Presenting and Retracting

03/21/2012

In conversation with Jo Gibson today, I learned about a recent episode of This American Life.

Jo and I were talking about eyewitness testimony, memory and history.

She had listened to Ira Glass‘s conversation with Mike Daisey and she talked about a story aired by This American Life.

The transcript of the recent program starts with this statement:

I’m coming to you today to say something that I’ve never had to say on our program.

Two months ago, we broadcast a story that we’ve come to believe is not true. It’s a story that got a lot of attention. More people downloaded it than any episode we’ve ever done.

This is Mike Daisey’s story about visiting a plant in China where Apple manufactures iPhones and iPads and other products. He’s been performing this story onstage as a monologue since 2010. We didn’t commission this story, we didn’t send him to China. We excerpted the stage show that he’s been telling in theaters around the country.

We did fact check the story before we put it on the radio. But in fact checking, our main concern was whether the things Mike says about Apple and about its supplier Foxconn. which makes this stuff, were true. That stuff is true. It’s been corroborated by independent investigations by other journalists, studies by advocacy groups, and much of it has been corroborated by Apple itself in its own audit reports.

But what’s not true is what Mike said about his own trip to China.

As best as we can tell, Mike’s monologue in reality is a mix of things that actually happened when he visited China and things that he just heard about or researched, which he then pretends that he witnessed first hand. He pretends that he just stumbled upon an array of workers who typify all kinds of harsh things somebody might face in a factory that makes iPhones and iPads.

I am very grateful to Jo for bringing this story to my attention. I admire Ira Glass and try to listen to This American Life on Radio National whenever I can.

I think this whole process is an excellent example of the interplay of eyewitness testimony, oral accounts and the re-presenting of a story.

Jo and I concluded our conversation with a discussion about trusted sources. We both realised that if Ira can get it wrong so can all of us!