Others defend Sedaris and his presentation by NPR and “This American Life,” saying the liberties he takes are justified because his intention is to draw laughs, not report serious information.
“I don’t think David ever posed himself as a journalist,” said Torey Malatia, who heads Chicago Public Media, which produces “This American Life.” “He’s a storyteller, a humorist. The giveaway is when he’s wildly exaggerating. It’s art. It’s fiction.”
Said Ellen McDonnell, NPR’s executive editor of news programming: “I guess, to me, [“SantaLand”] was just a holiday story. I mean, he was an elf! It was not a he said-she said, who-what-why story like Mike Daisey.”
Alicia Shepard, NPR’s former ombudsman and a visiting journalism professor at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, had a similar view. “David Sedaris has never been presented as a journalist,” she said. “He’s a storyteller. I do think there are different expectations. It’s acknowledged that he’s making things up.”
In fact, listeners would be unlikely to know this by the way NPR and “This American Life” present Sedaris on the air. NPR introduced its last rebroadcast of Sedaris reading “SantaLand” in December by calling it “a ‘Morning Edition’ holiday tradition.” It has used similar language in each of its rebroadcasts.
“This American Life” rebroadcast an old Sedaris monologue on May 5 — a nearly 15-minute piece about his family’s pets — without any hint that parts of it might have been untrue.
In an interview, Glass said no one at his program was concerned about Sedaris before the Daisey episode. “We just assumed the audience was sophisticated enough to tell that this guy is making jokes and that there was a different level of journalistic scrutiny that we and they should apply,” he said.
But the Daisey debacle has brought about a reassessment. Glass said three responses are under discussion: fact-checking each of Sedaris’s stories to ensure their accuracy, labeling them to alert the audience that the stories contain “exaggerations” or doing nothing.
At the moment, Glass said, he thinks the best course is to check Sedaris’s facts to the extent that stories involving memories and long-ago conversations can be checked. The New Yorker magazine subjects Sedaris’s work to its rigorous fact-checking regime before it publishes his stories.
Glass says labeling Sedaris’s stories presents its own problems: “It’s a hard thing to figure out how to do it in way that is respectful of the audience and is respectful of Sedaris.”
But people at NPR, which is separate from “This American Life’s” producer, Chicago Public Media, think the label option makes sense.
“When you have so much questioning of what’s real, fair, subjective and accurate in the news media, it doesn’t help to have [a segment] on a news program that gives no indication that some liberties have been taken,” said Edward Schumacher-Matos, NPR’s ombudsman, its independent in-house critic. “I do think some kind of flag or label or introduction would be appropriate.”
McDonnell and Shepard agree that a reader alert is warranted. Shepard suggests calling Sedaris’s work “a blend of fact and imagination.”
McDonnell goes further: “In my very clear hindsight, you’d call it fiction.”