Felix Salmon

Fabulous journalism

By Felix Salmon
March 17, 2012

Blaine Harden’s astonishing account of the life of Shin In Geun — a man born into a North Korean prison camp, who has lived pretty much the worst life imaginable — has received significantly less attention than the fact that This American Life has retracted its story about working conditions at Foxconn, which was based on Mike Daisey’s monologue. (If you don’t want to listen to the hour-long retraction, which is a masterpiece of the form, the transcript is available here.)

Daisey has attempted to defend his actions, using an end-justifies-the-means argument:

What I do is not journalism. The tools of the theater are not the same as the tools of journalism. For this reason, I regret that I allowed THIS AMERICAN LIFE to air an excerpt from my monologue. THIS AMERICAN LIFE is essentially a journalistic ­- not a theatrical ­- enterprise, and as such it operates under a different set of rules and expectations. But this is my only regret. I am proud that my work seems to have sparked a growing storm of attention and concern over the often appalling conditions under which many of the high-tech products we love so much are assembled in China.

Kevin Slavin has defended Daisey, too:

His skill in telling the story he told is responsible for the phenomenal amount of media around Chinese factory labor practices. Not the New York Times’ China bureau. Not Bloomberg Businessweek. Show me some reporters who were able to generate the same cultural engagement with the issue, will you?

Stories aren’t made out of facts. Storytellers use facts to reveal truth but they use a lot of other things too. And if ever I have to choose between facts and truth, I’ll take truth. It’s always a great story, and stories are the life inside the human mind.

It’s a lot easier to tell a great story if you don’t also need to be factual about things. Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet are fiction; Richard III and Henry V are mostly fiction, albeit based on historical events. And it’s precisely because they’re fictional — because Shakespeare was always storyteller first and foremost — that they’re still performed so regularly, all over the world, and that they have had such powerful emotional resonance with billions of people over the centuries since they were written.

But here’s the thing: Shakespeare never lied. He never sat down in front of thousands of people to tell a first-person story, over and over again, about events which he had simply invented. He never ended that story with an exhortation which would carry no weight if his audience thought the story was fiction:

When Apple would call journalists who had spoken to me, and tell them, “You know, I don’t know if you want to be associated with him. He’s kind of unstable. You know, he does work in the theater.”

I would keep my head down. And I would tell my story.

And tonight—we know the truth.

At the end of Daisey’s show, every member of the audience is given a sheet of paper with the heading “CHANGE IS POSSIBLE”. It includes Tim Cook’s email address, and urges the audience to, among other things, “think different about upgrading”. And one of the reasons why Daisey’s show has proved so popular — his This American Life episode was the most downloaded in the show’s history, even more than the squirrel cop — is that it combined great storytelling with a feeling that this is happening now and we should do something about it. It’s exactly the same formula used by Kony 2012, a project which is equally problematic.

My friend and Reuters colleague Rebecca Hamilton has written a great book, Fighting for Darfur, which should be required reading for anybody who has been drawn in by the Kony 2012 campaign. Or, for that matter, by Daisey’s monologue. Here’s what she wrote to me:

To build a mass movement quickly, it helps to have an over-simplified, emotive narrative with a single demand. It also helps to tells people that by doing easy tasks – sharing a link on Facebook, buying a bracelet — they can save lives. Central to the formula is that the agency of local actors gets downplayed to hype up the importance of action by outsiders. But all those ingredients inevitably lead to eventual failure when the simple solutions can’t fix the complex reality. The movement walks away, disillusioned. And in the meantime untold resources have been expended on solutions that have been out of step with what local activists need.

The fact is that the chief beneficiary of the success of Daisey’s monologue has been Mike Daisey, much more than any group of factory workers or underground trades unionists in China. Similarly, the chief beneficiary of the success of Kony 2012 has been Invisible Children, a US non-profit which spends its money mostly on making movies.

And this is where the justifications coming from Daisey and Slavin really fall down — in the idea that if you get a lot of westerners riled up about what’s going on in some far-flung part of the world, then that is in and of itself a Good Thing. Daisey has managed to convince himself that his interests are perfectly aligned with those of the workers at Foxconn. Even when he presents himself as some kind of savior in a Hawaiian shirt, bringing wisdom to the workers just by asking the right questions:

I’m just ad-hoc-ing questions, I’m asking the questions you would expect: “What village in China are you from? How long have you been working at Foxconn? What do you do at the plant? How do you find your job? What would you change at Foxconn if you could change anything?”

That last question always gets them. They always react like a bee has flown into their faces and then they say something to Cathy and Cathy says, “He says he never thought of that before.” Every time. Every time.

Of course it’s ludicrous to believe that someone working 12-hour shifts at a Foxconn plant wouldn’t start thinking about how the plant might be better run. But that’s the power of theater: its conventions are designed to encourage us to suspend such disbelief. And so we walk away thinking that Mike Daisey is bold and wonderful, and really did ask that question of Foxconn workers under the glare of gun-toting Chinese guards. (We now know that no Foxconn guards are armed: that bit, too, was made up.) And we think that the Chinese workers are so beaten-down and resigned to their miserable fate that they never even stop to think about how things might be improved.

And this is why I believe the story of Shin In Geun, despite the fact that its format is inherently treacherous. Both Shin and Harden have every incentive to exaggerate and to make things seem worse than they are; what’s more, there’s absolutely no way of fact-checking the vast majority of what’s in the story. But what’s missing from their tale is the white man’s burden: the idea that a white American like Mike Daisey or Jason Russell (or Jeff Sachs, for that matter) is a selfless hero, doing good for the poor and exploited in other continents.

What Daisey should have done is what Dave Eggers did when he wrote What is the What: make no pretense that everything is true, and trust in the power of his storytelling to carry the audience along. Instead, he lied — both to This American Life and to his audience.

I am telling you that I do not speak Mandarin, I do not speak Cantonese, I have only a passing familiarity with Chinese culture and to call what I have a passing familiarity is an insult to Chinese culture—I don’t know fuck-all about Chinese culture.

But I do know that in my first two hours of my first day at that gate, I met workers who were fourteen years old,

I met workers who were thirteen years old,

I met workers who were twelve.

Do you really think Apple doesn’t know?

This had a lot of resonance for me, when I first heard it, not least because I understand statistics. In order to meet underage workers who are happy to talk about how old they are within two hours of turning up at a factory gate, there need to be a lot of those workers. Many more than the official numbers suggest. But in fact Daisey did not meet underage workers outside the factory gates. (He still claims that he did, but his translator, who’s a much more reliable source, says that he didn’t. And as Evan Osnos says, that whole episode defies credulity in the first place.)

Daisey’s m.o., it’s now clear, was to go to China, talk to some people, and then write a monologue in which he felt free to incorporate anything he’d read about the plight of workers anywhere in the country, presented as a direct piece of first-person reportage. And there’s a good reason why that’s an underhanded and unethical thing to do, which is that even if Apple did everything Daisey’s asking of them, he could still go to China and return with the exact same monologue. With hindsight, Apple was absolutely right not to engage with Daisey directly, because he created a game they could never win. The only winning move, for them, was not to play.

Jack Shafer, then, is right to come down hard on Daisey. He concludes with this, about fabulists generally:

I have my theory: 1) They lie because they don’t have the time or talent to tell the truth, 2) they lie because they think they can get away with it, and 3) they lie because they have no respect for the audience they claim to want to enlighten. That would be an ideal subject for a one-man theatrical performance.

The irony is that this subject has already been explored in a one-man theatrical performance — one by Mike Daisey, no less. Daisey, you won’t be surprised to hear, is gentler on James Frey and JT Leroy than Shafer is on Daisey, blaming in significant part “the demands of personal storytelling” for their sins.

In any case, it’s clear that theatrical events are bad places to look for unvarnished truth. And in the set of “theatrical events” I absolutely include things like TED talks. Many people have asked, of the hilarious TED 2012 autotune remix, whether it’s parody or not. The answer is that it’s not parody at all. Rather, it’s the work of someone who has been entranced by TED’s theater, and who hasn’t yet woken up to realize that statements like “we can change the world if we defy the impossible” are less stirring than they are just plain stupid.

Real life is messy. And as a general rule, the more theatrical the story you hear, and the more it divides the world into goodies vs baddies, the less reliable that story is going to be. I’ll be very interested to read Harden’s book about Shin In Geun, to see how the guards and teachers in the prison camp are portrayed — to see whether they’re monsters or whether they themselves are victims of the North Korean regime. As we know from Primo Levi, prison camps will twist and subvert the ethics of all concerned. And even in this excerpt we can see real moral problems: Shin himself behaves with astonishing heartlessness towards his own parents and brother.

One of the central problems with narrative nonfiction is that the best narratives aren’t messy and complicated, while nonfiction nearly always is. Daisey stepped way too far over the line when he started outright lying to his audience and to the producers of This American Life. But all of us in the narrative-nonfiction business (I’ve written such stuff myself) are faced at some point with a choice between telling the story and telling the whole truth, or the whole truth as best we understand it. Someone like Michael Lewis will concentrate with a laser focus on the story: what he writes is the truth, but it isn’t the whole truth. And when you have a storyteller like Mike Daisey who considers himself a monologist rather than a journalist, even outright lies can find their way in to the story very easily.

Ira Glass says that This American Life should have scrapped the idea of doing a Mike Daisey show the minute he told their fact-checkers that he had no way of contacting his translator. But maybe the mistake was made even earlier, when This American Life decided that a theatrical monologue could ever be held to standards of journalistic accuracy. This one certainly couldn’t, and in that I think it’s more the rule than the exception.

28 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

“Both Shin and Harden have every incentive to exaggerate and to make things seem worse than they are; what’s more, there’s absolutely no way of fact-checking the vast majority of what’s in the story. But what’s missing from their tale is the white man’s burden: the idea that a white American like Mike Daisey or Jason Russell (or Jeff Sachs, for that matter) is a selfless hero, doing good for the poor and exploited in other continents.”

You nailed it right there, Salmon.

Posted by ottorock | Report as abusive

The problem with this column is several-fold:

1. Mike Daisey is not that important;

2. Ira Glass and NPR are important, but they’ve given their apology way too much attention;

3. Felix Salmon’s article on the topic is way too long.

Posted by james307 | Report as abusive

“Never let the truth get in the way of a good story” – a theory that works great if it’s about Frank Miller & Zack Snyder’s adaptation of The Battle of Thermopolie (’300′), not so hot if it’s the approach taken by a self-proclaimed whistle-blower monologuist. Well done Felix.

Posted by ktm_film | Report as abusive

Well, Mr. Salmon, this is a tough case, and I’m inclined to respond to your piece by saying – “Yes, but ….”

No doubt about it – telling lies and misrepresenting fiction as fact are flat wrong. So is publishing unverified reports as though they were documented facts. Still, from such multiple “wrongs” it seems something “right” my have emerged. We consumers have been inspired by Daisey and other to take a good hard look at ourselves and ask if saving a few bucks on a device is worth the moral cost of engagement with the most murderous regime that’s ever existed on the planet.

Kind of like Harriet Beecher Stowe took liberties with the truth in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, but it was for a noble cause; though she never did quite assert that her tale was gospel – unlike Daisey. OBTW – your piece was too long, as has been noted.

Posted by MrRFox | Report as abusive

This story is strange on two levels. Apart from the fact that TAL actually admitted their story was fabricated and devoted time to doing so why is this any different from virtually every story Gretchen Morgensen or Jesse Eisenger writes? They also fabricate and lie in their stories except they get Pulitzers for doing so. How is this different from the regularly doctored photos that Reuters produces from the Middle East? Or the made-up quotes?

What makes it extra weird is to have a Reuters employee questioning how accurate a defector’s story is when Reuters is paying a mass-murdering regime to redistribute its propaganda under a Reuters badge.

Posted by Danny_Black | Report as abusive

Danny_Black, are you saying that Kony funds Reuters?!

Posted by brian1121 | Report as abusive

wow, I thought Danny-Black was just a bank apologist. He’s also a Middle East conspiracy theorist. A Renaissance man!

Posted by johnhhaskell | Report as abusive

john i have faith one day you will say something that is not complete bs.

Posted by Danny_Black | Report as abusive

brian1121, the correct analogy would be Reuters paying Kony a fee to “distribute his content”.

Posted by Danny_Black | Report as abusive

“Daisey has managed to convince himself that his interests are perfectly aligned with those of the workers at Foxconn. ”

I think Mike Daisy’s interests are much more perfectly aligned with those who paid him to trash Apple.

Posted by zatoGibson | Report as abusive

thx for the links re:reuters

Posted by alea | Report as abusive

alea, small payback for all the great links you publish day in day out.

Posted by Danny_Black | Report as abusive

Well my first reaction was the Fox News does the same thing and yet I see no hew and outcry from you, Felix, when it and your paper “spin” the truth? Is this not the same thing? So why do we get an overly long piece on this and not one on some article the Post just published doing the same thing with economic data?

And this is *art*. Period. It’s supposed to make you think. And if it makes people think about where their products come from, and have a discussion about it, then it did the job. It’s not about what side of the issue you come down on. Frankly, we eat, drink, and use things that are obtained under appalling conditions all the time but we don’t stop to think about it. Who thinks of a slaughterhouse when they’re eating a steak? Child labor when they buy a cotton tshirt? People living in barracks apart from their family when they buy an iPad? He’s saying we should. That’s all. And if you disagree? That’s art. You can move along and use your iPad.

Posted by skyman123 | Report as abusive

skyman and he couldnt make that point without lying?

I have no problem with someone being selective, i have no problem with fiction bearing little or no relation to fact. However, I do think journalists should fact check and should not fabricate stories. Call me old-fashioned

Posted by Danny_Black | Report as abusive

I arranged some years back for a “journalist” from Florida to meet local people in Tbilisi, Country of Georgia. These were people who understood what was happening and had connections in Georgian politics at all kinds of levels.

The guy wanted to talk about two things: attitudes toward homosexuals and multi-player videogames. It was appalling.

When I confronted him after about it, he arrogantly informed me that he had no interest in insiders. He had interviewed some homeless people and they had told him everything he needed to know.

On other occasions I tried to correct grossly false international reportage. Each time I was stonewalled. Nobody wanted to know. Nobody cared.

So I’m not surprised. My experience so far is that on EVERY international story that I was near, the major media didn’t just get it wrong – they either swallowed obvious propaganda whole – or they simply made it up. Not one story had any resemblance to the most basic facts on the ground.

So I’m not surprised at Daisey. What I’m surprised at is that Ira Glass had the integrity to run a retraction. However, I strongly suspect that retraction ran for one reason – Apple is big enough and important enough – INSIDE America.

Posted by BrPH | Report as abusive

@MrRFox wrote, “We consumers have been inspired by Daisey and other to take a good hard look at ourselves and ask if saving a few bucks on a device is worth the moral cost of engagement with the most murderous regime that’s ever existed on the planet.”

Aside from not catching the thrust of this excellent article, you are woefully stuck in some alternate reality story about the Chinese government.

I personally would nominate the Khmer Rouge, by estimates responsible for genocide that killed maybe 1/5 of Cambodia’s population— interestingly, a story told by the most famous monologuist of my generation. (Yes, theater CAN tell truths better when it is not self-aggrandizing lying.) Now THERE’s a world-class, murderous regime.

More to the point, this regime descends from the branch that overthrew Mao’s wife. My wife’s relatives, who suffered greatly under the dogmatic programs of the past, have, since about 1980 when China opened up to capitalist notions, seen a tremendous improvement in their living conditions, thanks in part to the economic development that you call for shutting down.

Posted by WaltFrench | Report as abusive

So if the end justifies the means, then why not claim anything that supports your ends? Who says your ends are right? The Nazis thought their ends were right so they spread lies about Jews. Don’t like the Irish? Spread lies about them. Don’t like blacks? Spread lies about them.

You can find an example of bad behavior by any group. I read a book which uses the sadism of a single Jewish guard in a transit camp after WWII as an ex post facto way of diminishing systematic cruelty toward Jews because anyone can do it. That’s extreme but hate Catholics? Haven’t they been hiding pederasts? Running an abuse ring? African-Americans are over-represented in prison, so pick a story of one and make it into an indictment of all blacks as criminal thugs. Hate WASPs? Lots of examples you can turn into a story.

Ends justify the means. Really?

My take is that he loves having a story that sells. He has an audience. That he believes his story isn’t different from an Aryan Nation guy who believes his story because all believers believe. It boils down to this: do you tell the truth? If you don’t, you are a liar. And in this case, as in many, a liar who thrives on the attention the lies get you.

Posted by jomiku | Report as abusive

While I admire the media mea culpa (and some schadenfreude) re playwright Mike Daisey’s false statements, it’s worth comparing it to the coverage of the Stop Kony campaign.

This American Life admitted its story on the working conditions of Apple factories in China based on playwright Mike Daisey’s ‘reporting’ contained a number of inaccurate claims.

Yet there doesn’t seem to be much question that some of Apple’s factories have horrid working conditions. And some might say Daisey was more successful than many in the traditional media in getting the word out about this problem.

The Stop Kony campaign basically forced the media to do stories about African warlord Joseph Kony through a brilliant viral video on the web. Ignoring for the moment the weird behavior of film-maker Jason Russell, the Kony 2012 campaign arguably had many more inaccuracies and dangerously misleading statements than did Daisey’s characterization of Apple’s manufacturing plants in China.

Both Daisey and Russell have tried to justify their ‘distortions’ as in the service of a greater good — story telling. This is on the increase as social media, new media, drive the narrative — and as news organizations depend upon second or third-hand ‘story telling’ for sourcing.

It’s great when the media admits it got snookered, though this usually ends up with earnest and aghast journalists skewering somebody else in order to demonstrate integrity.

What is probably more needed is a distinct and precise definition of what constitutes “journalism” as opposed to “story telling” as we move toward a new era of crowd-sourced reporting.

Tom Paulson, host of Humanosphere.org (Reuters wouldn’t let me sign in with my name …)

Posted by Humanosphere | Report as abusive

I really like This American Life. I’ve even seen them do the live stage version.

But they were warned by Apple and the ease with which Rob Schmitz found the translator: typed Cathy, translator and the place into Google and called the first number listed. Not high quality fact checking done by the producer for TAL.

Posted by jomiku | Report as abusive

humanosphere, i think journalism should be factually accurate. I dont think that is too much to ask. It would also be nice if it was not clearly misleading but i accept that is harder to define.

if newspapers or journalists dont bother getting basic statements correct then I fail to see what their purpose is.

Posted by Danny_Black | Report as abusive

“My wife’s relatives, who suffered greatly under the dogmatic programs of the past, have, since about 1980 when China opened up to capitalist notions, seen a tremendous improvement in their living conditions, thanks in part to the economic development that you call for shutting down.” (WaltFrench – 18th, 2pm)

Mussolini made the trains run on time.

Your wife’s family’s good fortune comes at the price of complicity on the part of all of us in the West in the entrenchment and empowerment of the Red regime that oppresses all the people of China, and finances the Red adventures in Tibet and Sudan and Syria and …. But so what – as long as we all get our 30 Pieces of Silver, who gives a ….?

Posted by MrRFox | Report as abusive

So Kevin Slavin would dhoose truth over facts? Without facts it’s “truthiness” but not truth.

Posted by rmhitchens | Report as abusive

“He never ended that story with an exhortation which would carry no weight if his audience thought the story was fiction…”

While we’re talking about facts, are you sure?

Shakespeare would never have recognized the fact/fiction distinction as you’ve put it here. History in Early Modernity was hortative in precisely the sense you’re trying to avoid; a Shakespeare history play is basically the worst example you could use.

But I totally understand, insofar as that distortion of well known facts of literary history is just a means to the end of the important point you’re making about journalistic integrity.

Posted by nvalvo | Report as abusive

This is a bit of a mess. I’m not sure what you mean by “narratives” as opposed to “stories,” or “nonfiction” as opposed to the “whole truth.” Nor do I entirely understand what you mean when you say that the best narratives aren’t messy or complicated. (What is Hamlet, but one damn complication after another?)

That said, I think you’re on to something. There is a genre that routinely distorts reality, simplifying and melodramatizing it. Only it’s not narrative nonfiction–see Katherine Boo’s book on Indian slum dwellers for the most recent counter-example–it’s Hollywood filmmaking.

Posted by MushamukaD | Report as abusive

What on earth does this have to do with North Korea? Focus, man.

Posted by amateurediteur | Report as abusive

On 3/19 at 2:58, MrRFox sardonically wrote, “But so what – as long as we all get our 30 Pieces of Silver, who gives a ….?”
I know I don’t live in a country with totally spotless hands. I doubt you do … that there is such a place.

The question we are addressing is HOW we make the world a better place, and specifically the false claims from one Mr. Daisey that obfuscate the role of Shenzhen in China’s actual progress towards democracy, economic independence and human rights.

I suggest you are not just naïve but disingenuous in implying that we disengage from China so as to dissuade them from their imperial adventures and human rights abuses. In fact, our policy since Kissinger has been one of more-or-less continuous engagement, with constant references to human rights. China has consistently objected to our “meddling” as ill-informed about the real risks of rebellion while asserting their right to independence from western imperialism that totally debased that country in the late 19th century. Especially as our relative economic power over China is shrinking, it behooves us, if we want to claim the moral high ground, to deal with issues such as democracy, human rights, worker rights and the lot, to not manufacture such easily-falsified claims as Mr. Daisey is peddling.

It’s all well and good for you to cite Chinese abuses; I find the corruption, stifling of rights and general treatment of the citizenry as chattel to be terrible, too. I am merely saying that if we are to have any positive influence on the outcome, we will have to get a lot smarter than to believe the children’s stories and encourage the steps that ARE in the right direction. I’m not one to claim that economic development necessarily causes democratic development, but they DO seem to be more than correlated.

Posted by WaltFrench | Report as abusive

” I’m not one to claim that economic development necessarily causes democratic development, but they DO seem to be more than correlated.” (Walt French, last above)

Cool, Mr. French – you’ve found a fig leaf of allegedly ethical justification that gives us all the green light to pursue our personal financial self-interests without the need to even consider the consequences inflicted on others by the dragon our engagement feeds and nurtures. I’m sure we’re all ever so grateful.

If ever there is endowed a Nobel Prize for “Creative Contributions to the Art of Rationalization”, I’m nominating ….

Posted by MrRFox | Report as abusive

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