Tuesday, March 20, 2012

My So-Called American Life

I've been a fan of This American Life, the public-radio mainstay, for many years, so I've found the recent Mike Daisey dust-up to be pretty upsetting.

In case you missed it: Daisey's been doing a theatrical piece based on his trip to China to check out the manufacturing process of Apple products. In short, the human toll is deplorable: Unreasonable demands on the assembly line, high suicide rates, etc.--most of which has been sort-of covered elsewhere in the media, but Daisey's work gave it a personal edge.

This American Life broadcast a one-hour excerpt, which quickly became of the show's most popular episodes ever. The problem is, Daisey made up a lot of the details.

When this came to light, TAL retracted the episode, explained how the show was vetted, and even did a follow-up show explaining what went wrong. Admirable, though, as Poynter--the media website affiliated with the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit journalism school--points out, what TAL did wasn't really vetting in the way it's practiced at most news organizations. Basically, TAL staffers checked what they could and shrugged their shoulders when Daisey said that his translator--the best witness for the stories contained in the episode--was "unreachable," which wasn't true. That's not really vetting.

And I think that's basically the problem--This American Life isn't really a news show. It's a difficult-to-describe hybrid of personal stories, fiction (explicitly labeled as such), humor, ... and, oh yeah, reporting. The episodes it did on the financial crisis were great, boiling down really complicated financial reporting in an easy-to-understand way. Likewise, the episode on an out-of-control Georgia drug court was amazing work.

Still, when I think about the show, I think mainly about the more personal episodes, with people talking about their lives. They are what turned me into a big fan. More episodes fall in that category than under "journalism." And, honestly, I don't hold that sort of thing to the same standard. I don't expect, say, David Sedaris to be held to the same standards when talking about his time spent playing an elf at Macy's as I do Mike Daisey when recounting interviewing Chinese factory workers. Did Sedaris exaggerate for comic effect? Yes, I assume he did, and I'm OK with that. He is a humorist, not a reporter. I wouldn't even hold him to James Frey standards. (When The New Republic tried to hold Sedaris to reporting standards in 2008, the result was, I thought, rather silly. Am I being inconsistent because of my fondness for Sedaris? Yeah, possibly.)

Basically, what TAL does is kind of problematic. When you mix fiction and nonfiction on a regular basis, the boundaries are inevitably going to get blurry. It might make sense to spin off TAL's journalistic episodes to a totally separate program.

PS: This American Life's truthiness problem goes back a ways.

UPDATE ON 3/26: That P.S. above links to a blog post that pointed out TAL had a few pieces by discgraced fabricator Stephen Glass in its archives. In an email that went around last week (I'm on TAL's mailing list), this note appeared:
One upshot of the recent news coverage about our show: we learned that stories by Stephen Glass were in our online archive. We'd taken these down years ago and then they went back up without any of us noting it when we did a redesign of the website in 2010. (The people executing the new design didn't know we'd removed those shows and Ira and the radio producers on staff didn't think to inform them; they hadn't thought about those stories in years.)

The pieces have been removed again.

1 comment:

ChefNick said...

There seems to be a problem among people whose names contain "glass." Wasn't there some guy named "Greenglass" who plagiarized half his career?

But I was confused when I heard the name "Ira Glass." I thought, isn't he the guy who plagiarized half his career? The guy who kept squirrelling away antique chairs from European castles? Then I remembered that people named Glass shouldn't stow thrones.