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This American Life‘s Apple Retraction: The Danger of Truthiness

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An employee works on the assembly line at Hon Hai Group's Foxconn plant in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, China, on May 26, 2010.

It turned out to be a big day for Apple in more ways than one. This morning, its stores began sales of its new iPad models to enthusiastic crowds. And earlier today, Public Radio International’s This American Life issued a stunning retraction of a damaging report–just one among others in the media, but still–of exploitation of the workers in China who supply parts for the company’s gadgets.

TAL host and producer Ira Glass, in an apologetic statement, said that a Jan. 6 broadcast by monologist Mike Daisey, purporting to detail abuses he saw and heard about on a visit to an iPhone and iPad manufacturer, “contained significant fabrications.” The company, Foxconn, has been the subject of other investigations (not debunked or retracted), including a thumping indictment in the New York Times, that described dangerous working conditions, poor pay and worker suicides at factories run by the company Foxconn. But Daisey’s, part of a larger stage piece, The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, now appears to have included fabricated characters and incidents, reports of events that purportedly happened elsewhere and details that seem to be borrowed from other journalistic reports.

Glass’s statement acknowledged that TAL should not have aired the report and that it failed to vet Daisey’s account properly (in spite, apparently, of some warning flags). TAL plans to spend its entire episode this weekend looking into the case, and Glass’ tone was abjectly apologetic: “We’re horrified to have let something like this onto public radio.”

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A statement by Daisey, on the other hand, was not nearly so contrite. It includes this doubling-down paragraph:

What I do is not journalism. The tools of the theater are not the same as the tools of journalism. For this reason, I regret that I allowed THIS AMERICAN LIFE to air an excerpt from my monologue. THIS AMERICAN LIFE is essentially a journalistic ­- not a theatrical ­- enterprise, and as such it operates under a different set of rules and expectations. But this is my only regret. I am proud that my work seems to have sparked a growing storm of attention and concern over the often appalling conditions under which many of the high-tech products we love so much are assembled in China.

What? Sure, whether theater and journalism operate under different standards of truth is an interesting aesthetic debate. There’s certainly a history of personal monologists telling embellished stories of their own lives, with the understanding of their audience that they’re using poetic license.

But whatever different license theater has, it’s pretty plain that it surrenders that license when it presents itself as journalism, discussing not personal matters but real-world events–the way thousands of actual people are treated and the way we get one of the most popular consumer products. This is not David Sedaris doctoring a quirky anecdote about his family. For Daisey to shrug this off as simply a poor choice of venue is willfully naive at best.

Even if you ignore this, though, even if you accept Daisey’s implicit argument that his fabrications were justified because they raised awareness and “sparked a storm of attention,” the excuse doesn’t work. Because you know what else sparks a storm of attention? Having a public-radio program retract one of its most-attention-getting reports of all time.

If you think there’s some validity to the “larger truth” defense–that it’s OK to fudge the truth if the general charge is valid and the cause is good–that’s actually the precise reason Daisey’s rationalization doesn’t work. Because there are plenty of other, reported indictments of Foxconn’s practices out there, and they now risk being tarred by a false “larger truth” created by Daisey’s exposure.

We’ve seen this happen before when journalistic outlets have cut corners in their reporting on legitimate stories. The scandal is what makes the biggest splash, and no matter how many well-researched 5,000-word exposes anyone else does, the takeaway among the general audience, half-following this and dozens of other stories at home could end up being: “What, that thing about the exploited iPad workers in China? Didn’t they find out that was a hoax or something?”

It’s not just a matter of abstract principle or journalism-school morality. Truthiness works on The Colbert Report, but in the real world, it’s no substitute for the truth.

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