About two weeks ago, “This American Life” was forced to pull its most popular episode ever, “Mike Daisey and the Apple Factory,” after a fellow public-radio reporter revealed that many key details in the eponymous monologist’s Chinese travelogue were fabricated. Then, Poynter took a look around the show’s website, and found three stories produced by the famed New Republic fabulist Stephen Glass. The pieces were removed years ago, but resurfaced after a website redesign in 2010. “This American Life” has now pulled the audio versions, but is leaving the transcripts up “for anybody who’s interested.”
After the controversy, the popular show had to face some tough questions: How do they vet their contributors? How does its fact-checking process work? Why trust non-journalists to do solid journalism?
In the past, the show has come under fire for featuring a handful of stories that beggar belief. There was that Malcolm Gladwell monologue about working at the Washington Post, a yarn sewn with quite a few falsehoods. Then there were those “humorous” David Sedaris tales, which even he admits are chock full of lies.
One of the Glass stories describes his “job” as a telephone psychic:
A female caller told him that her father used to beat her with a bicycle chain when his football team failed to score, and that her husband was having sex with another woman, in the next room, while she was on the phone with Glass.
The bulk of the show is rigorously reported, and its journalism top-notch. But by pulling the Stephen Glass stories, “This American Life” may be indicating that — no matter how funny, absurd, affecting a tale — the show will be on the look out for facts seasoned with fiction.