In Defense of This American Life

by Jonah Goldberg

As you’ve probably heard, the public radio (but not NPR) show This American Life got badly burned by a contributor who made up a bunch of stuff about Apple’s sins at its manufacturing plants in China. The true culprit, Mike Daisey, essentially lied to Ira Glass and his team. Ira Glass seems sincerely appalled by the whole episode and dedicated an entire program to correcting the record. The truth came to light thanks to Rob Schmitz, a reporter with Market Place. [Note: earlier version of this post said it was a reporter from Planet Money].

I’m not going to rehearse all of the details. But I thought I might offer a little bit of a corrective to some of my friends on the right who are making much ado about this. I think many of their criticisms are fair. And I don’t think I’m rushing to the defense of TAL simply because I like the show. I had actual friends at The New Republic during both the Stephen Glass and Beauchamp fiascos and I don’t think I held my fire one bit.

But there are a couple points worth making. First, it’s not like Apple is totally sinless in how it does things, a fact Apple itself (albeit after the usual shakedown routines) has admitted.

More to the point, This American Life is not a reflexively liberal program. Sure, it’s liberal. But their coverage of the financial crisis was simply fantastic, from any ideological perspective. And I still think their story on the auto industry and the auto unions was one of the best investigations of its sort ever done.

Compared to the New York Times or much of what one finds on public radio, TAL is remarkably and admirably free of cant and PC piety. Just recently, they did an interview with Grover Norquist where he was treated fairly and, I would argue, came out largely vindicated in his arguments.

The show is almost unique in American journalism in the way it tells stories and makes arguments. Because it is so creative, blending art and journalism, it is very hard to categorize. Trying to work outside the conventional rules,  it’s not terribly shocking that they dropped the ball in this instance. But given their retraction and their immediate due diligence in correcting the record, I don’t think they deserve to be lumped in with conventional journalistic enterprises that rush to run with stories that are too good to check. They screwed up, admitted it forthrightly and corrected the record. That certainly doesn’t make them immune to criticism. But I think it would only make things worse if, in the rush to score points, conservatives bullied the show into a defensive crouch inside a comfortable liberal bunker. Just my two cents.

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