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What We Can Learn From This American Life's Retraction of Mike Daisey's Story

Posted: 03/18/2012 11:24 am

After a January 6 episode of This American Life, the popular radio program, went viral, reporter Rob Schmitz began to wonder how much of the story was true. Mike Daisey had shared his accounts at Foxconn's factories in his off-Broadway show, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, and Ira Glass and his team trusted Daisey on some details that have since been revealed to be made up. TAL has since released a new episode on its site titled "Retraction" that includes Glass's apology and explanation for not fact-checking the story more before producing and releasing it. Here's a rundown of what some commentators say we can take away from this episode:

James Fallows, The Atlantic:

When they get all huffy, Chinese nationalists love to present the Western press as being irremediably biased against Chinese achievements and ambitions, and willing to pass along the most outrageous slanders about China without checking them for accuracy or even plausibility. A site called Anti-CNN is a well-known outlet for such views. This is a constant nuisance when you try to write critical assessments. Worse, it gives ammo to those inside China who want to pooh-pooh complaints about safety, pollution, working conditions, and so on. Daisey is everything they warned against, come to life.

Michael Schulman, The New Yorker:

Of course, Daisey's liberties only make it harder for Apple watchdogs to make their case. But the aspirations he had for the piece are worth preserving. Daisey wanted to infect us with the truth, person by person, in a way that theatre can do and reportage can't. It would be a shame if the scandal cheapened either, or the inventive ways they can intertwine.

Felix Salmon, Reuters:

Ira Glass says that This American Life should have scrapped the idea of doing a Mike Daisey show the minute he told their fact-checkers that he had no way of contacting his translator. But maybe the mistake was made even earlier, when This American Life decided that a theatrical monologue could ever be held to standards of journalistic accuracy. This one certainly couldn't, and in that I think it's more the rule than the exception.

Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune:

I suspect he was seduced by the glare of attention and his sense of rectitude. Politically motivated artists logically dream of reaching more people: more viewers, more minds changed. He doubtless thought his exposure of how our obsession with those Jobs-fueled gadgets was paid for by the sweat of Chinese workers excused his fudging the details. Apply artistic criteria and he has a case. Apply journalistic criteria and he has no case at all.
 

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