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Oh, the Pathos!

Presenting . . . This American Life

This spring, professional storyteller Mike Daisey was revealed to have fabricated key events in a segment for the public radio show This American Life. The broadcast, an adaptation of his one-man show, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, recounted his journey to the Foxconn manufacturing plant in Shenzhen, China. In record time, the monologist’s name became shorthand for self-aggrandizing deception—though curiously little attention has been paid, then or since, to the manner in which Daisey’s story scrupulously adhered to the narrative conventions of This American Life.

The episode in question, “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory,” was an inventory of high Victorian exploitation straight out of the Industrial Revolution. During his tour of China, Daisey explained, he encountered sad but noble workers, among them a man with a hand ruined in a factory explosion who was spellbound by the iPad Daisey brought with him. “It’s a kind of magic,” the worker said, or rather didn’t.

Volumes of predictably earnest media criticism were expended on Daisey and his transgressions. One man’s fabrications sent the pundits into rounds of frantic handwringing, causing them to question the nature of narrative, reportage, and truth itself.

Most critics agreed that This American Life host Ira Glass displayed heroic grace in the wake of the damaging revelations. When Marketplace reporter Rob Schmitz suspected Daisey had lied, Glass promptly looked into the matter, confirmed Schmitz’s suspicions, and issued a press release confessing that he hadn’t fact-checked the story as thoroughly as he should have. Glass then devoted an entire episode of This American Life to explaining Daisey’s falsehoods. “Retraction” culminated in a fraught interview with Daisey himself, during which Glass expressed both anger and empathy. “I simultaneously feel terrible, for you, and also, I feel lied to. And also I stuck my neck out for you. You know, I feel like, I feel like, like I vouched for you. With our audience,” Glass said.

“Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory” was hardly This American Life‘s first foray into investigative journalism. Each week, the program presents three stories on a theme. More often than not, these are quirky personal anecdotes about The Way We Live Now, though in recent years the show has tackled issues of broader importance: kidnappings in Colombia, Geoffrey Canada’s radical approach to educating the poor, the root causes of the new depression. Daisey’s story, among the show’s most ambitious attempts at social criticism, was the most popular episode in the history of This American Life. And in an hour, the pundits moaned, Daisey dashed the trust it had taken Glass twenty years to build.

Amid all the coverage was a stinging remark from Bloomberg reporter Adam Minter. Speaking to Marketplace, he suggested that the audience of This American Life was part of the problem: “People like a very simple narrative. . . . Foxconn bad. iPhone bad. Sign a petition. Now you’re good. That’s a great, simple message and it’s going to resonate with a public radio listener. It’s going to resonate with the New York Times reader. And I think that’s one of the reasons [Daisey] had so much traction.”

While Minter’s comment was the most accurate explanation of what had happened, it still missed the mark. It’s obvious that Mike Daisey wasn’t some marauding blackguard hell-bent on tricking the noble, irrepressibly nice host of a public radio institution and his legion of right-minded fans. But the truth is far more uncomfortable: Daisey stepped forward to deliver to This American Life listeners exactly what Glass has conditioned them to expect—a dramatic nonfiction narrative in the form of a personal journey.

A self-aware, middle-aged, middle-class everyman who travels to an exotic locale and meets a bunch of people who aren’t too different from This American Life’s listeners is the show’s perfect story. That’s why Glass had to send Daisey to the gallows for minor falsehoods that in no way obscured the greater truth about Apple Inc. Daisey exposed the fact that the aesthetics and conventions of the kind of narrative journey Glass has patented—one born of nineties boom-time decadence—were never designed to accommodate harsh economic truths, much less to promote any kind of critical art or intelligence. Glass’s reaction to Daisey’s lies, more than the lies themselves, exposed the limitations of This American Life’s twee, transporting narratives, the show’s habit of massaging painful realities into puddles of personal experience, its preference for pathos over tragedy. From the beginning, This American Life has carefully blunted the class implications of its stories. Daisey’s story was one it couldn’t contain. The lesson couldn’t be clearer: it’s time for This American Life to grow up.

In seventeen years on the air, This American Life has become a runaway commercial success and the gold standard for first-person radio journalism. Its format of three stories loosely tethered to a theme, its devotion to the small, strange details of everyday existence, and Ira Glass’s distinct enunciation and large plastic spectacles have become synonymous with arch knowingness, worthy entertainment, and a certain kind of whimsy. More than a million people tune in to This American Life every week, making it one of Public Radio International’s most successful programs. Its stylistic influence can be heard in many newer public radio programs—in the confessional storytelling of The Moth; in TAL-produced Planet Money‘s personal, narrative approach to economics; in the way the wacky hosts of the science show Radiolab enthusiastically talk over one another—and in the chirpy, low-budget feel of shows like the Discovery Channel’s MythBusters.

Glass’s reaction to Daisey’s lies, more than the lies themselves, exposed the limitations of This American Life’s twee.

But This American Life has become more than just an influential radio show. Today, it’s a megawatt, multi-platform empire. It is the most popular podcast in that medium’s short history. And it exerts no small influence on the publishing industry: an author’s appearance on the show all but guarantees a sales boost, if not best-seller status, and Glass canonized a number of journalists in The New Kings of Nonfiction, his 2007 anthology. This American Life has been a television program, now on hiatus, airing on Showtime and Current TV. A This American Life segment spawned the children’s movie Unaccompanied Minors—an adaptation of a 2001 segment about child travelers stranded in airports over the holiday season. In April, Variety reported that HBO would adapt a 2010 This American Life story about a drug runner turned suburban dad turned missing persons investigator into a dramatic series starring Owen Wilson. In the past year, Glass co-wrote and co-produced a feature-length adaptation of monologist and This American Life contributor Mike Birbiglia’s one-man show, Sleepwalk With Me, as well as an adaptation of a This American Life sketch about cryogenics directed by Errol Morris and starring the hunky Paul Rudd.

Before Ira Glass became a brand, he was a Chicago-based reporter for NPR’s All Things Considered. In 1990, he started a documentary radio show called The Wild Room for Chicago public radio affiliate WBEZ with a partner, Gary Covino. It was a fertile moment in indie culture—a self-conscious hyper-literacy overtook American popular art. The celebrated fiction of the time was all wordy and complex. The New York Times championed slacker musical acts like Pavement and Beck, who used three-dollar words, and low-budget independent cinema made a mark with films like Todd Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse and Kevin Smith’s Clerks, which focused on the quirky lives of super-articulate, if unattractive, regular people. Meanwhile, the first generation of venture capitalists were settling into Silicon Valley to launch a long march of IPOs.

By the mid-nineties, the time was right for a shaggy yet literate radio show hosted by a quirky public-radio geek with a nasal voice and a penchant for inserting “uhms” amid his rapid-fire narrations. In 1995, the MacArthur Foundation offered WBEZ a $150,000 grant to produce a program that spotlighted work by Chicago artists. Station manager Torey Malatia approached Glass, who jumped at the chance to go national. The 1995 debut of This American Life tracked the balmy ascendancy of the Clintonite middle class and the first wave of Internet-age capitalism just as surely as did indie culture. Back then, Glass had a ponytail.

Glass’s new franchise made its name by deploying what would prove to be a defining public radio device: the first-person vignette. In short order, squeaky-voiced humorist David Sedaris and squeaky-voiced music commentator Sarah Vowell established themselves as personalities. Like Glass, these early breakout stars hailed from middle-class backgrounds but delivered piquant life stories virtually ordered up from hipster Central Casting: Sedaris recounted his hilariously lustful reveries about a male coworker as he toiled as a Macy’s Christmas elf, and Vowell’s dad really liked guns. For a staid public radio audience, the squeakers must have seemed transgressive, but they also broke through to the mainstream: their books made the New York Times nonfiction best-seller list, and each appeared on David Letterman. Together, they would usher in a new era of quirky—and occasionally ethically challenged—personal narrative.

For a 2007 article for The New Republic, Alex Heard took it upon himself to fact-check Sedaris’s essays, many of which Sedaris had read on This American Life. Heard found a great number of embellishments and outright fabrications—and Sedaris admitted as much when Heard confronted him. Heard concluded that Sedaris’s understanding of the difference between fiction and nonfiction was not at issue. What was important, Heard wrote, was that the “editors and radio producers who packaged Sedaris’s earlier work certainly understood the difference. They knew that, in our time, nonfiction is bankable in ways that fiction is not. What bugs me is that they milked the term for all its value, while laughing off any of the ethical requirements it entails.”

After the Daisey scandal, The Awl’s Choire Sicha compiled a list of journalists who’d noted Sedaris’s slippery relationship with the truth, titling it “In Fabrication Uproars, At Least Everyone Agrees David Sedaris Is a Liar.” Sedaris’s embroideries have been allowed on the grounds of satirical license, but his experience as a Glass-minted celebrity offers an early version of the moral of the Mike Daisey saga: to narrate all is to forgive all—so long as you stay away from politics.

Although the narratives presented on This American Life don’t always reflect reality, they do succeed as efficient conduits for upper-middle-class self-satisfaction. (An Onion headline from 2007: “This American Life Completes Documentation Of Liberal, Upper-Middle-Class Existence.”) The show makes its listeners feel proud of their station, their values, their endless sympathy for the infinite, and infinitely fascinating, varieties of middle-class families, and even, sometimes, for the poor, who, in the end, are just like everyone else.

Most of the time, in fact, the stories on This American Life fall under Milan Kundera’s definition of kitsch: “the translation of the stupidity of received ideas into the language of beauty and feeling [that] moves us to tears of compassion for ourselves, for the banality of what we think and feel.”

Consider the forensic care that the Glass team has expended on making the seamy side of working-class life palatable. Back in the nineties, Glass introduced This American Life’s very own slacker correspondent, Dishwasher Pete, née Jordan, a pleasant, well-spoken young man who traveled from restaurant to restaurant washing dishes as a kind of vision quest. For public radio listeners—the majority of whom are college-educated and who, on average, earn tens of thousands of dollars more than the median American income—Jordan was the perfect guide to the unpleasant world of dirty, low-wage work. He maintained his sense of humor and enough ironic distance to safeguard listeners from anything resembling despair over the fate of America’s wage-earning class. After all, Jordan could give up his itinerant tour in the service economy and do something more appropriate for an articulate white person. Surely everyone else condemned to dead-end occupations could exercise the same option.

When Jordan published the musings from his zine, Dishwasher, in a 2007 book of the same name, the Times admired its insights into the dishwashing “subculture.” And in a back-cover blurb, the writer and editor Sean Wilsey praised it to the heavens:

It’s easy to think of the 1990s as a fat and insignificant decade, but in the handwritten, photocopied pages of a zine called Dishwasher was a world every bit as vivid and passionate and strange as that of ’50s beats or ’70s punks—
the world of nomadic pearl diving (aka suds busting) as described by the heroic Pete Jordan. This is a story of youth (desperate to avoid experience), of work, and of the mad vastness of America, as compelling to my mind as Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.

Never mind that Jordan was a writer slumming it to get material. Never mind that only a child of privilege can afford to think of a menial job as an heroic enterprise, or to make up stupid, pseudo-poetic phrases to describe it, like “pearl diving” and “suds busting.” Never mind, either, that dishwashers are unskilled laborers, not members of a subculture, and that most of them who aren’t Dishwasher Pete would rather be doing something else. To This American Life fans, everyone is measured by middle-class terms—even people left scraping dirty plates for minimum wage in a hot kitchen.

Although Dishwasher Pete’s contributions have largely been relegated to TAL’s archives, his legacy of studied incuriosity about the limitations of wage slavery lives on. Take the last segment of the popular 1997 episode “Conventions,” in which Glass interviewed the Grateful Dead lyricist and cyberlibertarian activist John Perry Barlow. Twenty years ago, while attending an Apple convention at the behest of his pal Steve Jobs, Barlow fell instantly in love with a comely young psychiatrist attending a rival convention in the same hotel. On a weekend one year into their charmed courtship, the pair flew from their Manhattan home to California to see a Pink Floyd concert with Barlow’s friend Timothy Leary. On that Golden State junket, they agreed to wed, but, in a tragic turn of events, both contracted a virulent flu and decided to return home early.

“She took an afternoon flight, and I took her down to the airport,” Barlow relates to Glass over a mournful electric guitar soundtrack. “[We] gave each other a great big kiss, and she said, ‘Nothing can keep us apart, baby. We were made for each other.’ And she just walked onto the plane, and went to sleep, took a nap, and it turned out that the virus that we both had . . . had attacked her heart.” The Garciaesque solo guitar soundtrack that the show’s producers used to punctuate the segment comes to an ominous stop. “As she was sleeping, she started to fibrillate and just died. She was two days short of her thirtieth birthday.”

“Oh my God,” Glass says, though he must have known what was coming.

Oh my God, indeed. The poor psychiatrist did everything right: she had an advanced degree and a white-collar job that would pay for health insurance, found true love with a rebel in an Armani blazer, and death came for her, too. Is nobody safe?

“Prior to this I didn’t believe in the soul,” Barlow says. The noodling guitar resumes. “We were the same soul. Having seen that, that changes everything.”

“Now that you’ve had this experience with her, do you find that you have this experience all the time in a smaller form, where you meet a group of strangers and there’ll be one whose eyes strike you and you think, okay, I can see a part of this thing?” Glass asks.

“Absolutely,” Barlow answers. “I feel an ability to attach on a moment-to-moment basis that is completely unlike anything that I’ve felt prior to that.”

Sure, Barlow’s betrothed is gone, but he’s learned something, and that’s what really counts.

Does Glass pause to note that Barlow is a free-market ideologue? That a list of his friends reads like a who’s who of Boomer hippie capitalists? That he has the disposable income to fly out to attend a terrible rock concert on a whim? No, stupid—it’s all about the soul. John Perry Barlow’s role on This American Life was identical to the one carved out for Dishwasher Pete: to smooth over and soften up social reality, to serve as a lifestyle docent to a privileged class of listeners brought face-to-face with the void. But where Dishwasher Pete was engaged in harmless slumming, Barlow was exploring a brand of yuppie theodicy: bestowing transcendent social meaning on the otherwise senseless death of a thirty-year-old woman. Sure, Barlow’s betrothed is gone, but he’s learned something, and that’s what really counts.

On the surface, Barlow’s testimonial couldn’t be more different from the saga of Nellie Thomas, a black guy living in a poor neighborhood in Chicago’s South Side. In a TAL segment called “Everything Must Go,” a Columbia University sociologist named Sudhir Venkatesh talks about how Thomas made thousands of dollars by illegally selling ammunition, but had no idea what to do with all that money. Instead of enjoying it, he’s afraid he’ll be robbed, and so he hides bricks of cash in his furniture and backyard while keeping a sleepless shotgun vigil. Thomas finally gives up and asks Venkatesh for advice.

“What do your people do when they have all this stuff that they can’t use?” Thomas asks.

“I’m Indian, but I assumed he meant middle-class folks,” Venkatesh narrates. The sociologist then advises the hustler to have a garage sale. Thomas, overjoyed, thanks Venkatesh profusely, then begins “running around like a child building a tree house,” stuffing thousands of dollars in his couch cushions and vacuum cleaner.

Thomas’s story follows the same basic narrative arc as Barlow’s, giving listeners a heady rush of tension and resolution, only to impart the clichéd lesson that crime doesn’t pay. Any feelings of danger or anxiety over hearing about an actual poor person are filtered through a guide with a PhD. Venkatesh glosses over the likelihood that, by selling illicit ammunition, Thomas had directly fed the increase of violence (and perhaps death) in his community. Instead, Venkatesh takes pains to tell us that Thomas is just a nice, kind of quirky guy who wants to live a quiet life. He doesn’t spend his money on flashy cars or drugs or women—he’s practically middle class. Carry on, listeners—poor people aren’t crushed and dehumanized as you might have suspected. Sometimes they even find money in vacuum cleaners!

However, when poor Americans who aren’t self-healing spiritual beings wander into This American Life broadcasts, they tend to become strangely invisible. When TAL devoted an episode to budget cuts that forced towns to slash city services, producer Sarah Koenig visited Trenton, New Jersey, to interview residents coping with cutbacks in community policing in a municipality regularly ranked among the country’s worst outposts of violent crime.

“There’s been muggings. There’s been shootings. There’s been break-ins,” says Trenton city councilwoman Marge Caldwell-Wilson. “We had a rash of burglaries during the day while people were home. They were stealing copper downspouts and running down the street as the neighbors were yelling at them. So that’s how brazen things are happening.”

“I keep asking if she’s talking about her neighborhood, because her neighborhood is beautiful,” Koenig says, incredulously. “Historic Victorian townhouses, lovely clean streets—I saw a Volvo station wagon parked across from Marge’s house, two car seats in back, a New Yorker magazine in the passenger seat.”

Like many rust-belt cities on the East Coast, Trenton is a notoriously violent place with a declining industrial base. Its unofficial slogan, spelled out on a trestle bridge leading into the city, is “TRENTON MAKES, THE WORLD TAKES.” Though Koenig talks to some people from the lower orders and duly notes their own fear over the spread of violent crime, she takes pains to situate Trenton’s perennial crime epidemic in the cloistered retreats of New Yorker-subscribing sedan owners whose copper tubing is at risk. Look out, public radio listeners—they’re coming for you, too!

In April, in advance of a live performance of This American Life to be simulcast at five hundred movie theaters in the United States and Canada, I interviewed Glass for the Boston Phoenix, where I’m a staff writer. Though interviewed in this context is an overstatement; it was one of those conference calls set up for celebrities who are too busy or important to speak with reporters individually.

I was allowed one question: “Were David Sedaris’s stories exaggerated, and does that matter?”

After a fair amount of throat-clearing about going back over the Sedaris oeuvre, Glass conceded that “yes, there are exaggerations in his stories, and he’s the first to admit it. As he says, when asked if the stories are true, he says they’re true enough for you. That said, in the wake of Mike Daisey, one of the things we’ve talked about at our show is should we only have on stories that we factcheck? Like, should we only have stories that are 100 percent true?”

Since such ironclad guarantees, Glass said, are unlikely in a case like Sedaris’s, the show has two options with comic monologues going forward: “We either fact-check them and let the audience know they’re true, or at least figure out some way to clue in the audience to, like, this is not to be taken the same way as the journalism.”

“Though, truthfully,” Glass continued, “it’s a funny thing. I would like to believe that the audience is sophisticated enough that they can tell the difference and that we don’t have to cue them.”

That’s a bold wish, given the kind of audience Glass has cultivated. All too eager for soft landings in times of moral confusion and social trouble, they’ve made “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory” among the most popular broadcasts in TAL history, second only to the show in which Glass retracted it. Apple, of course, has emerged from the scandal in better financial shape than ever. By the end of the week in which Daisey’s confabulations were reported, Apple stock climbed to a stunning price of $599, prompting the company to announce an unprecedented $45 billion dividend payment to its investors.

By the end of the conference call, another journalist offered this of the broadcast that walked back many of Daisey’s factual claims: “That show was just as riveting as the original Mike Daisey.” The befuddled Glass thanked her, and laughed.