Ira Glass in the Looking Glass: Mike Daisey, Art, and Journalism

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What happened:

Ira Glass of This American Life aired part of artist Mike Daisey’s monologue The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs on an episode of his show in January. Then, last week, Glass retracted that episode, explaining that not everything in Daisey's piece was factually true. In “Retraction," Glass questions the artist about the lies, complains that Daisey was insensitive to his reputation and his needs as a journalist, and generally makes a lot of noise about what a bad person Daisey is.

Why this matters:

Though Glass does admit several times that he should never have aired Daisey's work on This American Life without thoroughly checking the artist's facts, the focus of "Retraction" isn't Glass' mistake. Glass spends the entire episode working to discredit Daisey -- an artist who told his stories on stages at art festivals until public radio gave his work a different context.

And in doing so, Glass misses the point entirely. This isn't about whether or not it's okay for Daisey to simplify events and alter timelines in his monologue. The artist isn't at the heart of this debacle: Glass is. The real question here is why the host of This American Life didn't do a full fact check before airing Daisey's piece.

Rene Magritte's The Treachery Of Images 1929

Rene Magritte's The Treachery Of Images 1929
(The text translates to "this is not a pipe.")

Did Glass fail in his duty as a journalist because he was having a lazy day and didn't feel like looking into all aspects of Daisey's story? I doubt it.

A much more likely scenario is that Glass aired part of The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs because he wanted to believe Daisey. Glass wanted to believe the artist because Daisey's oeuvre is generally cool, because this particular piece questions Apple -- and for intellectuals like Glass and Daisey, there's often a certain social cachet to questioning really popular things like a company that has repeatedly changed the way we compute -- and because Daisey engages his audience masterfully.

Mike Daisey
Mike Daisey (Image: © Bryan Smith/ZUMAPRESS.com)

In other words, I think Glass wanted to believe Daisey for all the same reasons that a conservative may want to believe in Fox News as fair and balanced reporting. To someone whose politics fall on the right, Fox is cool because it questions the mainstream media, and because it tells them that left-thinking people are stupid, which is exactly what they want to hear.

In his "Retraction," Glass spends an hour trying to discredit Daisey -- and art itself -- for telling stories in a manner not befitting a journalist. Not surprisingly, his tactic backfires. All the host of This American Life manages to do is reveal what big liars journalists are when they claim to be objective.

Because, while there exists an objective truth and while that truth really does matter, none of us can access it without listening carefully to the perspective of others. Not even Ira Glass.


RELATED ARTICLES:
- Artists who believe in copyright are like Tea Partyists.
- "An artist's job is to tell the truth."
- Juxtapose


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Gwenn Seemel is a French-American artist who blogs bilingually.


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