Fans of the popular public radio program This American Life – and I count myself among them – learned last night that the single most downloaded episode of the show ever – an exposé of sorts of Apple's production operations in China – was to a great extent a work of fiction. The episode in question, "Mr. Daisey Goes to the Apple Factory," was an adaptation of a spoken word performance piece by Mike Daisey called "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs," which Daisey is currently performing at the Public Theater.
In the performance piece, Daisey recounts a trip to China where he met with various workers at Foxconn, a factory that makes products for Apple. The working conditions at Foxconn and other Apple production facilities in China have been the focus of a number of critical reports over the past few months, including this series in The New York Times. But Daisey's performance piece came first, and many credit him with drawing attention to the story. If that's true, then This American Life's massive amplification of his performance aided in that process.
It turns out, ultimately by his own admission, that many of the interactions Daisey describes didn't actually happen, rather they were often amalgamations of stories and encounters he heard about in his travels across China. A Shanghai-based reporter for the public radio show Marketplace named Rob Schmitz heard the broadcast and Daisey's story didn't sit well with him so he did some digging. He confirmed the lies and it wasn't difficult. All he did was Google the first name of Daisey's translator, along with the word translator and the name of the city she worked in, and she was the first result. He spoke to her and she told him that much of what Daisey described didn't happen. This American Life had asked Daisey for the translator's number when they were fact checking the story, but Daisey said he didn't have it. They believed him and for some reason elected not to try and track her down themselves.
This American Life devoted this week's episode of the show to the retraction and features an interview with Schmitz and two interviews with Mr. Daisey, who manages to both nominally take responsibility for and defiantly rationalize his deception. Listen to it. In addition to displaying an admirably introspective recounting of a grievous error on the part of the producers of the show, it is a damn compelling hour of radio. It was incredibly satisfying to hear host Ira Glass call Daisey out, as was Daisey's inability to talk his way out of it.
I won't rehash the whole thing here, but as someone who has literally listened to every episode of This American Life (when I worked as a temp in 2000 and 2001, I listened to five or six episodes a day) and who has pitched them stories on a few occasions (alas, to no avail), I have to say that this incident helps to crystalize some questions I have about what This American Life is and how it has evolved.
When the show began in 1995 the stories generally focused on the emotional journeys of the subjects. It was about American lives, recounted in a tone and tempo that has become synonymous with This American Life and Ira Glass. But in recent years, the show has evolved, and it has overlaid that tone and tempo onto more traditional and often incredibly complex news stories. The most powerful of these I think are the shows it has produced on the financial crisis, starting with the phenomenal episode "The Giant Pool of Money." In that show, precisely because of their unique tone and tempo, they were able to describe complex financial mechanisms like mortgage backed securities in terms which a lay audience could understand (not to mention countless journalists who were confounded by this stuff until hearing the episode).
The episode won Polk, Peabody and duPont awards and was named one of the top ten works of journalism of the decade by the New York University's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. I think it deserved all of it and more. On a personal level, their reporting in this area has definitely informed the way I've written about money.
I suppose what preoccupies me on some level is the sense I have that now This American Life oscillates between two kinds of stories now. They do newsy pieces, told in their unique way, AND more traditional stories of American lives, told in their unique way. Sometimes I feel that the ground rules for these two types of stories are different. For example, there was a show they did in 2010 called "The Georgia Rambler," in which producers dropped in on nine random counties in Georgia and basically looked for interesting stories. They found them. Lots of them. But one of the tales contained a bit of narration that concerned me.
They were interviewing three 20-something guys who worked in a chicken wing place in a rural county. The "reporter" in this episode was a comedian named Eugene Mirman and he was introducing one of the guys, using his full name, which I won't do here.
"This is —– —-. He's 27, but doesn't look a day over 23. He's there with two friends. All three work at Wild Wings. They're hanging out drinking as it's closing up for the night. Matt's just discovered Friends on DVD with the kind of enthusiasm potential rock stars discover The Velvet Underground. My producer thinks he might be gay. But I think he just likes R.E.M. and wants to be an artist."
When I heard that I thought to myself, "Did This American Life just out a kid living in rural Georgia because he likes the show Friends?"
All I could think of is that kid and his friends and family sitting down to listen to the episode the weekend it aired, and the look on the guy's face when that line came across. Word would get around. Would people ostracize him? Would someone beat him up? Now, maybe the guy was gay, maybe he wasn't. Maybe he was out and maybe This American Life called him and asked if it was OK to say that we think you're gay on the radio and he said, "Sure!" I have no idea. What I do know is that in the context of the show it was pure conjecture. Saying that you think someone's gay isn't a qualitative description of a character. It's not like saying someone "doesn't look a day over 23." I'm generally OK with subjective, textural details coming from narrators, but someone's sexual orientation isn't subjective. And I think because of the incredibly strong reporting This America Life has produced in the past few years, that kind of narrative voice seemed out of place to me. Maybe it wouldn't have in 1995, but it did in 2010.
If there are indeed two kinds of This American Life episodes – the newsy one and the story-ey ones – I think perhaps the episode "Mr. Daisey Goes to the Apple Factory" is a combination of the two. Reporting a news story purely through first person narrative is a tricky business in the best of circumstances. Adding inferences and speculation is something people often do when they're telling stories. These things tend to make stories more entertaining, as Eugene Mirman and the show's producers probably thought when they included that line about the kid in Georgia. Some people, like Mike Daisy, however, allow these inferences to morph into facts in the telling, either because they have an agenda and the ends justify the means, or simply because they think it will make a better "big fish" story. Who can say for sure what happened here.
This has no doubt been an incredibly troubling experience for Ira Glass and the rest of the people at This American Life, but given their candor on the radio last night, I have to believe that this incident will ultimately make the show stronger as it continues to grow, and it will remain a great American institution. As for Mike Daisey… not so much.