Correction boosts program's credibility with public

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Try as they might, journalists at all levels sometimes fail to get every fact right in every story.

At this newspaper, we run corrections as soon as we discover they are needed, and correct online stories in a timely manner.

Not all news outlets are as diligent about correcting their errors. Some stories, we've noticed, simply disappear when it becomes apparent they contain errors, lies or blatant bias.

It was remarkable, therefore, to hear an entire radio show Saturday devoted to correcting an error.

Not one error, actually, an earlier, entire broadcast.

Writer-actor Mike Daisey had a popular one-man show in New York, "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs," recounting his trip to the Chinese factories where Apple products are made. It included an encounter with teen or pre-teen workers, a man with a mangled hand who was amazed to see Daisey's iPad in actual operation, and other accounts of bad working conditions.

The only problem was, much of what Daisey presented as his factual, first-hand experiences, never happened.

The NPR show, This American Life, picked up Daisey's play, made an effort to check the facts, and broadcast a lengthy excerpt of it in January.

It was an extremely popular piece, downloaded as a podcast more than any other show in the program's history. It generated much discussion, especially in light of Apple founder Steve Jobs' death, the introduction of a new iPad and the booming popularity of other Apple products.

After the story ran, another public radio staffer, Rob Schmitz, a China correspondent for American Public Media's program, Marketplace, did some checking of his own.

To make a long story short, they found, and Daisey admitted, the story might have been a good stage play, but journalism it was not.

Saturday's edition of This American Life included long pauses while host Ira Glass confronted Daisey on point by point, recounting how Daisey has misled the program's fact-checker and evaded direct questions.

It's not that there weren't points to be made. Apple documents violations of its own policies regarding working conditions in its manufacturing partners' factories, and there are plenty of them in overseas.

Few American workers would be willing to perform the tedious tasks completed by foreign workers for the meager pay they receive. But China also offers flexibility in manufacturing, and engineering brain power unavailable in the quantity and price range needed in America.

This American Life is an entertaining program, and not every story it presents is strictly factual on a word-for-word basis.

But the story about Apple's factories was presented as factual, and the program's effort to correct the error only raises its credibility in our mind.

Apple, which recently became the largest company in the world, is likely to continue rolling in profits as long as it keeps producing popular products and can find suppliers that can meet its needs at the price it demands.

And those foreign workers are likely to continue working in conditions Americans wouldn't tolerate, as long as we are willing to buy the products they make.

They are the true victims of Mike Daisey's deception.

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