What Everyone Can Learn From ‘This American Life’s Retraction of Mike Daisey’s Apple Monologue

Wherein the horrors of human rights abuses overseas that are employed to benefit the lives of those in the West are neutralized by a playwright's fudging of the details.

For those who may not know of the recent egg that Ira Glass looked to wipe off the face of This American Life’s face, all you need to know is that the American public radio capo di tuti capo was displeased that a play he saw one time about the nightmarish working conditions and culture of human rights abuses at Foxconn, an American-owned factory in one of China’s Free Economic Zones in Shenzen, contained factual inaccuracies. (For those unaware, China decided that Communism applied to almost every inch of the Motherland, with the exception of a few areas that see little or no taxation or government interference in the hopes of stimulating economic growth–so, for any upstart nations out there, the key to becoming the pre-eminent global economic power is to mash-up the worst aspects of far-left and far-right ideology. See you in 2040 Sierra Leone!)

That Mr. Glass thought a play would adhere to a level of journalistic accuracy is bad enough (or as he states on the Oprah-approved episode-length guilt trip TAL laid on monologist Mike Daisey, “…if someone stands on a stage and says something is true, I believe it”–note to Mr. Glass’ friends, keep him away from Spamalot), another is the stand Daisey took in defence of his outright balderdashery in the face of kid-glove fact-checking (“…I knew this was one of the best works I had ever done”), which sends the mercury skyward on the James Frey-thermometer of outrageous self-promotion cloaked in ‘art’.

With this in mind, a handy list of lessons learned from this whole debacle. (Sidebar: the preceding paragraphs contain hearsay recollections of the “Retraction” episode of This American Life and at least one glaring factual inaccuracy, an out-right lie actually, but one that does not undercut the general truth of the piece–I mean, if you go to blogs for “facts” instead of “truth”, that’s really your problem, isn’t it? Anyway, those are some of the best words I’ve ever written.)

Don’t believe a riveting story just because of where on the edge of your seat it puts you: If this were not a truism for all to abide by, the greatest literary argument would be over which is the finer chronicle of American history, Salem’s Lot or Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

If you write a crackerjack story, don’t pretend it’s all true and not expect a might comeuppance. Didn’t anyone see Street Smart? Probably not…1987 movie from Cannon Films starring Christopher Reeve and Morgan Freeman in an Oscar-nominated role playing a pimp who thinks that a journalist’s recent (and wholly fabricated) story is based on him and might provide a key to his defence in his trial for murder. It was a shame what happened to that nice Christopher Reeve, isn’t it? In the movie I mean, not in life. Well, that too.

If you’re planning on airing a crackerjack story on your journalistic program, maybe don’t take “I don’t have her cell phone number” as an excuse to back off your fact-checking. Ira Glass did take full responsibility for less than due diligence on the factual end. But it only came in and amongst the ritualistic flaying he laid down on the hapless Daisey for daring to enter into his corduroy-lined inner-sanctum at WBEZ. Which leads to…

Outsourcing is bad. There is a delicious irony with a creamy nougat center in this situation. Surrounding a story about the treacherous work conditions that a “civilized” First World has exported overseas in an effort to have cost-effective playthings, is a cautionary tale about a journalistic enterprise that outsourced their reporting to an unreliable source and felt betrayed when the workmanship broke down not long after purchase.

Perhaps interesting only to me: I did not verify my assertion that Foxconn is an American-owned corporation but I did check to see if Morgan Freeman won the Oscar for his role as the pimp Fast Black. Note to This American Life producers: do not set me loose on any aspect of the upcoming Presidential election or you’ll wind up saying “Dewey Beats Obama” and how do you retract that?


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