Saturday, March 17, 2012

"This American Lie"

In America, the news media tends to be highly political on one end and opinionated on the other, with equilibrium reached in the middle from fact-based, journalistic and truthful reporting. As a Chinese-American, I pay close attention to stories and news that touch on the life of both sides of Pacific. Over the years, I have also evolved from being emotionally reactive to rational analytical to the media industries in China and America. I do like the American one better as it reflected unrestricted human thought and reasoning in a non-distorted way. In contrast, the Chinese media I grew up with, was propaganda on one end and sensational on the other .

However, the American media equilibrium has been tested recently by two episodes which implicates its dark side. When the lines between news-reporting, story-telling and opinion-telling become blurry in the age of digital age and 24/7 news cycle, the freedom and trust bestowed to media workers can wreak havoc when they went unchecked, unscrutinized and unchallenged.

In the first case, Rush Linbaugh, the famous Republican talk show host, and by the way, a soon-to-be-named famous Missourian, called a college student who testified for contraceptive coverage a "slut" and "prostitute" on the radio, for three straight days. He eventually had to apologized only under the pressure of bailing advertisers .

In the second case, Mike Daisey, a writer and performer who is known for his theatrical monologue, produced a program called Mr. Daisey Goes to the Apple Factory" that was aired this January on NRP's radio show "This American Life". Mike told his encounter of under-aged workers and an old worker whose hand was crushed by machines and later got fired by the factory. In a stunning turn of event. This American Life retracted the story yesterday and then aired a full-hour episode with host Ira Glass telling listeners that they can no longer vouch for Mike Daisey's "reporting". Ira explains how Marketplace reporter Rob Schmitz tracked down Daisey's interpreter in China — a woman named Cathy Lee — who disputes much of Daisey's story. And Ira talks about how Mike Daisey lied to TAL during the fact-checking process, telling Ira and producers that Cathy was not her real name and that she was unreachable. Ira also stresses that, without Cathy's corroboration of the story, This American Life never should have run the story in the first place.

It's quite clear that Ira Glass dropped the ball. He let Mike's excuse go unchallenged to the point that there is absolutely no corroboration and evidence from another person for the story. It might be easier to understand if the source is from a journalist, however, Ira knows well that Mike Daisey is a performer and story-teller. The fact-checking process is almost a joke when there is no fact to begin with and no checking happening at all.

So why is Ira Glass, This American Life, and National Public Radio so blind-sided by a one-man artist pulling his stunts? Let us keep in mind that Mike Daisey is simply trying to sell his show through various channels - road show, theater performance and online download. He probably wouldn't risk all his fortune for a shot of fame by TAL. Or maybe he would, at the enticement and encouragement of producers wanting to believe and eager to push the story. This is a huge enticement - Mike gained national fame in the media onslaught against Apple, labor issue, outsourcing and China. He became a go-to source for such topic and even showed up a business channel CNBC. That is also probably why he would not budge to Ira and would continue to stick to his story, just re-categorized from journalistic reporting to theatrical story-telling. The anti-China rhetoric (NBC and CNN, any channels?) and politicking (Mitt and Donald, anyone?) added to social undertone that story as such could not be untrue. The media at this point, fell victim to conformity and also became a perpetrator. Towards the end, those with TAL/NPR pushed the limit of media equilibrium and got what they deserved - a brilliantly-told lie wrapped in the journalistic gift bag.

But how about the millions of American who were led to believe the story is true and took in action consequently?

Who will truly suffer from this episode? I think to say the least, are those factory workers in the Shenzhen factory, who need a voice of justice and grace on their behalf. They are not getting it from the Chinese media, and apparently not from a storyteller from the other side of the ocean.

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