I finally listened to “This American Life’s” hour-long retraction of their show about Apple’s Chinese suppliers, which was based on a, let’s say, inappropriate embellishment of the truth by the monologist Mike Daisey. Turns out the guy lied about seeing a lot of 12 and 13-year-old girls working at the factories, and he never saw a worker with a claw-like hand deformed from assembling iPads either.
I have several reactions to this incident.
First, it’s the best thing that’s happened to “This American Life” in a long time. Not only was the original broadcast a huge hit, with more podcast downloads than any other show, but the retraction generated even more attention. This provided a great deal of free publicity for the “This American Life” brand and people who probably never listened to the show before are now talking about it.
But it was more than a publicity win; the incident further positions “This American Life” as a journalistic enterprise with the highest journalistic standards. Anyone who listened to Ira Glass’s very public self-flagellation is left with the impression that this show really cares about getting to the truth. And this may very well be the case, although it’s hard to tell on a show where David Sedaris and other humorists tell stories that are obvious exaggerations.
Second, this is also the best thing that’s happened to Apple in a long time. Exposing Mike Daisey as a liar casts a shadow on all Apple critics. It’s hard not to suspect that they all might be shading the truth or, more likely, not telling the full story in all its complexity. So if I were in the Apple PR department now, I’d be sending Daisy a free iPad as a token of my thanks.
I actually like “This American Life” a lot. It’s our family tradition to listen to the podcasts on long car rides. The stories are almost always absorbing, frequently funny, often and moving. I was a little surprised, though, at the severe hand-wringing that went into the retraction. And I was a little put off by the suggestion that this incident might have undermined the credibility of NPR’s journalism.
One of the things that really bugs me about NPR’s pledge drive is their constant claim that we need NPR because you can’t get such important journalism anywhere else on radio. And don’t forget the insight! The insight is to die for!
Who’s kidding who? NPR is a fine radio network, but the way they talk you would think it was run by the ghost of Edward R. Murrow, the Dean of the Columbia School of Journalism and Jim Romenesko. As a PR guy I have been on the inside of two NPR hit jobs and both times the reporters had made up their minds on the story before they called the company, then grilled senior executives during lengthy and contentious interviews and ultimately provided the companies’ perspective in short throw-away clips in the middle of the pieces.
Think about it – the average NPR story is probably about 3-4 minutes long. How much nuance can you get into something so short? And there’s a reason they call these news items “stories.” They have to be interesting, with a beginning, middle and an end. They also need a takeaway and a moral. It helps if there are good guys and bad guys. That’s the nature of the beast. So when you are listening to a NPR story, remember how much is on the cutting room floor and don’t delude yourself into thinking you’re getting the kind of complexity you’d get in a New Yorker piece.
Then there’s the bias. I love Ira Glass and wish we could hang out as friends. But I bet he’s never voted for a ticket with anyone named Bush on it. With his leanings and worldview, I’m sure nothing seemed fishy about a report that a rich American company subcontracted its manufacturing to a Chinese supplier employing a lot of pre-teen girls. That’s what American companies do, after all.
But “This American Life” is a paragon of fairness compared to the rest of NPR. This is the network that fired Juan Williams for admitting he was afraid when he saw Muslims boarding his airplane; this is also the network whose SVP for fundraising were caught on tape disparaging the Tea Party and was subsequently forced to resign. And if the management leans one way, it’s not surprising that the journalists do so as well. I’m sure they think they are being fair, but they’re not in a position to know what questions to ask themselves since their antennae are not attuned to an alternative narrative.
As it turns out, the retraction story from “This American Life” was one of the most interesting and informative pieces they’ve ever broadcast. It not only exposed the worldview of Mike Daisey, who believes he has the right to make up and exaggerate details of his take in the search for a higher truth, it also exposed the multi-faceted dimensions of the Chinese manufacturing sector and its relationship to the U.S. economy. It’s definitely worth listening to, if you haven’t already heard it: http://bit.ly/yRHUir.
So, Ira, keep those stories coming. We love ya baby! But remember, you lend credibility to NPR, not the other way around.
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