Monday, March 19, 2012

Ira Glass vs. Mike Daisey: Who's worse?

The This American Life thing. Wow. I was going to stay out of it, but this morning it seems that "the liberal media" has decided to suck Ira Glass's dick (excusez mon Francais). For example, James Fallows in The Atlantic:

Go read that This American Life transcript again. It is superb in its unraveling of Daisey's inventions; in its exploration and explanation of "real" journalistic values and the difference between fact and metaphor ... "I feel like I have the normal worldview" is a line that will live, or deserves to.

That line may well live, but I hope it lives for the right reasons. (Newsflash to Ira Glass: Almost everyone feels like they have the normal worldview.) Here's Mark Oppenheimer in Salon:

I can’t be the only listener who thought this past weekend’s edition of “This American Life,” the public-radio show, was among the most compelling work Ira Glass and his team of producers had ever done.

There's a scapegoat now, so everyone can feel good about This American Life again (and their Apple products too!). Ira Glass held Mike Daisey up for the sacrifice. Look, clearly Daisey made a huge mistake; he reminds me of someone I used to know who told the most amazing stories and was kind of a pathological liar. That's not the point. The point is that multiple sources are now saying Daisey's monologue raises obvious red flags (no pun intended) for anyone who has actually spent time in China. The most damning detail seems to be the one about the factory guards carrying guns. Glass says they fact-checked the story, but that is a glaring unfact to go unchecked.

Glass's indignation toward Daisey seemed largely manufactured to make good radio. I want to listen to the show where someone puts Glass in the hot seat. He said he should have killed the show when they couldn't get in touch with the interpreter. Well why didn't he? Wherefore the lack of judgment, or the going against it?

Here are some things I know:

  • Even if it is the "normal worldview" to go see a theatrical monologue and take every word as literal fact, it's the wrong worldview. "Nonfiction" isn't journalism. I mean, really, Ira Glass? It's like In Cold Blood never happened. If you want to do a political expose, don't go to Broadway for material.
  • This American Life is theater.


21 comments:

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    1. Thanks. I do find it odd that anyone can call Daisey's actions "grandly self-serving" and not say the same of Glass (and the rest of the powers that be at TAL).

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    2. I might have more to say about it when I actually get around to listening to the episodes in question;)

      But for now I'll just say that I can certainly accept if they did something wrong. After years of quality programming you're bound to slip up now and then.

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    3. Sure. And they should have just said "My bad" and left it at that, instead of trying to make themselves look better by making Mike Daisey look worse. In my reading of the interview, they're both guilty of bad judgment and self-serving behavior. But only Glass looks cruel.

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    4. I wonder why Daisey agreed to do the retraction show.

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    5. Maybe he wanted a chance to defend himself. It sounded to me like he'd convinced himself the lies were very minor.

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    6. I really thought you did a great job of analyzing the situation. I quoted you in my blog about the same controversy http://www.koroberi.com/2012/journalism-and-this-american-life/ and back-linked to your blog from the quote. Hope that's ok! Thanks for the input. I look forward to reading more of your work.

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    7. Thanks for the link, Erin!

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  2. Doesn't publicly humiliating people tend to give them more power, in our attention economy? Was it really bad for Mike Daisey to get another hour of This American Life devoted to his stuff? I'm reminded of James Frey's televised confession. Obviously a retraction was necessary, but why give the perpetrator extra helpings of publicity that they can turn into money and fame?

    I have no particular brief for This American Life, a show which I distantly dislike, but I don't think what they've done is "grandly self-serving." Pettily self-serving, for sure. They built a show around tall tales that were "too good to fact-check," because low-grade sensation is the name of their game. But they did not defend this failure as some kind of greater devotion to Truth, which they had to destroy in order to save. Whereas that was basically Daisey's line.

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    1. I agree it is probably not bad for his career, if by that we mean he's more famous now and may make more money. However, it's damaging if what he really wanted was to be taken seriously. James Frey is arguably more famous now, but I think the "serious" writers he probably wanted to stand among would call him a hack.

      "Grandly" was borrowed from the article Matt linked to, I wouldn't have used it myself. I do think the retraction show was opportunistic.

      Essentially, I feel that people want to feel OK about liking both TAL and Apple, and hating Daisey kills two birds with one stone.

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    2. My point about "grandly" was that there really is something "grand" about Daisey's stance that differentiates it from the sorta mundanely self-serving failures of TAL. So contra you I think it was appropriate to call Daisey "grandly self-serving" while not saying the same of This American Life. If the article or other commentators are using Daisey to distract themselves from TAL's role in this, then I agree with you that that's kinda dumb.

      You're right about James Frey. But I think it was his disgrace itself, rather than his confessional appearance on Oprah, that shut him out of the literary circles he wanted into. After that, putting him on TV is just fodder for his alternate career ambition of being a notorious something-or-other (children's book fixer? is that it?).

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    3. I can see that, but I guess I feel kind of bad for him because he's just one man against (now) a nation, whereas TAL has a lot more power. From what I've seen, people are shaming Daisey and, if anything, applauding TAL for their handling of the episode. It just seems very lopsided.

      One interesting thing about cases is that they bowed to pressure from outside forces to brand their stories as "truth." I believe Frey originally wanted to publish his book as a novel but was persuaded that it would sell better as a memoir. Similarly, it seems that Daisey was tempted to pass off his monologue as journalism because he couldn't bear to turn down the opportunity (for a larger audience).

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    4. Great point on both cases. I forgot that about Frey. The public of course wants sensation and truth, and gatekeepers scramble to give them both instead of just one or the other.

      I wonder if there's a good "Hansonian" story to be told here, something like "people want to be deceived that sensational stories are true, but do not want to be publicly exposed as dupes."

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    5. I think that is true. Another way to look at it: people like simplicity and dislike ambiguity. Rather than having to think too hard about shades of gray, they are quick to pick sides, and if everyone else seems to be on the same side, they feel relieved and move on.

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  3. Hasn't anyone noticed that TAL has been dull for about the last 10 years? OK maybe a long time ago there were some charming stories about oddballs that were a nice change of people, especially considering what a wasteland radio is. That's long past. TAL is dull, you never listen anymore, no need to keep the illusion alive.

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  4. The last psychiatrist said it so much better:

    "This week on This American Life, some banal idiocy, set to jazz breaks"--kill me--

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    1. I go on record as never having liked NPR. It's #1 on my list of things that I'm supposed to like but don't. But, if forced, I'd rather listen to TAL than Wait Wait Don't Tell Me. But it's all intolerably cutesy and overproduced. Apologies to the very awesome person I know who works on the show, indirectly, in case she reads this.

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  5. I actually like TAL, and while I think you make an interesting and valid point about the ways in which it is theater, they also do some things that I consider legitimate reporting. And, I can understand the desire to give the TAL team some credit for past actions as legitimate journalists in this instance where they tried (and failed) to meet journalistic standards they set for themselves and that others probably expected of them. In my mind, it's not so different from a show like The Daily Show which is self-consciously and emphatically not journalistic, but which occasionally produces segments that are journalistic in the best sense of what I want journalism to be.

    And yes, I'm probably a cliche for being a consumer of both TAL *and* The Daily Show.

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    1. I think they do try to meet a certain journalistic standard, yes -- but it crosses over into entertainment more than "news." Which isn't to say I think they're lying or anything, just that it is similar to a theatrical monologue based on reality, in that many choices are made for aesthetic reasons.

      There was a show on NPR I really enjoyed once. It was about that guy who "beat" the game show Press Your Luck. It may in fact have been an episode of This American Life. That was just a really interesting story.

      Anyway I appreciate your perspective! Almost everyone I know likes This American Life (and of course I surround myself with brilliant people) so I don't mean to imply judgment just because I'm not a big fan myself.

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  6. I was, and still am, looking for an apology from the entire TAL team, and Glass in particular. Just an apology to the listener. Instead we go the cruxifiction of Mr. Daisy. Who may be a dick, no bigger a dick than Mr. Glass. I rather enjoyed Mr. Daisy's monologue. I have spent time in China. And I do use Apple products.

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    1. Thanks for chiming in. It was/is a crucifixion and painful to listen to.

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