Monday, May 20th, 2019

Fact checking


Like driving past a car wreck, I can’t help but absorb the whole Mike Daisey scandal at This American Life.  Ira Glass and This American Life spent an entire program examining how they were duped into repeating Daisey’s story about factory workers in China despite some of the complete fabrications. The podcast is online. The Wall Street Journal has two interesting articles on the scandal (here and here) as well as Daisey’s statement and the statement from This American Life.

Listening to the podcast, it’s almost painful to listen to Ira Glass’ voice when he confronts Daisey. Like Glass’ audience, Glass is looking for some meaning behind Daisey’s deceptions. What is really interesting is how Glass admits repeatedly that they should have killed the story, and even the point where the fact-checking process failed.

Part of the reason I find the story fascinating is that I really enjoy This American Life. Occasionally I send links to different episodes to friends with notes saying, “You have to listen to this.”

My favorite episode tells the story of how Philip Morris executives ended up being right that smoking saves the Czech Republic money. Being right turned out to be bad public relations.

The company called a meeting in Switzerland, all the bosses from around the world came in, about 15 men, maybe a women or two were there. No one quite remembers.

And at that meeting, the guys from headquarters announced to the room, “You are not to talk about the death benefit, not in your reports, not in public, not ever again. We are not doing this anymore”.

The group listened to this for awhile. And then a single hand rose. “Excuse me, but they were the ones saying smoking costs the government more than it saves. Are we supposed to just let him lie?” Then there were more hands. “Yeah, what do you mean”? More than one person piped up with, “You’re asking us to argue with one arm tied behind our back”. And most popular of all in that room on that day, “But it’s true. What we’re saying is true. Early death does save society money”.

However, the Daisey story is not the first time This American Life got zinged for accuracy. My other favorite story involves Malcolm Gladwell and a story he told at The Moth about he and a co-worker at the Washington Post had a contest to see if they could insert certain phrases into different news stories. This is even funnier to me because when I play “Words with Friends” on Facebook, I occasionally joke about trying to squeeze a certain word into a Waukesha Freeman column. If you ever see the word “yob” you’ll know why.

However, Gladwell’s story was made up, as The Moth is a place where people are encouraged to tell tall tales and embellished stories. Ira Glass would later explain the weak disclaimer at the end, telling Slate,

“It seemed best for the story if this were kept a little vague,” writes Glass. “I thought it would be lousy and undermining and killjoyish if—at the end of a story—a radio host came on and said ‘that wasn’t true.’ Seemed nicer and more artful to simply raise the possibility that it might or might not be true. I figured: the audience is smart. A little goes a long way.”

I consider myself pretty smart but, as I had no experience with The Moth, I was inclined to believe at least 90% of Gladwell’s story. As Slate points out, many others did, too. (It’s still hilarious if you have never heard it before.)

The other reason I find the story interesting is how careful I am checking my facts and how careful everything is checked when I submit items to the MacIver Institute and the Waukesha Freeman. Just this last week the Waukesha Freeman went through every claim I made in my column making sure that I had an email from open records requests that matched every one. I’m not complaining as I understood completely why it was necessary. I even sent over extra information before stopping by the Freeman offices to give them all of the mayor’s emails.

That’s why the Stephen Glass story and other stories like it, and now this story, are so interesting to me. I can’t imagine what anyone would be thinking making up a story when there is so much interesting real news to write about. I know on a weekly basis I’m often kicking stories to the curb because of time commitments, but also because the details don’t pan out.

Some stories are so great I just save them for dinner conversations because I know there is no way to fact check them. I’ve got one about sailboats on the quarries that, if I ever get someone that was actually there to confirm the story, could possibly send a political figure into early retirement. But I wasn’t there, and nobody who was is willing to go on the record. So much for that story.

But why fake something when there is so much else to write about? More importantly, why do these stories fly past the checking process. When do they become too good to check? Jeff Yang of the Wall Street Journal suggests, “People want to believe in Daisey’s stories, because they want to have faith in the ability of individuals to change the path of history with their actions. They want to believe they can think different, act different, and — as crazy as it sounds — make the world a better place.” I wanted to believe Gladwell’s “perverse and often baffling” story about working at the Washington Post. Perhaps Ira Glass and the producers of This American Life wanted to believe Daisey a little too much.

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