Leadership as Transparent as (Ira) Glass

“We never should’ve put this [story] on the air. In the end, this was our mistake. We’re horrified to have let something like this onto public radio.”

These are the words of Ira Glass of This American Life, who on March 16, retracted a show called “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory” that had aired earlier in the year.

After the show aired, another journalist pointed out inconsistencies in Daisey’s story, and further investigation proved that it contained significant fabrications. Unable to vouch for the accuracy of the report, Glass issued a press release saying, in part,

Daisey lied to me and to This American Life producer Brian Reed during the fact checking we did on the story, before it was broadcast. That doesn’t excuse the fact that we never should’ve put this on the air. In the end, this was our mistake. We’re horrified to have let something like this onto public radio.

In addition to the unambiguous press release, This American Life ran an entire one-hour show retracting Daisey’s story. To me, this is a model demonstration of leadership.

Speaking with Clarity: Glass is absolutely clear about the mistake: “We never should have put this on the air.” He doesn’t mince words or place conditions on the apology, as you often hear (“We didn’t intend to offend anyone by goose-stepping past Temple Beth Israel wearing swastikas and carrying signs that said ‘Honk if you love eugenics!,’ but if anyone took it the wrong way, we apologize.”)

Accepting Responsibility: Glass accepts full responsibility for the error: “In the end, this was our mistake.” There’s no finger pointing, no blaming of extenuating circumstances, and no passing the buck. He doesn’t rely on the classic “past exonerative” formulation that  “mistakes were made” He acknowledges that Daisey lied to him, but blames himself for not fulfilling his fact checking duty.

Exposing the Errors: Glass spends about 20 minutes of the retraction show detailing all the inconsistencies and outright lies in the story. He doesn’t settle for a blanket explanation that buries the errors. Rather, he exposes each and every one of them.

Telling the Truth: It’s one thing to retract the story on the basis of fabrications. It’s quite another to take the time to explain what the actual truth is, so as to ensure that people are clear about the truth. Glass does this as well, employing other journalists with deep experience in China to describe what factory conditions are really like.

For his part, in the retraction show Daisey comes across as an attention-seeking muckraker with the spine of an anemone. He barely acknowledges his lies, tries to justify many of them, and through it all, obfuscates his responsibility for misleading the audience. Here’s Daisey responding to Ira Glass’s point that people assume Daisey’s show is fact, not fiction, because that’s how Daisey presents it:

Well, I don’t know that I would say in a theatrical context that it isn’t true. I believe that when I perform it in a theatrical context in the theater that when people hear the story in those terms that we have different languages for what the truth means.

The way Glass and the team from This American Life handled the situation reminds me of Johnson & Johnson’s handling of the Tylenol scare in 1982: swift, clear, unambiguous —  clearly placing the interests of the consumer first. It’s a model of crisis management. And a model of leadership.