In the This American Life episode titled Retraction, host Ira Glass shares with listeners that the story presented by guest Mike Daisey in a previous episode, Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory, was largely untrue and that the staff at TAL has decided to retract it completely. In the beginning of the episode, Glass explains that this is the first retraction the show has ever had to do and that the entire show will explore the errors in Daisey’s story and his reasons behind his presentation.
I’ve listened to and discussed the content of this episode for another class, but I thought it would be interesting to analyze how sound plays a role in the delivery of Ira Glass and TAL‘s message. First, some background. Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory aired in January of 2012 and featured excerpts from Mike Daisey’s monologue, The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. Daisey visited Apple supplier Foxconn in China in 2010 and his monologue details the harsh working conditions he both witnessed and heard about from plant workers. This was the most downloaded episode of This American Life ever, and was just one of many appearances by Daisey outside of a theater setting in which he asserted that the events recounted in his monologue (performed as a one man show) were true.
After this episode aired, many people familiar with Apple factory conditions in China noticed errors and brought them to the attention of This American Life, which led to a retraction episode in March. In the episode, Rob Schmitz, a reporter in China, interviews Mike Daisey’s translator and reveals gross inconsistencies in their stories. Ira Glass questions Mike Daisey about presenting his story as true when it isn’t, and later speaks with New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg, who collaborated on an investigative series on Apple working conditions, about just what those conditions are really like.
Clearly, each party involved in this episode has his own agenda, and each has his own way of trying to achieve that. Since this is a radio show, sound plays a major role.
First, consider Ira Glass and the staff of This American LIfe. The show is considered journalism, and Glass goes to great lengths to explain to the audience how much fact checking was done prior to Daisey’s appearance. Having to air a retraction could jeopardize the show’s credibility, and this is the last thing Glass and his producers want. To avoid this, they chose to do an entire episode recognizing and correcting their mistake, and are able to arrange it in a way that works most to their advantage.
The prologue begins with Ira Glass explaining the retraction. There is no music, no sound effects, nothing but his clear, somber voice as he tells his audience about the mistake that he and This American Life have made. He introduces Rob Schmitz’s interview with Daisey’s translator and then plays it. Schmitz describes how he took issue with some of the items in Daisey’s story and then tells about finding Cathy, the translator, and getting her side of the story. Schmitz’s commentary runs in and out of the interview with Cathy, and even samples some of Daisey’s own monologue. His tone is skeptical and even snarky at times, and he explains things slowly and evenly, allowing listeners to take in Cathy’s statements juxtaposed with Daisey’s story in order to see how untrue some of his claims are. Schmitz’s piece includes a lot of sound behind his commentary. Sometimes it is an urban soundscape- traffic on a busy street as he and Cathy visit the same Foxconn plant she took Daisey to- and sometimes it is conversation- he and Cathy talking while he summarizes in voiceover. The extra sound lend credibility to what he is saying. Listeners hear that he actually went to the Foxconn plant and talked to Cathy while there, although we still really only have his word that he did. The contrast between the sounds of actually being at Foxconn versus Daisey giving his monologue with no sound behind it stresses the difference between journalism and performance. To include this in the retraction episode functions to show the This American Life audience that the show knows the difference as well.
This episode only includes music twice. Once before the break, and once at the end. The music before the break comes at the end of the Schmitz interview, and underscores an especially telling excerpt from Daisey’s performance where he recalls how he told Cathy he was going to “lie to lots of people”. Schmitz ends his interview by dramatically informing the listeners that “that, Cathy said, was true”. Here the music picks up until Glass comes back in to give the outro to the break. Glass’s prologue and Schmitz’s interview have built up such a case against Daisey that the when the music begins to play behind Daisey’s words, it gives them an almost sinister feel, not to mention that the tone which he uses, which was intended to make the statement humorous during the show, now gives it almost an air of malice.
After the break, Glass interviews Daisey about his show and calls him out on his errors. Glass’s tone, rather than being really angry or upset, makes him seem bewildered and disappointed. Listeners can empathize with Glass rather than blaming him for his oversight in airing the show.
Here, we can analyze the methods Daisey uses in attempt to achieve his own goals. Daisey is a professional performer, and Glass is tearing down his most popular work, so he has come on the show to defend himself. If you can ignore what he is actually saying, Daisey does a good job of inviting sympathy through his use of sound, and sometimes his lack thereof. Daisey’s voice shakes, he takes ragged breaths, overall he is pretty pitiable. His responses are filled with such long pauses that a listener might wonder if there is something wrong with the volume. His argument, that his monologue is true in a theatrical setting rather than a journalistic one, is given credence by the fact that he really seems to be struggling with the gravity of what he’s done. As a performer, it is Daisey’s job to get an audience to connect with him and a large part of that is his voice, so it is no surprise that his appearance on this retraction episode would be a stirring performance.
Glass wraps up the show with a segment on the real working conditions in Apple factories and leaves listeners to make their own decisions. The outro music is fittingly a song titled Convince Me, with lyrics like “It’s easy to blur and twist. Just tell it like it really is.”
Though this is a long podcast, I felt very involved in the story the first time I listened to it. The content is presented in such a way that it is interesting and engrossing. I kept listening because after the way Glass and Schmitz set the story up, I wanted to hear Mike Daisey apologize. I could empathize with Glass, I was angry that Daisey had lied, and I felt like he owed it to Glass to make it right. I also found it extremely entertaining to listen to a man whose job is performing, try to make an appealing case for himself on a show that was designed start to finish to take away his credibility and shore up This American Life‘s. The biggest use of sound in this podcast was the way voices were manipulated in order to make a listener feel a certain way. Music and sound were used sparingly, with good reason. I think the lack of sound here was important too however. In other episodes of TAL, there are lots of sound effects and music that help the show achieve its rhetorical goals. I think leaving those out in this episode helped it stand further apart from the rest and cued listeners into the fact that this show was to be received differently.