After Gladwell "wins" the contest, he says that "Billy is devastated. I am triumphant." And another sort of epiphany occurs. Gladwell says:
All those doubts about journalism melt away, and I say, "This thing called newspaper writing, I can do it."
This American Life host Ira Glass gives no indication that any part of Gladwell's performance is fictional when he breaks in to end the Gladwell segment. Instead, he encourages young listeners not to follow Gladwell's example.
"By the way, if there is any ambiguity in here at all, young journalists, please note, putting false information into the newspaper is wrong," Glass says.
Gladwell distances himself from the decision to air the story on This American Life, saying it wasn't his idea, and adds that they promised to run a disclaimer.
"This American Life told me that they would run a disclaimer at the end of my story, telling listeners not to treat what I said as gospel. I'm not sure I'm responsible for people whose literal mindedness overrides both disclaimers and fairly obvious adventures in tall-tale-telling," he e-mails.
Ira Glass of This American Life says via e-mail that the show agreed to include a comment at the end—about The Moth being a place where "people come to tell both true stories and occasional tall tales"—to indicate that the talk "contained elements of exaggeration or untruth."
As disclaimers go, Glass' is weak, something he acknowledges.
"It seemed best for the story if this were kept a little vague," writes Glass. "I thought it would be lousy and undermining and killjoyish if—at the end of a story—a radio host came on and said 'that wasn't true.' Seemed nicer and more artful to simply raise the possibility that it might or might not be true. I figured: the audience is smart. A little goes a long way."
Gladwell's spiel works not because the stories are particularly funny but because of his reputation as a reliable, meticulous journalist. Puncture the illusion that he's telling the truth, and the laughs leak into the ether.
A storyteller can't have it both ways, instructing listeners to "look it up" while stretching the yarn beyond the breaking point or claiming that smuggling the "baffling" phrase into Post copy became "literally" an "obsession." Gladwell's method, and his decision to let This American Life air his tale, raises … well, new and troubling questions about his attitude toward his audience.
Gladwell isn't having any of it.
"My story was true in spirit," he e-mails. "The details were happily and gleefully and deliberately exaggerated and embellished and made up by me—and I am quite sure that not a single person in the audience the night I told it thought otherwise. Anyone who would fact check a tall tale like that either has no sense of humor or is on crack."
On March 13, after I interviewed him, Gladwell had second thoughts about his Moth talk, qualifying it on his blog with these words:
There is a disclaimer at the end of the This American Life broadcast, to the effect that the Moth is a place where "people come to tell both true stories and occasional tall tales." As I think should be obvious if you listen to it, my story definitely belongs to the "tall tale" category. I hope you enjoy it. But please do so with a rather large grain of salt.
Disclosure: Chris Wilson now works at Slate, but he did not bring this story to my attention. A Slate reader did. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum, in a future article, or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)