Broadcast News: How This American Life Got Fooled By ‘The Devil’

"Tom, while being a very nice guy, is the Devil." (Photo via)

“What do you think the Devil is going to look like if he’s around?”

This question started running through my head as I listened to Mike Daisey unravel on national radio Friday evening — it was Aaron Altman’s question to Jane Craig in the film Broadcast News.

“Nobody is going to be taken in by a guy with a long, red, pointy tail,” Aaron (Albert Brooks) counsels Jane, played by Holly Hunter in an Oscar-nominated turn.

It’s advice, I kept thinking, Ira Glass might have needed now that hindsight’s 20:20 and the tale of Chinese workers mangled and scarred in Apple manufacturing plants Daisey told on This American Life in January has been revealed to be largely inaccurate.

I downloaded and listened to TAL’s Retraction podcast as soon as it came out. I think it was right about 20 minutes in, as Mike Daisey tried to explain, “When I was building the scene of that meeting, I wanted to have the voice of this thing that had been happening…” that scenes from Broadcast News started running through my head.

Broadcast News is one of my favorites… I’m about to spoil the plot if you haven’t seen it…

Finicky, fiery, talented news producer Jane is falling for Tom Grunick (William Hurt), the up-and-coming network anchor who’s more style than substance. Aaron — a gifted reporter who’s always found himself playing second fiddle, who has always had feelings for equally-principled Jane — points out Tom represents everything that troubles her about the profession of journalism’s downward trajectory.

“Tom, while being a very nice guy, is the Devil,” Aaron warns Jane. “He will be attractive. He will be nice and helpful. He will get a job where he influences a great God-fearing nation. He will never do an evil thing. He will never deliberately hurt a living thing. He will just bit by little bit lower standards where they are important.”

The parallels to Mr. Daisey Goes To The Apple Factory, to me, are clear: Daisey influenced a God-fearing nation to care about about an important issue. His story was attractive to Glass, who has expressed publicly his desire to undertake more ambitious reporting projects. After hearing Glass’ apology, I suspect this desire caused TAL producers to give in to their temptations and lower their standards with Daisey — hopefully just this once, hopefully ‘just a little bit.’

But Mike Daisey, while being a very nice guy, is the Devil. His elegantly-constructed, gingerly-delivered prose that moved Glass and TAL listeners was really nothing but slimy, fork-tongued wordplay. And he deploys it again to try and wriggle out from under Glass during the most maddening section of the Retraction episode. From the transcript:

Ira Glass: You understood that we wanted it to be completely accurate in the most traditional sense.

Mike Daisey: Yes, I did.

Glass: You put us in this position of going out and vouching for the truth of what you were saying and all along, in all of these ways, you knew that these things weren’t true. Did you ever stop and think, okay these things aren’t true and you have us vouching for their truth?

Daisey: I did, I did. I thought about that a lot.

Glass: And just what did you think?

Daisey: I felt really conflicted. I felt… trapped.

Trapped!? Set aside his later verbal contortions to legitimize this piece of theatre as still artistically valid, even if he regrets presenting it as journalism while lying to the journalists presenting it. “I felt trapped?” By whom!? “I was terrified.” By what!? By his own half-truths? By the fear that this would be revealed as a publicity stunt? (It sure didn’t hurt James Frey‘s career.) Playing the victim doesn’t work when you’re the one who fucked up.

Others have already said well what I mean to say about the error and TAL‘s unprecedented retraction. As they say, I can’t remember a correction from an editorial team thorough or thoughtful. I fear, given all the online chatter Friday afternoon saying it was NPR, not TAL, who had retracted the story, that the incident will lower the tide of credibility across all public media. If so, I am equally confident this tide will wash in again — it tends to do so.

Aaron Altman & Jane Craig (Photo via)

But I’m not only a journalist for public media and true believer in public media — I’m a This American Life fan. Junkie, more like. To paraphrase Daisey from his original show, ‘I am at the level of geekishness where to relax, I will listen to TAL episodes like others listen to Vivaldi or Kanye. It soothes me.’ As such, I’m more worried by another, more troublesome question:

If Mike Daisey is Tom — “the Devil” — who, in this story, is Jane?

In Broadcast News, Aaron’s instincts about Tom are ultimately correct. He catches Tom in a lie, having fabricated an aesthetic moment in one of his stories that Jane liked. Tom had spliced a shot of his own tears into an emotional interview with a date-rape victim. Jane bought the moment — it “made her care,” to borrow a Daisey-ism.

“It moved me,” Jane told Tom afterward. “I did relate to it, I really did. It was unusual for you to cut to yourself when you teared up, and that might not have been my choice. But it was real, and it got me, and I think a lot of the time I’m too conservative about that.”

A look at the raw tape afterwards reveals to Jane that Tom had staged the tears after the interview was over.

Jane had ignored her instincts and allowed herself to get caught up in the piece. Tom had faked a moment that struck Jane as authentic. Jane, distraught, calls it off with Tom.

The core of This American Life is the show’s authenticity. All the TAL scenes that stick with me — a fired campaign worker stuffing his belongings into a plastic shopping bag, a man discussing his mom’s suicide — are the ones that are most intimate. They’re incredible, but they’re believable because it’s like a trusted friend is telling me those stories.

I’m tempted to conclude that Ira Glass and This American Life‘s producers fill the role of Jane in my DaiseyGate version of Broadcast News. They did, after all, buy into Mike Daisey, hook, line and sinker. They were the ones, I’m tempted to say, whom Mike Daisey fooled.

I’m worried that all of that changes, as of now.

I’m worried that the Jane in this story is us. I’m worried that in the final analysis, we’re the ones who got duped, by both Daisey and This American Life. For a show that’s built on the trust listeners have in moments that seem remarkable, real, authentic, this is a damaging blow. I’m worried that’s a scar that won’t heal in time for the show’s listenership.

Mike Daisey may be the Devil. But This American Life sinned. I’m not worried we won’t forgive that sin. Many already have. I already have.

But I’m worried that we won’t forget. And if we don’t, then This American Life may never be the same.

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One thought on “Broadcast News: How This American Life Got Fooled By ‘The Devil’

  1. […] has a good one on this that makes points about the This American Life-Mike Daisey saga. I wrote melodramatically about that case when it occurred last year… but I’ll eat crow and say Poynter’s right — TAL […]

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