It was painful listening to Ira Glass’ retraction on NPR’s “This American Life” of performer?/monologist?/actor?/journalist? Mike Daisey’s story on working conditions at the Foxconn factory in China, which manufactures parts for Apple gadgets.
You can hear Glass trying to keep his cool, trying not to scream at Daisey, as Daisey parses the truth about what he did – and did not see – at the factory in Shenzhen.
Daisey was exposed when another NPR reporter working out of China noticed details in his story that didn’t add up, and tracked down Daisey’s Chinese interpreter, a woman named Cathy, who Daisey initially misidentified as “Anna.”
Cathy was with him the whole time.
Daisey says the guards at the gates of Foxconn carried guns.
Cathy says no.
Daisey says he met half a dozen underage workers, girls between 12-15.
Cathy says no.
Daisey says there were surveillance cameras in each of the factory dorm rooms.
Cathy says no.
Daisey says he met a man whose hand shook uncontrollably from the poisonous chemicals he was forced to work with.
Cathy says no.
And on and on.
And for a moment, I thought, well, maybe Cathy is the liar. Maybe she’s under threat of punishment from the Chinese government if she says anything critical about the factory.
But I didn’t need to entertain that scenario for very long, because Daisey ‘fessed up.
In the days after the story’s retraction aired, Daisey has alternated between humble contrition and defensive righteousness in discussing what happened.
“When I said onstage that I had personally experienced things I in fact did not, I failed to honor the contract I’d established with my audiences over many years and many shows. In so doing, I not only violated their trust, I also made worse art.”
Art. On stage. Right. Daisey’s “This American Life” podcast, the most downloaded in the show’s history, was excerpted from his stage show, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.”
That should’ve been a big red flag for the producers. Before airing the initial show, Glass asked Daisey if the things he spoke about were true, and Daisey told him that yes, they were. But when your big scoop originates from a theater piece, and you allow some performer to adopt the mantel of “journalist,” you better have one hell of a fact checking department.
But I don’t fault Glass. A base level of trust is needed to make the world go round. And the onus for this mess lies with Daisey.
“This is not the place for me to try and explain my good intentions,” continued Daisey. “We all know where the road paved with good intentions leads. In fact, I think it might lead to where I’m sitting right now.”
More on those good intentions in a moment.
At a packed auditorium at Georgetown University, Daisey turned defensive, complaining, “I am the news cycle.” Referencing the generally bad working conditions in China, Daisey asked “How is that not the news cycle?” And finally, referring to his own embellished monologue, he asserted, “The truth of that story is very real.”
Which truth? Whose truth? Define truth.
And here, for me, is the fallout from Daisey’s relativism: in his quest to inject more drama into his story, he undermined whatever real drama exists out there at Foxconn, and I’m sure there is some. Massive lead poisoning in Shaanxi province? Melamine in baby formula?
It’s not a stretch to believe there was plenty of exploitation going on at Foxconn that Daisey could’ve written about.
But for any China apologists looking for credible cover with which to defend the country’s treatment of its workers, they now have it in this western monologist who made up stuff, stuff like the old man who worked at Foxconn assembling iPads, where his hand was mangled into an all but useless claw in an accident. According to Daisey, the man had never seen one of the machines he helped build actually turned on (presumably there was no time for that while he was being maimed). When Daisey handed him the tablet for the first time and he touched it, and saw icons moving, the old man, with eyes watering, pronounced it “magic.”
It’s tear jerking stuff, and it’s all bullshit. Daisey admits it. He describes it as some sort of amalgam of stories he heard from other people, his own experiences, and, I dunno, fairy dust.
Point is this: now people can say that any negative claims about working conditions in China are suspect because of Daisey’s fabrications. If he lied once, who knows how many times he lied? Who knows how many other “journalists” make stuff up?
“The essential idea is true,” counters Daisey.
And, well, grudgingly, I have to admit – he’s right. In a sense. We want our iPads cheap, and are willing to look the other way to get the right price point. And there are companies and governments out there which have no problem abusing workers to keep the gears turning. “If I wanted to make it up,” continued Daisey, “I wouldn’t have gone to China.”
And if he had just stayed at home and dreamed stuff up, that probably would’ve been less damaging. But the trip gave him a veneer of credibility, and tainted other journalists in the process.
In the end, his explanations seem to me like the garden variety rationalizations of a man who lied, got caught, and is trying to squirm out of it, but at each turn, some little factoid, like the plausible refutations of his interpreter, force him to divulge a little bit more, and a little bit more, and a little bit more. It’s just excruciating to listen to someone dance around his own lies.
But for some, it’s working.
Candice Davenport, a 27 year old D.C. resident, said after the monologue that she’d felt a “little bit betrayed” by Daisey when the retraction went public. But after listening to his case – the one about little “t” truth vs. big “T” truth – she said, “It all made more sense. He had me thinking about what’s more important – the facts or the truth.”
Not facts and the truth. Facts or the truth.
And the question is,
Is she right?
Is it okay to distort or make up facts in order to support what you believe to be some larger truth? And at what cost?