Mike Daisey Lying to Audiences Is Bad, But the Unethical Factory Conditions at Foxconn Are Worse
Yesterday was a big, strange news day, what with the co-founder of the Kony 2012 campaign running half-naked through the streets and George Clooney getting arrested. So in case you missed it, here's another bizarre story that made headlines yesterday afternoon: beloved radio program This American Life retracted a recent, popular episode (the show's most popular ever, in fact) that featured an adapted version of monologist Mike Daisey's show The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobsabout Daisey's trip to the Foxconn factory in China, where Apple products are manufactured.
The Agony and the Ecstasy had been doing very well already, in part because of the untimely death of the show's namesake, but after the This American Life broadcast the show blew up even more. More importantly, Daisey's stories about meeting underage factory workers, some of them supposedly with mangled hands from working on the Foxconn assembly lines, resurrected interest in Foxconn workers and Apple's dubious labor practices -- a story that many journalists had reported on already, but which had somewhat faded from public view. Shortly after the TAL episode aired, the New York Timespublished a front-page series of investigations into human rights problems at Foxconn, while a Change.org petition urging Apple to rethink its labor practices garnered more than 250,000 signatures. The public was talking about Foxconn again.
The Mike Daisey TAL episode is gut-wrenching and fascinating. He describes showing his iPad to an old factory worker who assembles the devices; supposedly, it was the first fully assembled iPad that worker had ever seen. Through these and other details, it becomes clear that Daisey is a great storyteller.
Unfortunately, he was also lying about many of the details I just mentioned.
Daisey and TAL host Ira Glass made it clear in the episode that Daisey is not a journalist (a fact Daisey reiterated in a blog post yesterday). As such, the TAL staff fact-checked Daisey's story as best they could to verify his stories. But it is now clear that Daisey lied to the TAL staff through the fact-checking process. In a statement retracting the Daisey episode, TAL noted that the episode "contained numerous fabrications":
During fact checking before the broadcast of Daisey's story, This American Life staffers asked Daisey for this interpreter's contact information. Daisey told them her real name was Anna, not Cathy as he says in his monologue, and he said that the cell phone number he had for her didn't work any more. He said he had no way to reach her.
"At that point, we should've killed the story," says Ira Glass, Executive Producer and Host of This American Life. "But other things Daisey told us about Apple's operations in China checked out, and we saw no reason to doubt him. We didn't think that he was lying to us and to audiences about the details of his story. That was a mistake."
TAL went one step further, devoting an entire new episode of the show to retracting Daisey's story. The episode, which you can download and stream online here (transcript available here), features a painfully awkward interview with Daisey himself as well as an interview with Daisey's Chinese translator, who disputes much of Daisey's story.
But importantly, the new episode ends by chatting with Charles Duhigg, one of the journalists who reported on Foxconn for the New York Timesin January. (You can listen to an extended interview with Duhigg here.) Duhigg lays out the facts about Foxconn. And the facts still point to unethical labor conditions at the factory. Daisey made up details for dramatic effect, and we should be mad at him for lying. But even more so, we should be mad at him for making journalists' jobs harder -- the journalists who really are reporting facts about Foxconn and overseas factory conditions in general. Now it will be all too easy for sweatshop apologists to say, "Look! Everything at Foxconn is fine!" when of course, things are not fine. (Anyone else getting flashbacks to "Climategate"?) Workers committing suicide and working too-long hours in unsafe conditions? Not ok. So I urge you, the next time you hear someone talk about what a big ol' liar Mike Daisey is, remind them that the real tragedy here isn't Mike Daisey making up stories -- it's our complicity in a system that is so bad, storytellers like Daisey are compelled to make up tall tales so we'll pay attention.
And no, the problem isn't just with Apple or Foxconn. But we still shouldn't let Apple off the hook.
H/T to my colleague Sarah Seltzer for inspiring this headline.