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MARCH 16, 2012 11:55PM

does it matter that mike daisey lied?

Rate: 11 Flag





Breaking news: This American Life has retracted its Mike Daisey story because Mike Daisey admitted, in several instances, to fabricating details that were aired on the radio as a fact-checked, vetted non-fiction story.


The transcript of the retraction show is already available. It has a little bit of the feel of the Oprah and James Frey confrontation. Daisey admits to lying to Glass about being there in person for some things that it seems clear he only read about in news accounts, or heard about from protesters in Hong Kong.


Does this matter?


Of course it matters because Daisey has successfully gotten people to care about working conditions in factories far away from the U.S. Daisey told a story in which he personally witnessed particular injustices. And in part because of Daisey’s work, Apple is now employing an outside auditor, and there is a movement pushing for improved working conditions for factory workers overseas. Daisey was even willing to argue with Paul Krugman that sweat shops don’t have to employ the tactics they do in order to make money or to sell cheap products. Daisey argues that labor conditions changed in the U.S. primarily because we decided that it was inhumane for people to work under certain physical conditions. And then we exported these same jobs overseas without exporting any of the labor protections that went with them.


I anticipate a pile-on from traditional media. Glass, from the transcript, does not seem happy about any of this. Could Mike Daisey have gotten people to care about working conditions in Shenzhen, China while still telling a factually true story?  The trouble is that we won’t ever know now. And yet, there’s something strange about this following on the heels of the Kony 2012 pile-on. Although Kony 2012 is factually true, detractors point out how it  over-simplifies the story while creating a false expectation that justice can be rapidly achieved.


This is an interesting moment for journalism. And I find myself pulled between old ways of thinking and new ones. Traditional journalism stories have not had the reach that Jason Russell or Mike Daisey have had—to get people to care about injustices in factories, or in war-torn Uganda. By simplifying the narrative, and, above all, making the narrative deeply personal, both men have reached huge and emotionally receptive audiences. They have done this despite, or possibly even in small part, because of, the journalistic shortcomings of their story-telling methods.


The old-time labor agitators like Elizabeth Hurley Flynn and the Wobblies might have seen Mike Daisey and Jason Russell as heroes. The left wasn’t always straight-laced about the facts when it came to journalism. Sensationalism has always sold more copies. Charles Dickens employed tactics more emotionally along the lines of James O’Keefe than Walter Cronkite in describing the living conditions of people in nineteenth century London. Notably, of course, Dickens was also a fiction writer. And for Dickens, poverty was deeply and passionately a personal subject. At twelve he was sent to work 10 hour days in a shoe blacking factory, an experience he never forgot or forgave. Although, ironically, Dickens never told the non-fiction truth of his own childhood during his lifetime, preferring not to describe the time he spent in a factory, because he believed, probably correctly, that it would make people in class stratified Victorian England think less of him.


I’ve been thinking about Mike Daisey since his story first aired. I’ve been thinking about it because I, too, have had a deeply personal experience with harsh working conditions.  And I haven’t found much of an audience for my story.But Daisey’s story gave me hope that maybe wider audiences do or can care.


I’m looking at the transcript of Ira Glass and here is where I differ with Ira. He writes (on page 21 of the transcript) that there are sort of two buckets when it comes to working conditions in factories. He says that one bucket is harsh working conditions. And the other is safety and life-threatening issues. Regarding the first, though, he writes, “I think that China is a little bit different and that the expectations, particularly as a developing nation of workers, are a little bit different. I don’t think holding them to American standards is precisely the right way to look at the situation.” (21)


This paragraph frustrates me. Dickens, at twelve years old, worked ten hour days in factories. Dickens was not an American. And Dickens was so embittered by this experience that he became the author of David Copperfield, Nicholas Nickleby, Oliver Twist, etc. Dickens’ working conditions were easier than those at Foxconn. A ten-hour day would be small potatoes for those who working two 12-hour shifts, back-to-back.


Is it that capitalism itself rests on the twin pillars of racism and/or classism?  The way that Glass is arguing that expectations are different if you’re Chinese, people said the same thing about the lower classes an immigrants when they did this work in the U.S. in the nineteenth and even the twentieth centuries. As a way of rationalizing harsh factory conditions, in recent histories, sweatshops have been compared favorably to agriculture. As Krugman, in his famous 1999 defense of sweatshops, points out, poverty in agriculture can be just as searing. It’s just less visible.


And yet, what Charles Dickens knew and what Mike Daisey knows, and what I believe, is that human bodies are human bodies. In the age of social media and relatively easy travel, it gets harder and harder to pretend otherwise. And although there may have been farmers that have worked 24 or more continuous hours, it does not seem like part of the natural, historical rhythm or norm of farming life. What takes place in factories, on the other hand, isn’t limited, the way farming is, by daylight, weather, or nature. In fact, much of the deep poverty of farmers is a relatively recent event in human history. Mass production of food has created greater poverty among farmers. So the comparison of factory sweatshops to the poverty of agriculture doesn’t quite work.


The arguments in favor of sweatshops say that this is the way that nations build wealth. And I’m not exactly disputing this. But I’m not a strict materialist either. Or, the question of money is not the only question that I want to ask when considering factory labor. Elizabeth Hurley Flynn and others have argued for “bread and roses.”  A group named Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior has noted that workers have said they have been coerced into doing continuous shifts, which means 2 12-hour shifts in a row. Many Foxconn jobs require standing or sitting in backless chairs—why do electronics factories require factory workers to suffer this much physical discomfort or pain if they don’t, strictly speaking, need to?


Glass points out that for $65 (or as little as $10) more, workers could work under U.S. labor conditions and wages. Labor costs are incredibly low when it comes to electronics. So why would factories require 24 hour shifts?


I also disagree with Glass that you can ever separate bucket one of harsh working conditions from bucket two, or basic safety. The sinking of the Costa Concordia brings this to mind. When workers are physically exhausted, dangerous or even life-threatening accidents happen more frequently. When I worked on a cruise ship in Mexico, I was surprised that only five people were required to do all the fine dining service and all of the room cleaning service for 102 passengers. And this was an American-flagged ship. One afternoon during a safety drill one of the ship’s mates pointed out to me that between all of us at the table, we has probably all had an average of around 3 hours of sleep.  I know an engineer who worked as many as 20 hour days or more several days a week because the ships were run with old parts that had to be constantly repaired.


The American and British labor agitators who fought for 12 and 8-hour workdays weren’t just trying to piss off factory owners. They were fighting for the physical and mental integrity of people who didn’t have a lot of choice other than to take on very difficult work.


It’s frustrating that Daisey lied to Ira Glass. It’s also frustrating that Daisey doesn’t seem to acknowledge how misleading people can hurt the very cause he’s fighting for. I sympathize with Daisey’s desire to make an audience care. I just hope his audience still cares, when all the facts are laid out on the table.






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dedicated to charles dickens
Wow. This is a really thoughtful piece. A couple of thoughts you prompt.

There seems to be two really important issues. #1 The abstract issue of what's proper story telling/journalism. I wrote a piece the other day based on my own outrage that there was public housing rehabbed without laundry facilities. I spoke to 2 sources who told me that was true. I spoke to a third who had to take the bus to do laundry. I spoke to a fourth who was made fun of on the bus for carrying her laundry bag. I know 1/2 a dozen people at the company the taunting girls came from. I put that together in a narrative. So did I lie? I very much believe I did not. Every single piece of what I wrote was sourced. What I did NOT do was literally relate what I did. Because I'm not the point. Me alone is BORING! The story is what's important. And the story has to have fictional truth.

If I had said the girl was attacked by zombies on the bus---that would have had no fictional truth.

Without that fictional truth---people are left only with facts. That's like thinking you can be a doctor by only knowing anatomy.

Dickens is a brilliant example of what I'm talking about. He delivered compelling fictional truth. I would wonder---and I am guessing. I do not know. If perhaps the problem is that somewhere along the line Daisy somehow lost his credibility in constructing his narrative. There was some element of fictional truth that was missing. Not the absence of fact. Something else.

#2--The working conditions themselves. Did Daisy deliver what Dickens did in telling the story? If not---what was missing?

Great subject. Thanks!

that's what's so interesting about both Daisey and Kony 2012--to me at least. You would think that putting the "me" in the narrative would detract...and in a way, in both instances, it does detract.

But, in another way, it actually helps to connect a large audience viscerally to their subjects. Because instead of just being given a cold topic (warlords or factory conditions) we're forced to look at that cold subject through to impassioned eyes of someone who sees it in a particular and a compelling way.

I have mixed feelings in both instances. But I do think that personally placing yourself inside a story sometimes works. This has been proven. It's just hard to do if you don't have the right kind of personality.

To me Daisey's work is Dickensian. He has a similar outraged tone and kind of a black/white moralism that has some appeal....for humanitarians....

The way he marketed the story though does have its flaws. Saying "I saw this," when you didn't actually see it, and people find this out later, hurts your credibility. And that can hurt the over-all story. That's what might be happening here.

I think if Daisey had just come clean with Ira Glass, maybe they could have still done the story, but just presented it differently. I wonder...
This was a fair and thoughtful piece. It seems we are becoming numb to the daily dramas the media serve up, so the dramas require progressively livid details to capture our attention. People skilled in the production of drama know how to sell it best. That is the part that makes me sad, that truth standing alone is not enough.
greenheron, thanks for the great comment.

To be honest this story is making me think again about the power of fiction to tell truths that journalism can't quite tell....

the facts alone tend to be messy. I wish I could hear Mike Daisey telling the real story of his trip to China....but on the other hand, people love a good yarn. He seems to take the best stories that he heard on his trip to Asia (and these stories for the most part checked out as being true....there were plausibly true things that he just did not personally witness....) and he spun them into a theater piece where it sounded like he was there in the room. And I cared about his story when I was listening...in part because I believed that he, himself cared....I'm not sure if it matters to me that Daisey didn't personally witness these things....

But I wonder if others will feel differently. It seems like Ira Glass does. And I can see why he would feel betrayed since Daisey didn't come clean to him early on.
I agree, gracious jane smithie.....

There needs to be a middle category for "true things I didn't personally witness"....a theater category.....

But I hope that the momentum built around wanting this to matter to Apple...and Apple customers...continues....

Why not "fair trade" for electronics as well as coffee and chocolate?
It's nice to read something so thoughtful, that tries to see all sides of a story. That doesn't scream. I'm afraid one of the reasons we see so few stories like yours is the sad truth of "It bleeds it leads."
jane smithie--thanks for making me laugh by referring to my "first" billion.....

but it would be nice right...it seems like a logical next step for those of us who would rather spend the extra $10 so that people can sit in a comfortable chair while working.

luminous, thank-you. I wonder if Daisey's approach doesn't have, within it, something worth stealing. maybe I need to develop a theater piece about working for a cruise ship line.
It sad when people lie and hurt a good cause. Hope that the damage is minimal here.
I think that the hurt of the "lie" is that he justifies it so ridiculously. One could easily make the story as compelling with real people, because their situation is compelling. Does a man with a claw hand have to be invented? If he really did lose his hand (as do many workers, overall, because accidents happen), should he not be working? I think Americans work in pretty poor conditions, because I lived in Europe where most people have much safer jobs, and much more support from the government for limited hours, real pay, health care, vacation time, and actual RIGHTS.
Fernsy and oryoki thank you for weighing in

I want to agree that he could have written a first hand account that was just as compelling.....I think that when you're telling a story on stage saying that you read about someone in the newspapers who had mangled his hand would not have been as compelling dramatically....and if he had developed the kind of deep contacts in china that he might have needed to truly meet such people...the whole story might have changed and become more nuanced.

When I think about the story now it seems obvious that it was fiction....other dramatic monologue people have been accused of embellishments too. I'm thinking of David Sedaris and the guy who wrote Swimming to Cambodia....since TAL runs embellished Sedaris pieces...I wonder where that line usually is. And if they could have run it as a dramatic monologue based on or reportage rather than as truth...

Daisey would have come off more sympathetically if he'd at least been honest with Ira glass.....maybe they could have run it as fiction...
I listened to the TAL episode this weekend. I -- kind of -- understand his "it's a stage show! theater!" defense, if he'd kept it in the theater. There's a history there of adapting a narrative to fit the stage, condensing and conforming the story so that it elicits the proper audience reaction. But even then it should have been "based upon a true story" not written or performed as fact. I'm sure the working conditions in China and within Apple factories are not what we would consider humane, and I know it is a complicated issue -- weighing the value of jobs and wages for those who are so desperate they're willing to give up rights and protections to secure a basic standard of living vs. the desire of those who vote with our dollars to push for change so that they are no longer desperate.(All the while keeping the product price down). I've opted out of the Apple market, and I don't purchase much of anything that's new, so I have no solutions.
Bellweather-- my solution is "fair trade" electronics. Just like we have fair trade coffee.

It may not mean these devices provide glamorous jobs...but maybe it would be nice to think that the worst of the abuses aren't going to be there....the 24 hour shifts for example....the n hexane or the other dangerous things....

gracious jane smithie calls this an idea that will earn me my first billion and here I am giving it away for free :)
"This is an interesting moment for journalism. And I find myself pulled between old ways of thinking and new ones."

I agree ~ I think we need to re-think the old ways, while keeping the ethics. We need workable and accountable at the same time. Great to read you again!
he put this on the national front burner for a couple of weeks. maybe that's all he hoped to do.