I am a fan of Ira Glass and "This American Life."
In fact, I am such a fan, I have been sitting here for four days hoping someone else would write this piece.
But no one is apparently. So, here goes.
Let me preface it by saying maybe I am so out of step with most of my colleagues because I have been teaching Media Ethics for the past 15 years at an area college. (In fact. Glass is speaking at commencement for the school in May.)
But while Mike Daisey deserves all the pounding and then some that he is taking in the press for his lies, I am troubled by how many of my colleagues are mostly giving Glass a pass for his gatekeeping failure in putting Daisey's work on the air in the first place.
Actually, Glass is being exonerated and then some in pieces like this one from David Carr who posits the belief that liars will always find their way on-air or into print no matter how hard "seekers of truth" like Glass try to prevent it.
Here's the passage:
There is nothing in the journalism playbook to prevent a determined liar from getting one over now and again. It is partly because seekers of truth expect the same from others. On the broadcast this weekend, Mr. Glass seemed stunned by Mr. Daisey’s ability to look him in the eye and dissemble.
“I have such a weird mix of feelings about this because I simultaneously feel terrible for you, and also I feel lied to,” Mr. Glass said. “And also, I stuck my neck out for you.”
Only despite all the feelings, whoa, whoa, whoa, feelings, Glass didn't really try very hard to prevent it, did he? Feeling bad after the crime isn't enough. In fact, talking about your feelings and beating up the lying liar who lied the way Glass did without offering some specific actions to try and make sure you never let it happen again is more about performance and self-absorption than it is genuine contrition, isn't it?
What about the basic gatekeeping steps Glass should have taken the second Daisey told "This American Life" fact checkers that his Chinese translator's real name was not Cathy (the name he used for her in the piece), and that she couldn't be reached because the cell phone number he had for her no longer worked?
Two questions here. After Stephen Glass, how could anyone with any sense of the journalistic fact-checking process not have 10,000 alarms go off in his or her head when the author says you can't reach someone in the story because they have changed a phone number, moved, don't like talking to editors, are very shy, or because of whatever-crazy-lie-they-can-think-of-next?
Read Buzz Bissinger's excellent "Vanity Fair" piece titled "Shattered Glass." Or, if that's too journalistic for you, check out the 2003 movie of the same title. The entire second half is Glass telling fact checkers and his editors at the New Republic why they can't reach the people in his stories.
No one at "This American Life" heard those unmistakable echoes? With Stepehen Glass being one of the great horror stories and teaching moments of journalisitic disaster, how could anyone with any sense of journalism not be thinking Stephen Glass when the translator lie is told?
And maybe I am reading the transcripts wrong, but I have checked with a number of my trusted colleagues and they read them the same way as saying that even after Daisey told the fact checkers that the name he used in the piece for his translator was fake, Glass still let him call her Cathy in the piece that aired.
Here's a question screaming to be asked: How often are names changed in "This American Life" pieces? How often are other things telescoped, changed, altered? Are facts valued so much if you are willing to let a name be changed that casually?
And then, there's James Fallows celebrating last weekend's "This American Life" for its "superb unraveling of Daisey's inventions, in its exploration of 'real' journalistic values and the difference between fact and metaphor.'"
Granted, Glass did a highly commendable, if somewhat self-righteous "retraction" show over the weekend from which the quote in the Carr piece was taken.
Here's the gist of the admission of guilt by Glass on the issue of the translator:
At that point, we should’ve killed the story. But other things Daisey told us about Apple’s operations in China checked out, and we saw no reason to doubt him. We didn’t think that he was lying to us and to audiences about the details of his story. That was a mistake.
Saw no reason to doubt a performance artist telling you incredible things no journalist had found?
It would not have taken any "superb unraveling" at that point or any discussion of the "difference between fact and metaphor" to do the right thing -- just a basic, sound journalistic compass that any student who passed Media Ethics should have. And that's why I am writing this piece.
For all the talk by Glass last weekend about journalism, I wonder just how much the culture of "This American Life" is a journalistic one, versus one steeped in narrative, irony, attitude and amusement -- in other words, a thoroughly postmodern sensibility that at its core says facts do not matter (if they exist at all) as much as compelling narratives. You know, the school of thought that says history is nothing but stories.
And from the docudramas that re-imagine our national history for mass TV and film audiences, to all the English departments teaching "creative nonfiction" with no understanding of journalism's commitment to facts and verification, I think there is a larger cultural problem here -- and "This American Life" could be a significant part of it.
After Stephen Glass, the New Republic went though every piece he wrote, and found more and more journalistic dishonesty. Granted this isn't a case of serial liar who has done multiple pieces for the radio show, but I have heard no promise by Glass to go back through other pieces by other authors and see if this is an isolated case or there is a pattern of lame fact-checking at "This American Life" -- or a willingness to change facts to make a narrative sing when spoken on the air.
We won't find any of that out if everyone gives Glass, the executive editor, a free pass for what is a grievous lapse of journalistic gatekeeping responsibility.
It's a lapse, I believe, that many of the hard-working, journalistically-dedicated and sound public radio stations around the country will have to work even harder to overcome.
UPDATE: The Columbia Journalism Review has a piece today addressing this same topic. I urge you to give it a read here.
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