On Air and On Error: This American Life's Ira Glass on Being Wrong

What it means to make mistakes.
June 7 2010 10:00 AM

On Air and On Error: This American Life's Ira Glass on Being Wrong

Every episode of the radio show This American Life has, host Ira Glass suggests, "a crypto-theme." There's whatever the story appears to be about the financial crisis , evangelical Christianity , cryogenics and then there's what it's actually about. And what it's actually about is, as often as not, wrongness. Most people shun or ignore error; storytellers exploit it. They understand that virtually all good narratives contain some element of hoodwinking that however much we might dislike being wrong in daily life, we relish red herrings and plot twists and surprise endings in our stories. Accordingly, in This American Life (as in life more generally), things seldom turn out the way you expect.

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I thought interviewing the acknowledged master of the form might be daunting I interviewed celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain in this space last week, but I didn't try to cook for him but, as on his radio show, Glass is adept at making you feel like you're hanging out with an old friend. He uses "um" and "like" and "I mean" in a way that manages to come across as thoughtful rather than faltering and that brings to mind Don Delillo's line: "He speaks your language, American." He's also more willing than anyone I've ever interviewed to think for a long time before answering. That might be part of why he was able to say so many interesting things on so many diverse, wrongness-related subjects from David Sedaris, Roland Barthes, and Freud to what happens when journalists get it wrong, why it took him 10 years to stop being incompetent at his job, and why you shouldn't feel up girls in front of their parents.

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Do you consciously think about wrongness as a narrative device?

I don't go looking for stories with the idea of wrongness in my head, no. But the fact is, a lot of great stories hinge on people being wrong. In fact, we've talked as a staff about how the crypto-theme of every one of our shows is: "I thought it would work out this way, but then it worked out that way."

Sometimes that wrongness exists in really small ways. We did a story this week about a man who saves people on a bridge in China. It was kind of a radio cover version of a magazine piece by a guy named Mike Paterniti, who started out thinking the man was going to be this inspirational Gandhi-like figure. And then Mike gets there and the guy turns out to be totally gruff and barely talks to him. That's a small wrongness, but it's the pleasure of the story. If you just showed up at the bridge without the setup of thinking he's going to be a great guy if he just starts off as a grump it's less pleasurable. It's less fun. The collision of reality against expectation is what makes it work.

Why is there such a big payoff for the listener in stories about wrongness? What makes it so pleasurable?

Well, if the story works, you become the character, right? You agree with their early point of view, and then when it gets shattered, you are shattered with it. So in the storytelling, you want to manipulate the evidence and the feelings so that the audience is right there agreeing with the person who's about to be proven wrong. When that happens, if it's done right, you as the audience get flipped upside down.

Did you always intuitively recognize these elements of storytelling, or did you have to figure them out?

I had to figure it out. I'm not a natural storyteller at all. If anything, I'm a natural interviewer, a natural listener, but I'm not a natural storyteller. That meant I had to really take apart the machinery of how a story works. When I think about a story today, I think about it in a very mechanical way; I'm very aware of the structural parts of it and what I need for it to work.

When I was in college, I was a semiotics major, which is this hopelessly pretentious body of French literary theory. But there were a few pieces of writing in the field that were not about how language is a conspiracy theory to hold us in our place which I did believe then, but don't believe anymore but were about: How does a story give pleasure? And the radio stories I make, the way I think about them is the way I thought about stories when I was in college reading Roland Barthes's S/Z . He talks about the five codes of how a narrative gives pleasure about how a narrative will keep you from knowing something and make you think the opposite and then reveal it. Which is totally about wrongness, come to think of it.

The experience of being wrong can be so emotional it can involve feeling humiliated or confused or losing an organizing principle of our life in a way that can sometimes be devastating. What's it like as an interviewer to bring people through that kind of experience all over again?

[He thinks a long time.] I'm not sure what to say. If any story is going to be good, whichever one of us is working on it, we have to go through the feelings of the story ourselves. Nobody's going to feel it if we don't feel. It's honestly not worth making a story if you're not going to have strong feelings about it, if it's not going to create empathy. I walk the person through "What did you feel at each stage of this?" and if somebody's telling you about some moment of incredible vulnerability and emotion, if you're normal, your heart goes out to them. So if it's going well, that's what happens. But it doesn't go well every time. We kill half of the stories we try, because not everything can live up to that.

What about when you're interviewing people who can't admit that they're wrong? I'm thinking of a story you just did about would-be California Gov. Steve Poizner, who wrote a book about teaching for a year at a school he characterized as basically this violent urban wasteland, when in fact it's a perfectly lovely suburban school with great resources and great kids. He never admits his error, even though you make the facts of the matter so obvious.

It's harder than dealing with somebody who has the same perspective you have as the narrator. I'm not a go-in-for-the-kill kind of interviewer. It's a great thing to me, that kind of interviewer, but I'm not it. It doesn't play to my strengths at all. I like to interview people who are interested in telling their story and tell it as truthfully as they can. And the thing that makes me a good interviewer in that kind of situation which is that I'm trying to see it from the other person's point of view makes me a bad interviewer when the person is deceiving himself. In that situation, I shouldn't be trying to see it from his point of view; I should be trying to get him to answer the questions and acknowledge the facts, which he doesn't want to do.

Do you find that people automatically narrate their stories in a way that pivots around these moments of wrongness and surprise?

No, of course not. People don't naturally tell their stories in a way that makes for great radio. Why would they? That'd be really weird.

I don't know about that. I'm always amazed by how many people are great raconteurs. We're such a storytelling species.

Right, no, we are. Most people aren't great storytellers in general, but if you stumble on the thing that really means something to them, you'll get a great story out of them. This is one of the insights of therapy, actually. If you read all the early Freud stuff you know how when he stumbles onto the central issue with his patients, suddenly stories flood out of them in pure narrative, with these incredible poetic images? That's what happens when you're working out in your head something that isn't totally resolved and then you speak about it. It comes out as narrative.

But that said, we very much think about how to shape the interviews so that the story will work on the radio. By the time we do the interview on tape, we know the rough idea: He starts here, he goes here, he ends up here. We really plan ahead of time to make sure the reveals work.

Is it tough to find stories that work? In my experience, a fundamental part of being a journalist is that you find a story that seems like it's going to be perfect and then you get there and start talking to the subject and as often as not, it falls apart in any one of a million ways.

Totally. One of the reasons I was interested in doing this interview is because I feel like being wrong is really important to doing decent work. To do any kind of creative work well, you have to run at stuff knowing that it's usually going to fail. You have to take that into account and you have to make peace with it. We spend a lot of money and time on stuff that goes nowhere. It's not unusual for us to go through 25 or 30 ideas and then go into production on eight or 10 and then kill everything but three or four. In my experience, most stuff that you start is mediocre for a really long time before it actually gets good. And you can't tell if it's going to be good until you're really late in the process. So the only thing you can do is have faith that if you do enough stuff, something will turn out great and really surprise you.

Have you gotten faster at recognizing what's not going to work?

Well, I register the danger that it might not work. But honestly sometimes you have to just do it. There are definitely interviews that we all go into knowing, " Ehhhhh , here's all the things that can go wrong and here's the one or two things that it can go right." And you just gotta do it.

I had this experience a couple of years ago where I got to sit in on the editorial meeting at the Onion . Every Monday they have to come up with like 17 or 18 headlines, and to do that, they generate 600 headlines per week. I feel like that's why it's good: because they are willing to be wrong 583 times to be right 17.

That's amazing. I'm trying to work out the fraction in my head like, how wrong do you have to be to finally be right?

It kind of gives you hope. If you do creative work, there's a sense that inspiration is this fairy dust that gets dropped on you, when in fact you can just manufacture inspiration through sheer brute force. You can simply produce enough material that the thing will arrive that seems inspired.

It reminds me of your own career trajectory. In the past, you've told a story about one of your producers listening to a piece you did early on, and afterward saying to you, "There's nothing in here that indicates that you were ever going to get it."

I know. I mean, that's my big drama. Everybody has a drama, a struggle that they went through, and for me it was turning myself from somebody who wasn't any good at this thing into somebody who's really, really good at it. I was a great intuitive story editor from the start, but writing, interviewing, performing on the radio I was just terrible at all of that. All through my 20s, my parents were like, "Why are you doing this?" I wasn't making any money, and I was so bad at it. I was 19 when I started at NPR and I was 27 or 28 before I could competently put together a story that I had written. All that time, I just stubbornly pushed toward this thing because I thought it would work out in some form. I was right about that, but I was wrong about pretty much everything along the way.

Plenty of people in your field got to competent a lot faster but then stayed there. Do you think there was a relationship between the length of your struggle and the spectacular outcome that being so bad at it for so long forced you to come up with a different way to do it?

[Thinks.] Not necessarily the length of the struggle. The engine of what I was going through was that I wanted to make something that would be really special. I wanted it to seem special to me, I wanted it to stand out, and that kept me from learning a lot of the ways that people make boring stories. I had contempt for those stories. I didn't know what I was making that was better in fact, what I was making was a lot worse but it kept me from going down a lot of paths that would have been boring.

I want to ask you about getting people wrong. We all have such specific narratives about ourselves, and one of the real risks of telling other people's stories is that those people will end up feeling misrepresented or betrayed by your version. Has that happened to you?

Not very often, partly because we work in a format where we don't need to fit the story into some crazy journalistic news scheme you know, where one character is going to be the symbolic homeowner to represent all the homeowners and anything they say that's contrary to the thesis has to get cut. We're almost never in that situation. Usually we hear about something really amazing and we go and sit down with the person and we try to capture it as accurately as we can. When that's your gig, if you're halfway competent, people aren't going to get mad because they can see that we're just trying to tell it the way they saw it.

But there's a really fascinating instance of what you're talking about in Chuck Klosterman's new book [ Eating the Dinosaur ]. I feel like this is a really weird example to bring up, but he interviews me and Errol Morris about interviewing. It's a really funny chapter because I give all of these totally Pollyanna answers I mean, things I really believe, but I'm like [here he goes into an earnest falsetto, like a very sincere Chipmunk] " I just think that people open up because they sense that somebody's really interested. It's just a natural human thing."  And Errol is like "I DOUBT WHETHER WE KNOW OURSELVES, AND THE ACT OF BEING INTERVIEWED IS AN ACT OF ASSERTING A SELF WHICH WE HOPE IS TRUE." Seriously, every answer is like this. I'm like, " I just think it's really swell being interviewed !" And he's like "THERE IS NO SELF."

But anyway, afterward, they contacted Errol and me to ask if we would say our quotes into a microphone for the book on tape. Errol said "Sure," and then when he saw one of the quotes, he said, "No, I meant the opposite of this. I may have said these words, but I actually meant the opposite." This happened at the very last minute and it was really hard to figure out what to do, because it was a really beautiful quote, and then there's Errol saying that it's wrong, that he doesn't stand by. And then Klosterman has to write around that, and it's all in the chapter and it's fascinating. But I don't know why I'm wasting your time on this.

You're not wasting my time. I think this struggle to get other people right is fascinating, and I'm interested in the ethics and practices we as journalists have developed to try to do so.

Like a lot of people who do reporting, I take it as a given that what we learn is such an approximate view of what really happened. I think the stuff that we're putting on the air is true, I think it's as good as we can possibly make it, but I also understand the limits of the work we do. I understand that in some emotional way, or even in some factual way, we could be getting something wrong that could only be revealed through a much deeper kind of investigation than we do.

What about being wrong on the show in other ways? Do you deal with wrongness much in your professional life?

Last year or the year before, two stories of ours won awards at the Third Coast International Audio Festival, and both of them were stories that I thought we shouldn't do. I was adamant about it. My senior producer was totally for these stories and totally saw the potential in them, and I was like, "Look, sure, go ahead, but there's no way. These aren't even interesting to me." And they turned out to be really great stories. I was totally wrong. That happens a lot.

How do you handle that kind of disagreement on the show?

For me personally, if everybody's for it and I'm against it, we do it. That's one standing rule in my head. Sometimes someone will be like, "I don't see it, but if you do, go for it." But 85 to 90 percent of the time, we persuade each other. Which is what we'd hope for, because eventually we have to persuade our listeners.

What about in your personal life? What kinds of things have been wrong about?

Oh my God, so many things. I'm somebody who I'm very aware of the times I'm wrong, and I feel like I'm wrong a lot. And, ah ... [Long pause, during which he laughs quietly.] This example is so I feel like I don't even know where to begin, there are so many horrible examples. What kind of wrongness do you want to hear about?

Well, for starters, I want to hear about whatever it is that's making you laugh.

Just last night, I remembered this incident that honestly I have never, ever talked about. I'm not even sure I'm going to be able to talk about it much here. But I remember in high school not even high school, in junior high school; I was really, really young I tried to feel a girl up in front of her family . I thought I could get away with it. I don't know why this came to mind last night, but I was walking down the street with the dog and I literally said out loud, "Oh God, no. No, no, no." And even now, I think about it and it's just such a horrifying thought. I just hope that she and no one who was there remembers it.

Are you kidding? She's telling the whole world that Ira Glass tried to feel her up in junior high.

I don't think she's a public radio listener. That's my hope. But the point is, I feel like that indicates a kind of social cluelessness that I had up until an inappropriately old age. I think I was really immature for a really long time, especially with women. I didn't get married until I was 47 or 48, and then I was like, "Why didn't I do this 10 years ago?" I was still with the person I'd been with 10 years before.

Are there any wrongness-related episodes from the show that you especially love?

Pretty much the whole Fiasco show is about being wrong. The Squirrel Cop story is a wrongness story in spades, and it's one of the most popular things we've ever done. It was so popular that not only did we do the radio story, we put out a little iron-on patch, we did a little paint by numbers it had a whole merchandise department.

Alex Blumberg's show with Adam Davidson explaining how the mortgage crisis happened is entirely a story about wrongness. The entire plot of it and what's pleasurable about it is that you get to hear from these people who were just totally, totally wrong, and you finally understand what in the world they were thinking that led them to accidentally bring down the world economy.

Interestingly, Michael Lewis tells a similar story, but from the point of view of the people who are right, and the drama of that did you read that?

The Big Short ? Yeah. I've been on a Michael Lewis kick, actually, because I feel like all he writes about is wrongness. Plus, he's so insanely good.

Oh my God. Doesn't it make you want to simultaneously A) quit journalism there's no point, right? and B) go out and do something great? I finished it and I just thought , I will never be as good as that. I will never do anything that well.

Yeah, and you're Ira Glass. Imagine how the rest of us feel.

Did you read The Blind Side ? I wrote to him after I finished it, because at that point it was maybe my favorite book ever. He's been on the show, so occasionally I'll send him an e-mail or he'll send me an e-mail, and after I finished that book, I was like: "Dude, if you're ever in a situation where a charity or something is like, 'We want to do an event, can someone interview you on stage?' please let me be that person." I feel like he's peerless. There's not anybody doing it at the level he's at. It's just it's embarrassing.

But to get back to your thesis, he's telling the story of the same events [of the financial crisis], but with the people who are right, and what makes the story work is that they're so worried that they're wrong. That's the entire drama. That's why the story sort of climaxes in Vegas, where they all finally figure out: Wow, I am right. I'm so right. And it's so satisfying.

Totally. It's funny, we've been talking about the narrative pleasure of being wrong, but he makes so much hay out of the narrative pleasure of being right the resolution of that tension in favor of the protagonists. That kind of pleasure makes a more obvious sense, I think, since we all love to be right.

Do you talk at all in your book about people who can never be wrong? I feel like I've known people who in an argument can never ever, ever admit they're wrong. And I find that such a fascinating and horrible thing. Those people are so embattled.

I do talk about it, yeah. Defensiveness and denial come up a lot; they really fascinate me. Part of the challenge for me in writing about it was almost like the interviewing challenge you described earlier trying to approach this really problematic position with empathy, to understand where these people were coming from and what's so frightening or intolerable to them about the possibility of being wrong.

That's really interesting. There are definitely lots of things that I don't want to be wrong about and will fight to the death over, and I'm totally obnoxious about it all the time. But I also feel like there's a kind of discovery that you're wrong that, in a safe situation, can be a real pleasure. Do you know what I mean? Like when you're arguing with someone you love and you realize, "I'm wrong, you're right," and you come together in that moment. It's such a relief. To me it's so obvious that some kinds of being wrong are OK.

Or better than OK, right? I think some kinds of wrongness can be intensely pleasurable or useful or revelatory or transformative.

That makes me think of something I've noticed in this writer we used to have on the show all the time, David Sedaris. He would tell stories about his family, and in those stories he was always the one who was the butt of the joke. He was the one who was wrong and everybody else in the family was right.

After he went through the most dramatic stories of his childhood he had to figure out what his next book was going to be about. So what did he do? He moved to France, where he would always be wrong again. I don't know if he thought it through this way or if it simply happened I think it's the latter but he couldn't have written that book [ Me Talk Pretty One Day ] in New York, where he knows his way around and speaks the language and feels at home. Whereas living in France was just constant wrongness. He was always going to be the butt of the joke again. I guess what I'm saying is that that being wrong turns out to be a very natural place for a lot of people to write from.

That's so fascinating about Sedaris. I would never have made the connection. It makes me want to talk to him about his relationship to wrongness. Which leads me to ask you: If you could hear someone else interviewed about being wrong, who would it be?

The first person that comes to mind although I don't know if he would give an honest interview is Eliot Spitzer.

Funny you should say that. He was one of the first people I invited to participate, but he turned me down.

Well, what's in it for him, right? Hmm. Who else? I don't know who the person would be, but there was a Radio Lab episode on stochasticity, which is the science of random chance, and they talked to someone who measures randomness. I feel like there must be somebody out there who's, like, measuring the amount of wrongness around us.

I love that idea. Quantum wrongness. Is that possible?

Nah, I guess it isn't possible.

 

Kathryn Schulz is the author of Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error , published this week by Ecco/HarperCollins . She can be reached at kathryn@beingwrongbook.com . You can follow her on Facebook here , and on Twitter here .

This interview is part of a series of Q and As in which notable people discuss their relationship to being wrong.  You can read past interviews with celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain , Sports Illustrated senior writer Joe Posnanski , education scholar and activist Diane Ravitch , and criminal defense lawyer and pundit Alan Dershowitz .

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