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What This American Life’s retraction can teach us about the Finkelstein report

On Friday, internationally-popular US radio show This American Life retracted its “Mr Daisey and the Apple Factory” episode upon the discovery its narrator and author Mike Daisey had fabricated some of…

Some of Mike Daisey’s claims about what he saw at Foxconn were fabricated. EPA/YM Yik

On Friday, internationally-popular US radio show This American Life retracted its “Mr Daisey and the Apple Factory” episode upon the discovery its narrator and author Mike Daisey had fabricated some of his evidence.

This episode was the most downloaded and streamed episode of This American Life ever, and a rallying point for fairer conditions for technology production workers. The show’s host and producer, Ira Glass, had been particularly proud of the episode’s contribution to social justice.

So when Marketplace reporter Rob Schmitz brought some anomalies to Glass’s attention, Glass pursued them and discovered that at the centre of Daisey’s rotten Apple story was, tragically, yet another rotten apple.

This American Life’s retraction was made in the form of an entire program and released two days ahead of schedule. The retraction was made public via the show’s Facebook page and has received much support – almost 1500 “Likes” and 800 comments, most overwhelmingly in favour of the retraction as a gesture of This American Life’s trustworthiness. For example: “…i [sic] trust the integrity of This American Life. this retraction is evidence of it.”

Media accountability: you’re doing it right

The retraction episode is quite extraordinary. Glass officially retracts the show, apologises for the lapse in journalistic standards, and then relentlessly pursues the reason for the lapse and attempts to set the record straight.

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This American Life has never been just about pure journalism. Indeed, it was an experiment in experiential narrative deliberately intended to be different from standard radio journalism. The show has played many purely fictional and blended fictional/non-fictional segments. But Glass has always insisted that when This American Life claims to be presenting non-fiction that he applies the same standards as he did when he worked as a journalist for National Public Radio (NPR).

Although This American Life is not affiliated with NPR, it has similar standards of openness, fairness, and accountability. As Glass says in the retraction episode:

“… I and my co-workers at This American Life take our mistake in putting Mike’s story on to the air very seriously … When we do our own reporting we subject it to the same standards as other reporting that you hear on public radio. I was a reporter and a producer for the big daily news shows before I started this program, and we follow the same rules of reporting here that I followed there. We vet and we check our stories and when we present something to you as true, it’s because we believe in its factual accuracy.”

A free retraction is the best freedom of speech

This American Life’s retraction is of particular interest to Australians in the light of the recently released Finkelstein Independent Media Inquiry.

The report has sparked a huge debate over freedom of the press, especially in relation to the report’s recommendation that the proposed New Media Council oversight body should have the power to compel retraction (Finkelstein report Section 11.70).

Those against the New Media Council’s power argue that it is a blanket restriction of freedom of speech (or at least media speech) and that the market should be the only regulation.

Those in favour of the report argue Australia’s disproportionately consolidated media ownership leaves no market power to force retraction. In such a state, only external complaint processes and onerous conditions for not meeting journalistic standards can prevail over a media that is otherwise free to say what it wants or cater to the minimum standards.

The problem with forced retractions

Regardless of which side one prefers, This American Life’s retraction brings up an ongoing conundrum. It might seem that justice is being done to extract a retraction or right of reply from an unwilling media organisation.

Performer Mike Daisey has apologised for presenting his monologue as journalism. Aaron Webb

It might also seem that justice is being done indirectly by onerous retraction conditions designed to prevent deliberate attempts to mislead.

But serving justice is, in many ways, the work of the courts. We have libel and defamation laws for that which is provably wrong and damaging. The New Media Council would pass on such matters to the court system.

In such a case, an unwilling retraction has the limited value of the grudging apology of a petulant child. There is limited market imperative to offer such a retraction, and if so, the market imperative would be to protect the brand by drawing as little attention to the retraction as possible.

And yet, that’s not what happened in this case. In the highly deregulated media environment of the US, trust can (but not always) be a valuable marketing tool. This American Life decided to do more than offer a limited retraction. It offered a huge retraction, it made news from its retraction, because that was the best way to retain its audience’s trust and keep its brand strong. It was a market decision.

The market at work?

Unlike the ABC, most public radio in the US not funded in the majority by the US government. It operates, in fact, one of the purest forms of capitalism. People who enjoy its programming, including This American Life, directly pay the stations that produce it (for example, Chicago Public Radio) or affiliates who pay to carry it through syndication.

If those people decide the network is not trustworthy, there is little else to keep the program running.

Few media organisations are willing or able to put such faith in their audience, not even those in Australia who claim that the market is the best moderator of media accountability.

CORRECTION: National Public Radio has requested a correction to this piece. This American Life is not an NPR program. The article has been edited to reflect this.