Mike Daisey had a perfectly good point about the shallowness of Steve Jobs. Too bad he took “dramatic license”. The more interesting part of the story for me is why This American Life (TAL) producers were fooled by Daisey and how they reacted when this became clear.
Suppose I make a short film in which Michael Jordan misses ten free throws in a row. Ten separate free throws, spliced together. Every detail is true, but the whole is false. Mostly he made free throws. You are never going to learn how false my film is by fact-checking it. Because every fact is true. That was the first big mistake made by TAL producers. They assessed Daisey’s story by fact-checking. In their retraction they say nothing about this point and seem unaware of it. Had they assessed it more broadly they might have become aware of the exaggerations.
The second big mistake made by TAL was to accept the standard journalistic view that you should get “both sides” of a story. If Person X claims Y, try to find someone who disagrees. If a Democrat says such-and-such, find a Republican to comment. In the Daisey story broadcast in January, the TAL producers took Daisey to be saying “Chinese factories are bad” and countered this, in standard journalistic practice, by finding someone who would defend Chinese factories: New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, of all people. Yeah, the salaries are low but they are better than rural jobs, said Kristof. I could have said that. Kristof knows almost nothing about Chinese factories — that was perfectly clear. Thinking they needed “the other side” confused TAL producers and wasted their time. Instead, they should have asked someone who knows a lot about Chinese electronics factories to comment. Again, if they had done this they might have realized that Daisey was not telling the truth. Most journalists know not to demonize. But many of them haven’t learned not to polarize.
From the retraction broadcast it is obvious that Ira Glass is furious. He lied to us! was the dominant note. Given how furious he is it is perfectly understandable that he and the rest of TAL didn’t manage to reach even one interesting conclusion the entire show. They simply wanted to set the record straight quickly, which is fine. If there are more stories about this, in-depth ones, I am afraid Glass is going to conclude We wanted to believe. That is going to be his deepest comment on this. I hope I’m wrong. I don’t agree with that assessment. I think the real problem is We wanted things to be simple. In particular, they wanted (and still want) the simple-minded view of the world taught in journalism school to be correct. The one in which experts can be trusted, every story has two sides, and truth can be ascertained by fact-checking.
A medium-sized scandal in American journalism is the mainstream journalistic view of global warming — of course humans have caused it (= AGW). To say otherwise is “anti-science”. The question has complexities (e.g., how models are tested, how scientists distort stuff) that journalists ignore. I don’t think journalists “want” to believe anything about global warming. I think what they really want is simplicity. It makes their jobs easier. A considerably larger scandal is the free pass given to medical schools and drug companies and their first, let them get sick attitude. The recognition that that this is horrible and there are alternatives seems beyond the thinking of most journalists who cover the subject. Again, the notion that our health care system is predatory is complex. Much simpler to believe it is good and not question basic assumptions. Both scandals — AGW and health care — are well in evidence at The New Yorker, an even more respected outlet than TAL, where Elizabeth Kolbert blindly accepts AGW and Atul Gawande, Michael Specter, and Jerome Groopman accept the first let them get sick way of doing things.