Years ago, I heard a beautiful story on This American Life. It was the tale of two brothers and their pet armadillo, and it moved me. Even though I seem to remember the armadillo described as purple, for years I thought that the story was nonfiction. In my defense, I had never seen an armadillo before (perhaps in certain light they looked purple, as bluegrass appears blue?), and I grew up in a place where people kept raccoons and squirrels as indoor pets and placed housecats outside to live in barns. When I finally looked the radio essay up, I found out it that it was, in fact, a beautiful short story.
I felt a little foolish, but not foolish enough to question the veracity of a story I heard the first time I listened to Wire Tap and thought that the show was the Canadian version of This American Life with an open phone line. For weeks I told people about this guy who got addicted to eating rabbit food. By now you might think me gullible. But I had witnessed many improbable things and heard the wildest of confessions, so I didn’t doubt for a second the plausibility of someone needing timothy hay pellets—any dietary deficiency could have been the culprit.
Several weeks ago, I listened to a podcast about Apple factories in China. China has never sounded like an ideal place to work—all those stories come to mind about the production of flip-flops that give people lead poisoning, the quick big dam that destroyed whole villages, the creation/selling/inflation of World of Warcraft gold. Not to mention everyone was still touting Steve Jobs as some kind of bandit hero, forgetting that quintessential bandits give back to their communities. There is no “Jobs Foundation.” The Apple monopoly on beautiful design and good hardware needed to be knocked down a level with some nice, hard-hitting expose.
The hexane poisoning, underage employment, capitalism, globalization—the story felt right, down to the timing. David had become a Goliath, the story confirmed it. It’s rather un-American to like a Goliath; progressive people talked about boycotting Apple.
Last week, of course, This American Life aired a retraction.
It was painful to listen to Ira Glass interviewing Mike Daisey, and there were times that I thought my internet connection had buckled:
Mike Daisey: […] [Pause] After a certain point, honestly… [breathing] [long pause]
Ira Glass: Wait after a certain point, what?
Mike Daisey: Well I started a sentence and then my nerve failed me, I stopped talking.
Ira Glass: [overlapping] Okay.
Mike Daisey: So that’s what you saw. So, I’m working on it. It’s coming.[long pause]
Mike Daisey: I can’t say it.
Ira Glass: What’s the general kind of area that it’s in?
Mike Daisey: Oh I’ll just say it, I’ll just say it, what the… After a certain point, I would have preferred the first option.
Ira Glass: That we would just kill the story and not do it on the radio.
Mike Daisey: There was a point.
Ira Glass: And then since, since the show went out over the radio, did you worry that all this would come out? [Pause] I mean literally, I don’t think that’s a hard question, I’m saying, I’m saying since—
Mike Daisey: [overlapping] No it’s not, I’m so sorry—
Ira Glass sounds like a stern father and Daisey like a teenager equivocating to no higher truth. While This American Life did an excellent job with the retraction, maintaining the program’s journalistic integrity, the whole thing is disappointing, especially riding in the tailwinds of Lifespan of a Fact. People still haven’t forgiven/forgotten Frey, and good god, that was half a decade ago. Have fact checkers ever looked like heroes before?
And the sad thing is: there was a better story angle to air.
Liz Stephens at Brevity points out that Daisey could have taken Gay Talese’s “Frank Sinatra Has A Cold” approach: the story unfolds even without the subject.
And honestly, after listening to the original story, I think that the Talese play would have been better, more conflicted, more complicated. Here’s a company that admits to finding underage workers in its factories, admits to ignoring problems that cause explosions, admits to all its factory flaws and you, the journalist, goes there and finds…Nothing damning.
All that hope (Why the hope? to take down Goliath? to be the next Upton Sinclair? to make iPad owners guilty? Why do audiences want this story to be true?) gone. (How does it feel? What does that mean?) That’s the kind of angle that would have me talking about the airing, even though I lost conversation credibility after the rabbit food story retraction. It only takes a little hard truth.