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'This American Life': A Retraction

“This American Life” host Ira Glass gave monologist Mike Daisey every opportunity to explain the lies in his “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” performance, which became the basis for one of the radio show’s most popular and talked about episodes. Daisey’s rationalization for lying turns out to be, like much of his show, bullshit.

Essentially, Daisey says that his monologue, which chronicles a 2010 visit to China during which he claims to have witnessed or heard about terrible labor abuses at Foxconn and other factories, is true — not by the standards of journalism, but by the standards of the theater. What an insult to theater.

Here he is in his own words: “Well, I don’t know that I would say in a theatrical context that it isn’t true. I believe that when I perform it in a theatrical context in the theater that when people hear the story in those terms that we have different languages for what the truth means.”

“This American Life” actually fact-checked Daisey’s show, but, as the host explains in the recording below, they were more concerned with confirming Daisey’s claim that Apple’s factories actually had terrible working environments, and they do. But they were not thorough enough when it came to Daisey’s claims of personal interactions, several of which later proved to be false. The whistle-blower in all this is Daisey’s translator, who is herself a character in the story and was tracked down by a skeptical “Marketplace” reporter.

“This American Life” devoted an entire episode, which aired this weekend, to retraction of the story, and it’s embedded below. In it, Glass confronts Daisey, who admits he wanted to make people care about an important story: “I’m not going to say that I didn’t take a few shortcuts in my passion to be heard. But I stand behind the work. My mistake, the mistake that I truly regret, is that I had it on your show as journalism and it’s not journalism. It’s theater. I use the tools of theater and memoir to achieve its dramatic arc and of that arc and of that work I am very proud because I think it made you care, Ira, and I think it made you want to delve. And my hope is that it makes — has made — other people delve.”

It’s important to remember that the essence of Daisey’s story — that Apple drives a consumer-industrial complex that dehumanizes and abuses Chinese laborers — is true. And it is because of this that the performer’s lies are so offensive, because they cast doubt on the work of anyone struggling to dig up the truth on behalf of the powerless. — PZS

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