The Washington Post

‘This American Life’ retraction: Embarrassing and reassuring

In its news story on the retraction issued by “This American Life” over its factually challenged excerpt of a Mike Daisey monologue on Apple manufacturing facilities, the New York Times writes:

The retraction is an embarrassing episode for “This American Life,” a beloved product of WBEZ, a radio station in Chicago, that is distributed nationwide by Public Radio International.

No one will take issue with that assessment. Any time a news outlet issues a retraction, there’s embarrassment involved.

If it’s an embarrassment, though, why do I find my trust in the program growing as I read through its press release and the blog post by Ira Glass, the host and executive producer of “This American Life”? What those pieces offer is an apparent full-body disclosure of the many inaccuracies in the Daisey excerpt that “This American Life” put before the public. The press release confesses errors minor and major; Glass accuses Daisey of lying to the program but doesn’t offer it as an excuse for the franchise.

This week, the entire broadcast of “This American Life” will deal with correcting the Daisey “story.”

“This American Life” gets no credit for its corrective hygiene if it was forced into it. The program’s press release notes that Rob Schmitz, the China correspondent for “Marketplace” (a production of American Public Media), had early concerns about the factual integrity of the Daisey excerpt. So a key question is whether “This American Life” acted dismissively or defensively toward Schmitz’s hunches.

No, says Schmitz. Speaking via phone from China, Schmitz says that he gathered some information on the topic and passed it along to his “Marketplace” editors. They decided to present the information to “This American Life,” says Schmitz. “They as a group decided that this should be a collaboration.”

And very quickly after that decision, Schmitz got a call from Glass. For the next two weeks, he says, he spoke every day with the executive producer, “editing the script and talking about the structure.” Here’s Schmitz’s piece on the fiasco. When asked whether “This American Life” was dragged kicking and screaming into its retraction, Schmitz says, “I don’t think there was any kicking and screaming.” It was “collaborative and friendly” the whole way.

Consider that every news organization is going to produce something before long that’s wrong at its core. A whopper, built on bad facts and mistakes at every carriage return. Given that sturdy reality, there’s no eternal embarrassment for botching a big story. Embarrassment comes only when the news outlet produced the story with malice and prejudice — a dynamic that’s clearly not present here. Or when it fails to correct the record — again, not the case.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.


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