In Full Defense of This American Life

About a month and a half ago, Ira Glass and the crew of This American Life came upon a story that seemed almost too perfectly designed for the show’s introspective, vaguely counterculture hipster aesthetic: the tale of a die-hard believer in Steve Jobs’ Apple discovering that those hallmarks of the intelligentsia, iPads and iPhones, are made possible only by work conditions approximating slave labor.

It’s a sordid tale, initially popularized by a well-known off-Broadway show, “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.” It also was, it turns out, too good to be true. This American Life published a retraction this week, along with an apology from the story’s originator.

The incident would be unremarkable — journalists make mistakes every day, even big ones, even consciously — except for the deathly seriousness which Glass and company treat the issue. The show ran a full “retraction” episode, analyzing what went wrong, and where, and offered profuse apologies to the listening audience. This despite the fact that the This American Life team neither deliberately nor negligently misled their audience, and Daisey’s track record for fooling everyone. TAL was an intermediary, as always, relaying someone else’s story in partial reliance on the teller’s integrity; and TAL attempted to fact-check the substance in the first case, and readily warned listeners that not all details were verifiable.

Critics may — but shouldn’t — see this incident as a blemish on the show’s stellar record. In his response, Glass does more than correct the record and model journalistic best practices. He offers a commentary on the problems of journalism itself and, consciously or otherwise, invites silent comparison to peer broadcasters who either refuse to retract stories, or bury the retraction on A30. Effectively, in the show’s greatest tradition, he takes a regular occurrence in American life, steps back, and explores it in depth and personal way. Glass made himself the story, and showed us how he learned from it. Such open introspection should make “Retraction” the show’s finest hour.

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