Busting Mr. Daisey
This week, the highly regarded public radio show This American Life learned a lesson that many journalists, including me, have learned the hard way: It’s almost impossible for an editor to fact-check a contributor who lies.
The show, hosted by Ira Glass, just retracted its Jan. 6, 2012, episode, “Mr. Daisey Goes to the Apple Factory,” adapted from Mike Daisey’s popular one-man show, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, which is about working conditions in a Chinese factory that makes Apple products.
Daisey’s deceptions were uncovered by Rob Schmitz, a China-based reporter for Marketplace. This American Life will air an hourlong explanation and re-examination this weekend, featuring both Glass and Daisey, about the circumstances behind the retraction. Glass and the show are to be commended for their quick response, and everybody who cares about real journalism owes a debt of gratitude to Schmitz.
We don’t yet know all the lies Daisey told Glass and the listeners of This American Life, but here’s a taste. In the Jan. 6 segment, Daisey said:
The problem is that n-hexane is a potent neurotoxin, and all these people have been exposed. Their hands shake uncontrollably. Most of them can’t even pick up a glass.
I talk to people whose joints in their hands have disintegrated from working on the line, doing the same motion hundreds and hundreds of thousands of times. It’s like carpal tunnel on a scale we can scarcely imagine. And you need to know that this is eminently avoidable. If these people were rotated monthly on their jobs, this would not happen.
When a doubting Schmitz contacted Daisey’s translator, he learned that the artist hadn’t talked to workers poisoned with hexane. We have now learned that he met people who knew people who had been poisoned. So why did he lie? Because, Daisey said, “I wanted to tell a story that captured the totality of my trip.”
On his own website, Daisey offers this larger rationalization, which deserves complete quotation.
I stand by my work. My show is a theatrical piece whose goal is to create a human connection between our gorgeous devices and the brutal circumstances from which they emerge. It uses a combination of fact, memoir, and dramatic license to tell its story, and I believe it does so with integrity. Certainly, the comprehensive investigations undertaken by the New York Times and a number of labor rights groups to document conditions in electronics manufacturing would seem to bear this out.
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.
This grander explanation, which invokes the liberties one can take with the truth working inside the theater, skirts the question of why he lied to Glass, who obviously trusted him to tell the truth. Daisey’s only stated “regret” here is that he allowed the program to air part of his monologue. Meanwhile, the New York Times has excised a paragraph from an Oct. 6, 2011, op-ed he wrote, because “Questions have been raised about the truth of a paragraph in the original version of this article that purported to talk about conditions at Apple’s factory in China.” As I write, surely others are scouring his book, 21 Dog Years: Doing Time @ Amazon.com (2002) for fabrications.
Perhaps Daisey will offer more complete contrition on This American Life‘s hair-shirt edition this weekend, but I doubt it. Liars come up with all sorts of justifications when caught. In Daisey’s case, he claims “dramatic license” gives him the right to lie to Glass. Other apprehended fibbers working in the journalistic arena have blamed booze, drugs, madness, overwork, bad fact-checking, notes got lost, wrong version got sent to the editor, or family problems.
I’m still waiting for somebody who got caught lying while practicing journalism to say why he did it. 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.
(Afterthought, March 17: If this piece interested you, allow me to direct you to my piece from earlier in the week about the fabulisms in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.)
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PHOTO: Mike Daisey appearing on MSNBC’s The Ed Show.