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Mike Daisey Lied About Seeing Abuses at Apple Plant in China, but for the Greater Good?

mike daisey, the agony and the ecstasy of steve jobs, ira glass, this american life, mike daisey lied, apple in china

Mike Daisey: flawed hero.

Back in January, I directed you to the New York Times story about human rights abuses at Foxconn, a plant in China that manufactures Apple products. In my post on the subject, I referenced monologist Mike Daisey’s show at The Public Theatre, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.” Well, on Friday, Ira Glass of This American Life retracted the TAL episode about Daisey’s show because, Glass contends, it “contained numerous fabrications.” Daisey has since admitted to taking artistic license with some of his story. But where does that leave us, the theatre audience, the radio listener and the technology consumer? Let’s take a look.

To fill in a bit more of the background, I’ll tell you that Rob Schmitz, the China correspondent for American Public Media’s business show Marketplace, says, “When I heard Daisey’s story, certain details didn’t sound right. I tracked down Daisey’s Chinese translator to see for myself.” In this post, Schmitz calls Daisey out on the hyperbole used in his stage monologue, including the fact that Daisey never actually met any workers who complained about being poisoned by Hexane, for example. That doesn’t mean, however, that workers haven’t been poisoned with Hexane, as Schmitz admitted today in this follow-up piece on Marketplace. (Here’s another NPR piece about workers at a factory that exploded right after Apple conducted a 10-minute safety inspection of the plant.)

Schmitz says, “From what we know these are rare occurrences in Apple’s supply chain. Life at factories that make Apple products is not all hunky-dory, but the truth is much more complicated than how Daisey’s portrayed the situation.” Schmitz concedes, “Foxconn had promised a pay raise to its employees after Apple was under a lot of scrutiny thanks, in part, to Daisey’s efforts,” then adds, “But just last week, there were reports that hundreds of Foxconn workers at a factory in northern China … didn’t receive the raise that was promised.”

It’s important to note that Schmitz is right in that Daisey hasn’t just lied on stage to his theatre audience; this isn’t just a case of artistic license on stage alone. Daisey acknowledges that he has presented the lies in his show as fact both on This American Life and elsewhere in the media, like in this clip from The Ed Show on MSNBC:

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Adam Minter, a columnist for Bloomberg, says “the fact that Daisey has not told the truth to people about what he saw in China won’t have much of an impact on how the public sees this issue.” In other words, the general public is savvy enough to determine that the abuses Daisey details in his monologue are real, even though Daisey’s assertion that he saw them with his own eyes isn’t.

Schmitz believes “Apple will continue to try to clean up its image,” noting that “The company’s hired an independent auditor to inspect its suppliers throughout China …. something Mike Daisey has been fighting for all along.” That’s good news. But how does this affect Mike Daisey’s reputation as a journalistic performer? Someone who is telling the truth amidst a sea of lies?

In Daisey’s response on his blog, he writes:

To radio listeners: I apologized in this week’s episode to anyone who felt betrayed. I stand by that apology. But understand that if you felt something that connected you with where your devices come from—that is not a lie. That is art. That is human empathy, and it is real, and even if you curse my name I hope you’ll recognize that and continue reading, caring, and thinking.

To my audiences: It’s you that I owe the most to. I want you all to know that I will not go silent—I will be making a full accounting of this work, shining a light through this monologue and telling the story of its origins, construction, and details.

I believe the truth is vitally important. I continue to believe that. I believe that I will answer for the things I have done. I told Ira that story should always be subordinate to the truth, and I still believe that. Sometimes I fall short of that goal, but I will never stop trying to achieve it.

As an artist and someone who writes about newsworthy items on a daily basis, I admire the way Daisey is handling the situation now, even though I find his initial presentation of the material dubious. It always hurts to find out someone you believe in has lied to you, but telling the truth when caught is better than sticking to a false story to the end. Note to Babble readers: that may be the great parenting takeaway from all of this. When my daughter went through that natural phase that young kids do of lying about things that are obviously true, I reminded her several times of that very fact, telling her, “If you’re ever in trouble, always tell the truth. I can’t help you if you don’t tell me the truth, even if you lied before.” That may be something to remember in all of this, that everyone makes mistakes and sometimes people shade the truth. The question is, were Daisey’s intentions good? The answer to that question is very clearly yes. I’m not making excuses for his behavior, he was wrong and he knows it, but I just want the public to bear in mind that there are so many liars who never come clean, have bad intentions and ultimately get away with their abuses.

The Wall Street Journal interviewed some of New York’s artistic elite to gauge their opinion about the Daisey debacle, and the generally shared sentiment among them is, it’s too bad Mike lied because he’s great and he’s worked so hard to try to help people. I think this quote from Paul Lazar of “Big Dance Theater” really nails it:

There are many forms of fiction whose purpose is to make reality vivid. I believe that one reason why Mike Daisey made the regrettable mistake of lying to [NPR's] Ira Glass was to ensure that he protected a potent form of fiction that he was employing in order to make vivid the working conditions in Chinese factories.

Before I get your feelings about Daisey and Apple, I want to share this exchange my friend and fellow comedian Charles Star and I had on Twitter this morning. It will give you all a final bit of context about Daisey’s lies and the bias of the media in general:

Ugarles: I’d be more cool with Ira Glass being upset with Mike Daisey if he were the same level of upset after running Gladwell’s fake Moth story.

missckc: @Ugarles Can you send me a link about the Moth thing?

Ugarles: @missckc here is gladwell basically admitting that the story was fake (with a link to the story) http://gladwell.typepad.com/gladwellcom/2008/03/tall-tales.html

missckc: @Ugarles There’s a disclaimer, so maybe that’s why. With Daisey there were fact checking issues. [snipped]

Ugarles: @missckc It’s a bullshit disclaimer. I heard the story when it aired. The Moth calls itself “True stories, presented live, without notes.”

missckc: @Ugarles I see. So TAL was covering Gladwell’s ass is what you’re saying.

Ugarles: @missckc Yup. They were complicit in the deception and washed their hands of it.

It’s also interesting to note that just days before Daisey’s world fell apart, he and his director wife, Jean-Michele Gregory, agreed to make the script of “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” available for public consumption. In a press release, they wrote, “[the script] can be performed royalty-free, anywhere, anytime, by anyone.” In other words, to Daisey, the first person account isn’t what’s important; anyone can be the “I” in this monologue, as long as the information is shared.

So go ahead and comment on whatever facet of the story interests you. What do you think of the way Daisey presented a fictionalized personal account as truth? Is it understandable in that he was working toward a greater good? Do you think his lies will harm his cause? What about Apple’s abuses in China? Have they made you think about your buying habits? And how do we deal with a media that is willing to grill some offenders and not others? What about the parenting side of things – how do we deal with lying in our children? How do we deal with betrayal from anyone?

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