Credibility, and other lessons from This American Life

It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently. — Warren Buffett

The popular National Public Radio program This American Life ran a program about a month ago entitled “What Kind of Country.” The program dedicated four different segments in its hour-long format to discussing several funding issues facing state and local governments throughout the nation. The introduction discussed a debate in Nowthen, Minnesota regarding whether or not that city should pay the county sheriff to continue regular police protection. The recently-incorporated community does not have its own police force. The program continued to discuss public sector unionization and associated wages and benefits. And, the program wrapped with the City of Colorado Springs’ long experiment with limited government, which we discussed previously.  The theme of the show essentially discussed the appropriate ratio of taxation to public services.  In short, no one likes taxes – but how far do we go in the pursuit of ever-greater tax cuts?

It was a great program. I am a huge fan of the show; and I firmly believe that This American Life and public radio globally serves some of the best journalism available despite its (arguably) left-of-center bent.

Then, a media outlet’s worst nightmare occurred. The very next week, This American Life retracted its most-heavily downloaded program due to gross inaccuracies and outright lies regarding working conditions at Apple Computer contractors in China. The retracted program was not “What Kind of Country.  The retracted program focused almost exclusively on a one-man show by a performer named Mike Daisey.  Mr. Daisey fabricated several events during his reported trips to Apple factories in China. Some instances were found to be not just exaggerations but, put simply, lies. Daisey later apologized for misrepresenting his story as journalism when, in fact, it was an entertainment-driven monologue.

I had hoped to dedicate this entire post to the brilliance of the first program noted above entitled What Kind of Country?  And, one will find when listening to the report there is not much information presented that could be considered inaccurate or controversial.  Yet, I could not in good conscience tout the program as I had previously hoped. 

I stalled a long time on this post.  The good news is that my delay prevented me from using as a source a media outlet that is under heavy scrutiny.  The bad news is that it was difficult to compose a post that made sense in light of the fact that the entire premise was largely discredited – at least in the short run.  I took several lessons these back-to-back programs. There’s not really a theme to these particular lessons. I don’t have a “Top 10 signs that”-type list that is very popular in the blogosphere.   This is just one of those moments that made me reflect. Here are a few of those reflections.

Consider the source. If a person pushing an idea or policy has motive, especially monetary motive, be wary.

Trust, but verify. Somewhat contradictory to the above, one cannot have much fun walking through life as a 24/7 cynic. Listen attentively to a viewpoint (mindful of the source), but find additional sources that can back the information. In the case of the Apple report, it appears that This American Life conducted little fact-checking beyond Mr. Daisey himself. Asking the original source, “Are you sure?” is not the same as verifying the data.

Do the research.  If you are not an expert, become one.  Einstein once said, “If you cannot explain it simply, you do not know it well enough.”  Not knowing the topic is an instant credibility killer. 

Don’t rush. This is an age old quality over quantity debate. I would rather have a quality product that is a little late than an on-time product that is not worth production. How many short cuts did This American Life take because they had to meet a broadcast deadline?

Consider the source. Don’t stake your reputation on someone with whom you are less than 95 percent confident. Their word is your word, and vice versa.

Know your history. Any time one uses This American Life as a source for anything, someone will inevitably say “Yeah, but remember that time when they lied about the Apple factory?”  Find where the bodies are buried. 

Consider the source? Did I already mention this one?

Accept (and celebrate) mistakes. After we have accepted a major blunder, learn to forgive, if not forget. I try to remind our staff that we “celebrate mistakes.” We do not get better, learn new ideas, or facilitate monumental change by never taking chances to inspire or be inspired.

Own your mistakes. If you are in error, say so as soon as possible. That was the one bright side of the This American Life fallout. The show made a (huge) mistake. They admitted it, they devoted an entire show to the mistakes, and they cancelled a then-upcoming live event in Chicago based on the fabricated report. It’s tough to eat crow. It’s worse to have it force fed.

Let it simmer, of “This Too Shall Pass”. I hope that someday I can discuss the What Kind of Country show as it specifically relates to local government. But, today is not the time.

Oh, and consider the source.

P.S. As luck would have it, MPR News held a morning discussion on the retracted This American Life program just as I put the finishing touches on this post.