Opinion

Jack Shafer

Busting Mr. Daisey

By Jack Shafer
March 16, 2012

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.)

******

Send scripts to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. My Twitter feed tells the truth. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns and subscribe to this hand-built RSS feed for corrections to my column.

PHOTO: Mike Daisey appearing on MSNBC’s The Ed Show.

Comments
21 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

Mr. Shafer, please also bust NYT for their Apple Foxconn story.

Did you guys miss the NPR retraction of Mike Daisey Apple Foxconn story? It’s full of fabrication.

NYT never disclosed the fact their primary source, China Labor Watch, is a US government funded dissident group that is financially beholden to US foreign policy interest.

China Labor Watch’s financial connection with US Congress is open information. National Endowment for Democracy grant publication clearly states the grants given to CLW.

Posted by ChasL | Report as abusive
 

So what are the facts about the working conditions at Foxconn? Can Mr. Shafer contribute to the discussion?

Posted by Aretherefacts | Report as abusive
 

Daisey’s monologue may be “theatre” but he gave interviews where he wasn’t peforming, and he misled people in those interviews.

Posted by KenG_CA | Report as abusive
 

It is not the responsibility of the playwright to be factually accurate. To hold Mr. Daisey to the standards of someone like Stephen Glass at The New Republic is ludicrous. Journalistic standards do not and should not apply to theater. Almost no play would be left standing.

Many audience members and journalists have claimed that they were falsely led to perceive Mr. Daisey’s accounts as fact. Are plays now to be fact-checked and playwrights treated as journalists? Shall we exhume Shakespeare’s corpse, reanimate him and demand to know why he presented Richard III as hunchback when it wasn’t factually accurate?

This debacle has made it very clear that a great many people have utterly no idea what purpose the theater serves and what it is that we actually do. No wonder that funding for the arts in the United States is so appalling and the majority of our national theatrical output is swill.

Mr. Daisey has rightly pointed out that he is attempting to communicate the essential truth of the situation, which he has done in all of his work with great success. Any appearance/writing by a playwright in Op-Ed, television, radio, et al. should be viewed primarily as publicity for their play, not as journalism. Organizations like The New York Times and This American Life should note that if they want to fact-check a play, they should not cite the proverbial horse’s mouth as a source.

Complain all you like, but there’s blood on our hands. For example, I just typed this on my iMac.

Posted by SethDuerr | Report as abusive
 

More hard evidence of America’s deteriorated democracy & and American media’s credibility.

Posted by GMavros | Report as abusive
 

Limbaugh, Brietbart, Beck, Daisey? Oh heck, they’re just “entertainers”… nobody takes them seriously.

And I would laugh at what they, except for the blatant attempt to defraud people. And, mostly out of hatred.

Posted by nieldevi | Report as abusive
 

We can’t wait to hear the Apple fanboys claim vindication…

We’ve been waiting for that other plump Mike, the Moore guy, whom we’re now going to start calling “Smart Mike” to distinguish him from this guy, to get on the Apple story like he did the Nike story. Because as much as he’s a self-promoter, he gets it right. And it’s a story that doesn’t need a break in momentum.

Watching Daisy stammer in the first part of his CNBC interview would have made any good detective a bit worried about his veracity. Live and learn. He’ll no doubt write a book about it next.

Posted by WeWereWallSt | Report as abusive
 

Jack, your theory needs a fourth leg, though it doesn’t apply in the case of Daisey, since his story was pre-packaged. But more and more in these “narrative nonfiction” days, editors want a moral along with the pitch. It’s not enough to say, “I know there’s something there–let me figure it out.” Editors want conclusions before they’ll take a pitch, and the temptation for journalists is to offer those, then mash all unwieldy material into that frame. The urge to oversimplify and find a sermonizing arc is ultimately everyone’s fault, since readers and listeners reward these stories the most. And as we’ve seen from this piece and the Kony nightmare, those tendencies are worsened x10 when the story happens abroad.

Posted by Esmerelds | Report as abusive
 

@SethDuerr (and those making similar arguments): It’s true that a playwright is not obligated to be factually accurate when writing a play, but in this case Daisey wasn’t writing a play. He was adapting his play for This American Life, on which he was fully aware that it would be presented as the truth. Reading Daisey’s “apology” makes it sound like he just realized that This American Life was a journalism program and that its viewers understand everything on the show to be true (as in factually correct, not “true” as Daisey is accustomed to interpret the word).

But this isn’t the case, because Daisey lied to Ira Glass and the staff of TAL and actively sought to cover up the parts of his show that were fabrications. There is no excuse for this. I guess he sees this act as another part of his selfless, noble quest to right the wrongs in this world, but I can’t help but see it as the act of a immoral man who is more concerned with his own publicity than his own integrity or the reputation of Glass and TAL.

Daisey could have either told Glass that parts of his story weren’t entirely true, so TAL could have aired a disclaimer, or they could have modified his story to take out the untrue parts. Instead, he chose to lie. And now he’s only made it worse with his self-righteous, weaselly non-apology.

Posted by TheDollarGame | Report as abusive
 

Jack, you take a hard line on Daisey, justifiably so, just as you did with Kony 2012 and Truman Capote earlier this week. So why on earth were you so forgiving to Andrew Breitbart? He did more damage than any of the aforementioned.

Posted by cekman | Report as abusive
 

I have to admit, I never heard this guy’s monologue. I only know him because for some reason, journalists looking for an “alternate take” on Steve Jobs at the time of his passing used this guy as their main source. For all of the thousands that have seen him in person doing his show, many *millions* know him from journalists sourcing him for commentary on Apple and Steve Jobs.

I’m sure he’s more entertaining and gives better “copy” than some boring academic or non-profit manager, who are the ones that largely dug up the material that he appropriated.

For those looking to put this into a literary context, I strongly recommend listening to the TAL retraction episode. It was when those same journalists used him for quotes, or when talking-head shows brought him on, that he appropriated other people’s stories in an incredibly dishonest appeal to authority. “I’ve sat with people whose hands have been broken into claws!” he cries during one debate. It’s pretty stomach-churning. And he basically suggests that after this began, he was “terrified” (and that word is a direct quote) that revealing that he didn’t see such things would ruin his career.

The real error here isn’t a rather pompous monologuist, it’s the countless journalists who for some reason decided to look for the “alternate view” in the words of a monologuist rather than, y’know, qualified people.

Posted by gwaitersesq | Report as abusive
 

@Mr. Duerr, you wrote, “It is not the responsibility of the playwright to be factually accurate. ”

That would be the case if Mr. Daisey hadn’t gone all over the networks giving interviews. Are you saying all his comments in answering questions for journalists were just part of his play?

Posted by ChKen | Report as abusive
 

So now Upton Sinclair is a liar?
Charles Dickens?

He isnt a journalist or a reporter.He is an actor -writer calling attention to our supporting abusive working conditions.What he does is “not journalism,” he is not a reporter so why all the fuss?
It wasnt meant to be a news report.

Was “The Jungle”…a lie?…Grapes of Wrath?

And it is a factual memoir.Most of it can be backed by the fact that workers are mistreated and are poisoned.

All of the abuses did happen.Did he take dramatic license?Yes he did after all he is an ACTOR and WRITER.

Posted by truthynesslover | Report as abusive
 

A major problem with This American Life (TAL) is that it pretends to be a news and information program, but in fact, is entertainment. This is not the first time TAL has been caught using fabricated material. Jack Shafer wrote about a piece by Malcolm Gladwell in 2008 that TAL swallowed whole and broadcast without apology or correction — even though much of it was “bunk,” as Shafer detailed. A piece put together by TAL shortly after the Penn State scandal last fall pretended to be journalism, but actually was extremely shoddy reporting. Many contributors to TAL are stand-up comics, not journalists. The program should either raise its standards and do some real reporting, or clearly label material as pure story telling that is not necessarily true or verifiable.

Posted by Ex-journalist | Report as abusive
 

Hey, Jack – The “one-man theatrical performance” you suggest in your last paragraph has already been done. By Mike Daisey. It was called “Truth (the heart is a million little pieces above all things)”. In it, Daisey took on the fabulist James Frey and fictional author J.T. LeRoy. Irony much?

I assume you’re looking for someone else to create your “one-man theatrical performance.”

Posted by jamois | Report as abusive
 

When are people going to learn? Everything you read has a spin put on it, intentionally or not. No one is so removed from the world that they can be truly independent every time. Welcome to human nature 101. Get your news from multiple sources and multiple view points and draw your own conclusions.

And to whoever mentioned Michael Moore getting it right…I’m really having a hard time with that one. Given the amount of spin he puts on everything he does, I’m surprised he can walk straight. He may use facts, but that doesn’t count for much when you portray them in whatever way furthers your own views…even if those views are right. Numbers don’t lie, but you can make them say whatever you want.

Posted by CapitalismSays | Report as abusive
 

To “The Dollar Game”:

I don’t care what Mr. Daisey did or did not say or what parts of it were factually accurate or not. If journalists want to legitimately practice their profession it is incumbent on them to perform proper fact-checking. Taking a playwright’s word on any factual statements as opposed to just the essence of his story is ludicrous. Glass admits that he and his program failed to fact-check. That’s the end of it. Mr. Daisey was on the program to publicize his essential story, not report facts as a journalist.

Posted by SethDuerr | Report as abusive
 

To “ChKen”:

Yes, they were part his play, either essential truth of storytelling within the theater or publicity for that story outside. Mr. Daisey is not qualified to report facts as a journalist and it is solely the fault of Mr. Glass and his producers if they have an issue with their own failure to adequately confirm the facts.

Posted by SethDuerr | Report as abusive
 

Daisy is not, and never has been, a journalist. Ira Glass artfully constructed a show around Daisy’s theater piece and assumed that the artist was telling the truth because the artist said he was. Daisy’s work tells the truth via the illumination and interpretation of contemporary society. To constantly confound his criticism with its overt bias with the nonobjective standards of journalism is pushing forward blatant mistruths about the very nature of art. It is an attack on art itself. Its not Mike Daisy’s job to be honest, its his job to tell the truth as he sees it. Ira Glass is the only one in this conversation who was a journalist. And he made a poor choice. If you ask me, his follow up, using all of the immense skills he has as a creative radio genius, was pure character assassination.

First he constructed a show around Daisy’s monologue. This wasn’t a presentation of Daisy’s work in its totality. It was 15 minutes of a 48 minute show. And it wasn’t fact checked. Google exists. That show was TAL’s most popular not because of Daisy, but because of the narrative storytelling of Glass. And he didn’t check his facts. When he got caught, not Daisy, when he got caught, he then used his skills as a radio host to construct an audio record that allowed him to confess and place blame at the same time. And you fell for it.

Once again, Mike Daisy doesn’t have to tell truth. He has to tell a story. That is what he does. Up next, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible: What really happened?

Posted by dramadefender | Report as abusive
 

“Its not Mike Daisy’s job to be honest, its his job to tell the truth as he sees it.” – dramadefender

“It is not the responsibility of the playwright to be factually accurate.” – SethDuerr

Being Honest damn well IS the job of anyone who wants to be believed and taken seriously by the people he is trying to motivate/educate.

Daisey’s lies will only make the work of those trying to educate the public about REAL abuses of workers that much harder. All of your rationalizations will not change that.

dramadefender,

“The truth as I know it” might be based on untruths that I think are true, but by definition it cannot be based on untruths that I KNOW are untrue. If you are saying something that you know to be untrue, then you are NOT telling the “truth as you know it”.

Please explain how someone can tell the truth without being honest?

Posted by btomdarga | Report as abusive
 

“He is an actor -writer calling attention to our supporting abusive working conditions”

And he just set that caused back.

Posted by btomdarga | Report as abusive
 

Post Your Comment

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/
  •