors and spent a full hour offering an honest and truthful recanting, while at the same time, informing his audience of the truth behind the exaggerated broadcast.
While reading the transcript of the program, I could not help but thinking of the contrast between Ira Glass and Fox News. As David Brock and I researched and wrote our book, The Fox Effect: How Roger Ailes Turned a Network into a Propaganda Machine, what struck me most was Fox News' inability to acknowledge its errors, except on rare occasions and in the smallest of ways. (For example, Special Report anchor Bret Baier, to his credit, acknowledged an error on his broadcast last week, after a posting from Media Matters.)
Fox News Washington managing editor Bill Sammon went on the network before the 2008 electon and in his own words "publicly engaged in what I guess was some rather mischievous speculation about whether Barack Obama really advocated socialism" even while acknowledging he found the very premise "rather far-fetched."
When confronted with his words by Howard Kurtz, Sammon, far from acknowledging his error, tried weaseling his way out of it.
Sammon told Kurtz that his reference to "mischievous speculation" was "my probably inartful way of saying, 'Can you believe how far this thing has come?'" The socialism question indeed "struck me as a far-fetched idea" in 2008. "I considered it kind of a remarkable notion that we would even be having the conversation." He doesn't regret repeatedly raising it on the air because, Sammon says, "it was a main point of discussion on all the channels, in all the media" -- and by 2009 he was "astonished by how the needle had moved."
Or consider how Michael Clemente, the network's senior vice president for news, responded when confronted with the fact that viewers of his network were among the most misinformed on a variety of issues, according to polling from University of Maryland researchers.
Instead of expressing concern about Fox's apparent failure to adequately inform its viewers, Clemente went on the attack sarcastically impugning the reputation of the university.
Acting more like a political attack dog than a major media executive, Clemente told the New York Times, "The latest Princeton Review ranked the University of Maryland among the top schools for having 'Students Who Study the Least' and being the 'Best Party School,' " adding, "Given these fine academic distinctions, we'll regard the study with the same level of veracity it was 'researched' with."
This kind of response is par for the course at Fox News -- and that is what makes Ira Glass and This American Life's response so unique. We should expect our media to pursue truth above all else and when errors are made, even major ones, that they are corrected. Ira Glass lived up to journalism's greatest objective, which sadly is an all-too-rare occurrence in an age where the Fox News reaction is what we have come to expect.
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