from the maybe-possibly dept
Earlier this year, there was a lot of attention paid to the popular radio program This American Life (TAL) having to retract its episode based on storyteller Mike Daisey’s one-man show, in which he claimed to be telling a story about his own trip to visit Apple factories in China, but which it later came out was partially fabricated. As we noted soon after that, when it comes to pure storytelling, it’s not always clear that fact checking makes sense. Storytelling is a tool for entertainment, not journalism. Where those two things come into conflict is when people begin to blur the lines between entertainment and journalism.
Since then, of course, TAL has become, shall we say, a lot more vigilant about fact checking. In a recent episode of another radio program, On The Media, TAL host Ira Glass talked about the importance of fact checking and how they realize they can’t get caught again. Glass says the audience will likely forgive them once, but not twice. In a Reddit AMA that Glass did a few weeks ago, he explained that TAL has hired professional fact checkers:
We used to fact check the way they do on the daily NPR news shows (where I worked before doing this show): editors and reporters consult about questionable facts, rundown stuff in an ad hoc way.
Now we have professional fact checkers for everything, including the personal essays.
However, he also notes that, when it comes to “storytelling” it’s not always so easy, using regular TAL contributor David Sedaris as the example:
Still a question is what to do about David Sedaris. He doesn’t pretend the stories are true. He says to everyone they’re “true enough for you.” I assume the audience can tell, he’s a funny writer, there may be exaggerations for comic effect. We have three choices: 1) assume the audience is smart enough to tell; 2) label his stuff on the air as possibly non-factual (hard to figure out a way to do that which doesn’t kill the fun but there probably is one); 3) fact check him the way the New Yorker does. I honestly don’t know where I stand on this one. When I pose the Q to public radio audiences, at speeches and events, they overwhelmingly vote #1, with a vociferous tiny minority who feel strongly in favor of #2.
But, as an avid TAL listener, in the past few weeks, I’ve noticed that they do seem to be going overboard with the fact checking. In episode 476 from a few weeks ago, there’s a story of a teenager bitten by a shark and the aftermath (it’s a somewhat horrifying story). And yet, in the middle of the story, there’s a break where they admit that they could not confirm she was actually bitten by a shark — and some think it was a different sea creature responsible. No one denies that she was attacked and bitten and came close to dying, in part through a series of mishaps. But they feel the need to fact check the possibility that it wasn’t a shark. I’m not sure what that adds to the story (other than immediately making me think of Mike Daisey).
Then, in the very next episode, from last weekend, there’s the hilarious story from comedian Molly Shannon, which I’d first heard on Marc Maron’s (insanely brilliant) podcast, WTF, about how, as a kid, she and a friend — with the active encouragement of Molly’s father — successfully stowed away on a flight from Cleveland to NYC. But at the very end… Glass chimes in to say that TAL fact checkers reached out to Molly’s friend — who had no idea Molly had told the story publicly, but who confirmed all the details in the story. Once again, all I could think of was… “Mike Daisey strikes again.” The story is hilarious, whether or not it’s true, and I wonder if it really needs fact checking.
It may just be a case of “once bitten…” but fact checking minute details of random entertaining stories really feels like overkill. And it actually has me thinking about another recent podcast/radio show (also associated with NPR), Radiolab, which recently had an entire episode on the nature of facts, and trying to figure out what is a fact. The episode has since been marred in its own controversy over the segment called Yellow Rain, in which they sought to try to understand the “truth” behind whether or not there were really chemical attacks on the Hmong in Laos in 1975. The segment culminates with Kao Kalia Yang (who is translating for her uncle Eng Yang) getting extremely angry at the Radiolab crew, as the Yangs felt that they were set up by the radio program, somewhat as stooges, because Eng talked about the “yellow rain” chemical attacks, and Radiolab wanted his response to the research of scientists who argue no such chemical attack ever existed. It’s very intense — and a situation that I felt really did make their point pretty strongly that “truth” isn’t always as easy to discern as people think, because it’s often not quite as black and white as people imagine.
Radiolab had to clarify and later offer an apology to those who felt that the interview was unfair, overly confrontational, insulting or minimizing the plight of the Hmong. Unfortunately, I think that obscures the much more interesting point that they were actually making with that story — which I don’t think did minimize the experiences of the Hmong at all, but rather highlighted how, even if the actual explanation of what happened differed from how they viewed it, what they did experience was horrific.
However, unlike the TAL stories, perhaps you could argue that Radiolab effectively took fact checking too far in a different direction — in that they were using it to challenge some of the life-defining moments of some people. I actually side with the Radiolab folks there, in that I think they did exactly what they should have done as journalists, in coming across facts that go against the narrative, though the way it was handled could have been done more sensitively.
Either way, this handful of stories and events, once again, seems to highlight how fact checking isn’t quite as simple a proposition as some would like it to be. We all have fun calling out stories where reporters make mistakes — they happen all the time. And often, it’s because of lazy or sloppy journalism — in which case it’s quite reasonable to call things out. But not everything is a black and white issue all the time, even when it comes to fact checking.