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.)