Mike Daisey and our attention embellishment disorder
Last night at Georgetown University, I stood up and applauded Mike Daisey after he was done speaking about why he lied. As a journalist, you are not supposed to stand up and applaud the people you’re covering, especially people who just admitted to lying about key details about workers they had (or hadn’t) met in China. However, Daisey hit on a fundamental truth about labor journalism in last night’s talk at Georgetown. He claimed he stretched the truth about his visit to a Foxconn factory in China as part of his play The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs (which later became This Americans Life’s most downloaded episode) to dramatize a story of labor abuse that had largely been ignored. As a labor reporter who has often seen stories I have written about brutal working conditions ignored, I sympathized with Daisey and his broader critique of the problems of labor journalism.
By embellishing, Daisey did what an activist — not a journalist — does. He got too emotional in his pursuit of trying to take on a big corporation, so he stretched the truth. This doesn’t make it right, but it does make it more effective. And so it forces us to ask very deep questions about the level of sensationalism required beyond the standard mistreatment of workers to get the media to finally pay attention to labor stories.
Covering strikes and lockouts, I have seen workers do the same thing: stretch the truth because they wanted to get at the company.
In 2010, some locked-out Honeywell uranium workers claimed that the scabs taking their place at the plant could cause a nuclear explosion. Turns out they were wrong: The uranium level was too low to cause any explosion. But the uranium and other chemicals in the plant were toxic enough that, if released, they could poison the nearby air and river, which on one occasion during the lockout they did. By claiming a nuclear explosion could be caused, the workers were trying to draw attention to a series of accidents caused by scab labor that the media had largely ignored. They stretched the truth because they were so desperate to get attention to a situation that they were willing to lie a little to do it.
On Monday night at Georgetown, Daisey referred to previous reports about workers committing suicide at Foxconn factories in protest of poor working conditions. “What was most incredible to me was watching the story die,” he said. Seeing the story die was what motivated him to paint such a powerful narrative with his play and in some cases lie about what he saw. “The show was built as a virus. It got out there, and then the Times picked it up, thank God.” (It’s unclear if Daisey’s work caused the New York Times investigation into Apple’s supply chain, as Daisey implies.)
“Dozens of journalists had written about abuses of workers who make electronics in China, but it took a dramatization to finally draw attention to the issue. What does that say about drawing attention to farmworkers or other workers?” said Jennifer Luff of Georgetown’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor, who hosted the event.
As a labor reporter it’s shocking to me that the 4,500 Americans who die on the job every year in mainly preventable accidents go largely ignored by the mainstream media. In December, I covered the story of two teenage boys who had died in an entirely preventable workplace accident in 2010. Wyatt Whitebread, 14, and Alex Pacas, 19, were jumping on grain stacks in Mount Carroll, Illinois, to break up the grains that had stuck together in the humidity. But as the stacks began to sink rapidly, the two began to drown in a 30-foot-deep stack of corn. Rescuers were unable to reach the teenagers in time, and they suffocated to death. Both of the teenagers’ lives would have been easily saved if the company had followed the law that required the teenagers to wear a safety harness to prevent them from being trapped in the corn. The company was fined a mere $268,125 for these violations. Nobody went to jail for causing the deaths of these two teenagers.
Like the 4,500 Americans who die in the workplace every year, the deaths of these teenagers went largely unnoticed by the media. There was no major outcry over how poorly workplace safety laws are enforced and the need for a complete change. There was no This American Life episode on working conditions inside a corn silo.
Such poor media attention to workplace deaths results in general ignorance among the American public about the failure of workplace safety rules to prevent those fatalities and bring negligent employers to justice. Since the adoption of the Occupation Safety and Health Act in 1970, more than 360,000 workers have died on the job in largely preventable workplace accidents, but only 84 criminal prosecutions have been brought against employers for the willful violation of safety rules resulting in a worker’s death. Even if an employer is convicted, the maximum penalty for wrongfully killing a worker on the job is only six months.
The maximum penalty, meanwhile, for a willful violation of an OSHA safety law is a mere $7,000 — a price many companies consider the cost of doing business. In the year leading up to the explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia in 2010, the mine was cited 458 times for safety violations, 50 of which were willful violations of the law. Yet, the mine was not shut down, and on Apr. 5, 2010, a methane leak caused an explosion killing 29 miners inside the mine. Even worse, in the wake of the mine disaster Congress passed no safety legislation to prevent future Upper Big Branches. The mine explosion that was front-page news when it happened was buried in the back pages — if it could be found anywhere at all — by the time mine safety legislation got stalled in Congress.
Daisey stated that the reason why he embellished and dramatized is because “I always thought of the monologue as a weapon.” While what he did was not good journalism, it did emotionally connect with people in a way that more boring reporting on the subject of labor abuses in China had not.
So while it’s easy to blame Daisey for lying in this situation, the blame for why Daisey lied rests not just with him, but also with the media. The best way we can heal labor journalism in the wake of Mike Daisey is to pay even more attention to stories of workplace safety, whether they be from Foxconn factories in Shenzhen or from grain silos in Mount Carroll, Illinois. The truth of workplace abuses should be shocking enough, no lies necessary.
PHOTO: Mike Daisey appearing on MSNBC’s The Ed Show.