Fans of public radio will no doubt have heard by now the thunderclap of self-administered face-palmings going on at the studios of the popular documentary radio show “This American Life” at WBEZ in Chicago.
The facts: In January of this year, an episode of “This American Life” featured segments of a performance by a chap named Mike Daisy of his one-man show, called “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” about his visits to factories in China where Apple products are manufactured by headless orphans paid in Monopoly money, etc. (Daisey didn’t actually claim that last part, but you know how those factories are. Or not, actually. But keep reading.)
Listeners flipped. The episode became the most downloaded in the history of the show, which has had a standing reservation at the top of iTunes podcasts for forever. But a fellow public radio correspondent in China who began to investigate the story’s accuracy didn’t have to look very far; he practically tripped over evidence that contradicted Daisey’s story, and soon enough the crew at “This American Life” found themselves with part of an apple and half a worm.
Some of the show’s most dramatic moments were outright lies. Like this account from Daisy about when he showed a functioning iPad to an assembly line worker who had (allegedly) lost his hand in an accident at the factory:
He’s never actually seen [an iPad] on, this thing that took his hand. I turn it on, unlock the screen, and pass it to him. He takes it. The icons flare into view, and he strokes the screen with his ruined hand, and the icons slide back and forth. And he says something to (the interpreter)… “he says it’s a kind of magic.”
Daisy defended these fabrications saying he does theater not journalism:
I stand by my work. My show is a theatrical piece whose goal is to create a human connection between our gorgeous devices and the brutal circumstances from which they emerge. It uses a combination of fact, memoir, and dramatic license to tell its story, and I believe it does so with integrity . . . . What I do is not journalism. The tools of the theater are not the same as the tools of journalism.
The folks at This American Life responded with vigor.
They did exactly what you would expect people in public radio to do: They got a little mad, drank a little Raspberry Zinger to mellow out (maybe), then they made a radio program rebuttal. That episode, it will be heard, turned out to be not just credibility-saving but credibility-enhancing.
“I think you can trust my word in the context of the theater,” Daisey told Ira Glass in a post-blow-up interview featured in the new episode. In Daisey’s world, the accounts of visiting the factories weren’t true true. Not true like fact-true. Is that good enough? Not for National Public Radio, dammit.
“This American Life” fell for the oldest trick in the book (the book called How to Tell Unbelievable Stories).