Mike Daisey’s fantastical story about the mistreatment of workers at Foxconn and how he duped This American Life into airing it as fact is now well known. (if somehow you’ve been under a rock for the last week, here are smart takes by Jack Shafer and Felix Salmon) It may not, however be the first time that This American Life was duped by a con artist.
In fact it might be the third time, as Jack Shafer pointed out after Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Moth” story was aired on This American Life, which Gladwell later copped to being not entirely fact based.
A story that This American Life aired back in 1997 involved disgraced former journalist Stephen Glass discussing his time as a psychic. Glass later wrote this story for Harper’s February 1998 issue, as Aida Edemariam recounts in a May 2004 story for the Guardian.
The trouble was, in the February 1998 issue, we had just published a piece by Glass, a colourful tale of late nights spent working as a phone psychic. It had been checked by a colleague and had passed muster, but I was set to work, rechecking. The Post’s Howard Kurtz returned to the story a week later: “The New Republic has finished sifting through the journalistic wreckage left behind by Stephen Glass and the findings aren’t pretty: two-thirds of the 41 stories he wrote for the magazine were at least partially fabricated. Six articles” – and here Kurtz quoted from the New Republic’s apology, a half-page model of restraint compared to the Times’s 14,000-word mea culpa about its own fabricating journalist Jayson Blair five years later – ” ‘could be considered entirely or nearly entirely made up’.”
Here’s the audio of Glass on This American Life:
Hat tip to Duncan Ferguson for bringing the Stephen Glass association to This American Life to my attention.