By now, the whole Web has heard about the embarrassing retraction made by the Public Radio International program This American Life.
In short, This American Life pulled one of its most popular show episodes, "Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory" -- an excerpt of Daisey's one-man play, The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, in which Daisey discusses experiencing the awful conditions at Foxconn, where Apple's products are made. This piece had kicked off the current swell of interest in and investigations into the conditions at Foxconn factories in China.
Now the page on This American Life where that show was published reads as follows:
This American Life has retracted this story because we learned that many of Mike Daisey's experiences in China were fabricated... We produced an entire new episode about the retraction, featuring Marketplace reporter Rob Schmitz, who interviewed Mike's translator Cathy and discovered discrepancies between her account and Mike's, and New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg, who has reported extensively on Apple. Ira [Glass] also re-interviewed Mike Daisey to learn why he misled us.
There are many upsetting things about this story.
Let's start with Daisey's flawed defense. As he writes on his blog:
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.
"Integrity" doesn't belong in that paragraph. There's a difference between fictionalizing something for the sake of art and passing off a false story as truth to a news organization. Had Daisey stated up front that his commitment is to theater and taking "dramatic license" with facts, I doubt the outcome would have been the same.
Second, as Ira Glass of This American Life noted in his apology, it is mortifying when a news organization has to face the world and say, we didn't do our job properly. Glass writes in a blog:
Daisey lied to me and to This American Life producer Brian Reed during the fact checking we did on the story, before it was broadcast. That doesn't excuse the fact that we never should've put this on the air. In the end, this was our mistake.
Daisey's ridiculous defense aside, the onus was on This American Life to do proper fact checking. The story Mike Daisey fed his organization about Foxconn didn't entirely check out, especially since Daisey couldn't provide them with his "sources." Yet, This American Life went forward with the piece anyway.
Here's the great, sad truth about this: Despite the fact that subsequent reporting by The New York Times and other organizations has, indeed, confirmed that the conditions at Foxconn need improvement, this movement is likely to be harmed, the momentum behind it stalled or lost. What the public now hears is that the story about Apple's factories was a lie. This massive error in judgment by Daisey and This American Life has done a disservice to those who are working hard to hold Apple accountable for how it treats its Chinese workers.
This problem feels similar to another recent viral phenomenon sweeping the Web -- KONY 2012, a documentary about an African war criminal, Joseph Kony, that was released by the organization Invisible Children. The video -- which seeks to "make Joseph Kony famous" for abducting children and turning them into soldiers -- went viral, generating millions of views and a groundswell of attention on social networks. Within just a few days though, endless reports emerged calling the Invisible Children organization propagandists.
The tragedy of this is that it distracts from any truth about the thousands of children abducted in the past, and about any such atrocities still occurring on the ground there. That's all been lost now in favor of a larger conversation about propaganda, who's lying, who isn't, etc.
And this, by the way, is what's wrong with tossing around ideas like "beta journalism" and "citizen reporting" and suggesting that fact checking as we go along is the "new way."
In short, the fast-paced way of the Web is no excuse for putting out stories that aren't vetted, or for taking "dramatic license" with information for the sake of getting attention. This lack of care for detail and truth today doesn't just harmlessly misinform. It's also responsible for discrediting efforts, tragedies, and movements that are in dire need of accurate reporting and people's attention.
— Nicole Ferraro , Editor in Chief, Internet Evolution