NPR’s marquee show This American Life recently polished its journalistic credentials by using an entire episode to cajole Mike Daisey into a point by point retraction of his made-up FoxConn muckraking. Now the show’s host, Ira Glass is facing some soul searching as NPR tries to decide whether favorite son David Sedaris should be subjected to the same scrutiny.
Alicia Shepard, NPR’s former ombudsman and a visiting journalism professor at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, had a similar view. “David Sedaris has never been presented as a journalist,” she said. “He’s a storyteller. I do think there are different expectations. It’s acknowledged that he’s making things up.”
In fact, listeners would be unlikely to know this by the way NPR and “This American Life” present Sedaris on the air. NPR introduced its last rebroadcast of Sedaris reading “SantaLand” in December by calling it “a ‘Morning Edition’ holiday tradition.” It has used similar language in each of its rebroadcasts.
“This American Life” rebroadcast an old Sedaris monologue on May 5 — a nearly 15-minute piece about his family’s pets — without any hint that parts of it might have been untrue.
In an interview, Glass said no one at his program was concerned about Sedaris before the Daisey episode. “We just assumed the audience was sophisticated enough to tell that this guy is making jokes and that there was a different level of journalistic scrutiny that we and they should apply,” he said.
But the Daisey debacle has brought about a reassessment. Glass said three responses are under discussion: fact-checking each of Sedaris’s stories to ensure their accuracy, labeling them to alert the audience that the stories contain “exaggerations” or doing nothing.
At the moment, Glass said, he thinks the best course is to check Sedaris’s facts to the extent that stories involving memories and long-ago conversations can be checked. The New Yorker magazine subjects Sedaris’s work to its rigorous fact-checking regime before it publishes his stories.