On the Media silent on NPR retraction

The show should address This American Life's disavowal of its Mike Daisey story

I rarely miss an episode of NPR’s On the Media, which is essential listening for information on media trends and best practices.

When something gut-pummeling happens in the media world, I expect OTM to discuss it.

My faith in the program has recently been shaken, as it has yet to broadcast a single phoneme on NPR’s retracted story, “Mr. Daisey Goes to the Apple Factory,” on alleged worker abuse at Apple manufacturing facilities in China. This American Life host Ira Glass electrified media wonks in March when he disclosed NPR was retracting the Apple story due to bald fabrications by the story’s primary source, Mike Daisey. Daisey’s claims to have interviewed underage workers at the Apple factory and also Apple workers poisoned by a chemical called hexane, for example, could not be corroborated and were denied by his interpreter.

“[T]he most powerful and memorable moments in the story all seem to be fabricated,” Ira Glass explained in a subsequent broadcast.

On the Media, though, has not devoted a single segment to the Daisey sieve. Brooke Gladstone and Bob Garfield, On the Media’s hosts, are good journalists. Garfield was clearly shaken by the fallen story, as he wrote a March column in The Guardian saying, “Betrayed is certainly how I feel right this minute. In the case of Mike Daisey, I myself had been his John the Baptist, telling most everyone I know about his extraordinary achievement.” Brooke Gladstone hosted a lengthy Web chat on the retraction on the OTM blog.

An OTM staffer told me that producers decided not to run a story on the Daisey retraction because it had been so heavily covered elsewhere. On the Media itself rebroadcast some of Daisey’s claims in a January 27 segment criticizing Apple. Not covering the fallen broadcast bruises the program’s credibility. The Trayvon Martin shooting was hyper-covered, too, yet OTM still found a way to freshly report on it.

Few things erode trust in a news organization like silence about its own errors. I’m persuaded that a news organization which is consistently and brutally honest about its challenges and oversights will be straight with me on just about anything. My trust in The Bangor Daily News, my daily paper for a time in Maine, never recovered after the paper neglected in 2011 to publish in its print edition a single mention of a massive round of employee buyouts and potential layoffs.

Readers should know that NPR has covered the retracted Daisey story at length. This American Life itself devoted an entire hour during a March 16 broadcast to chronicling the falsities in the story, as well as the fact-checking lapse that allowed the story to air in the first place. (The latter hinged on the failure to contact Daisey’s Chinese interpreter, with whom Daisey mysteriously told NPR he could no longer get in touch. She was later found and disputed many of Daisey’s most poignant claims.) OTM’s Twitter handle also posted multiple messages about the TAL retraction.

OTM’s broadcast, though, is one of the great ombuds, not just for NPR but also for the broader media world. This is a program that has devoted whole hours to topics like political ads and media liberalization in Egypt, but broadcast nothing about one of NPR’s biggest missteps. Following the Daisey retraction, OTM needs to be asking questions like, “What does this retraction mean for NPR?” “What does it mean for This American Life?” “Does this capsized story change the way journalists think about vetting accounts of real-life events from non-journalists, particularly those calling themselves ‘actors’?”

In a March 2011 broadcast of On the Media, about a year before the Daisey retraction, Ira Glass was on the program, pleading with Garfield and Gladstone to investigate, and maybe put to rest, claims that NPR has a leftist bias. “You are the ones best positioned of everyone in the country, in the public radio system, in the world, to do this mission,” Glass said. “And I hand it to you. It’s an urgent mission and it needs to be done, and done beautifully.” The hosts accepted the charge, and OTM dedicated a future broadcast to a discussion of whether NPR demonstrates an institutionally liberal bias.

Glass was urging On the Media to be bold in discussing its parent organization. A Web chat and some Twitter posts are not sufficient, given the magnitude of the Daisey retraction. On the Media is one of the best-positioned institutions to explore the implosion of a story that was the most downloaded piece of journalism in the history of This American Life.

It can still do this.

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Justin D. Martin is a journalism professor at Northwestern University in Qatar. Follow him on Twitter: @Justin_D_Martin Tags: , , , , ,