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.

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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.

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