Mike Daisey’s brief guide to answering difficult questions

March 20, 2012

Thanks to the “Retraction” episode of This American Life and his appearance at Georgetown University last night, we now know more than we ever wanted to about Mike Daisey’s damage control theories.

On the radio, Daisey tendered the non-apology apology. Yes, for his retracted episode, “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory,” Daisey confessed that he had lied in the original broadcast about what he saw in China, whom he talked to there, when he talked to them, how many factories he visited, and so on. He also admitted that he lied to This American Life‘s editors in the fact-checking process. For a complete run.

Daisey has now acknowledged his lies, but has also attempted several defenses and obfuscations of them. On his blog last Friday, the day the scandal was broken, he stated that: “I stand by my work,” and “What I do is not journalism.” I leave it to the reader to figure what “I stand by my work” means when the work under discussion has been discredited. But the “not journalism” comment is very peculiar to make at this late stage because, as Craig Silverman points out, This American Life producer Brian Reed put Daisey on notice before the episode ran that they wanted it to be “totally, utterly unassailable by anyone who might hear it.”

“Utterly unassailable” strikes me as a laudable, if unreachable, goal for journalism. To the producer’s request, Daisey responded: “I totally get that.” So even if he doesn’t “do” journalism, he knew that he was being asked to “do” journalism on This American Life.

Daisey’s evasions and justifications have circled out wider in the last couple of days. Yesterday, he wrote in his blog that if you think that the story of his lies is bigger than the story of working conditions in China, then “something is wrong with your priorities.” He says this just one paragraph away from reiterating his apology to “anyone who felt betrayed” by his radio performance. “I stand by that apology,” he writes, before launching into a defense of making stories “subordinate to the truth.”

Daisey’s scrambled logic continued last night at Georgetown University. There, Daisey claimed of his Apple factory monologue, “The truth of that story is very real,” according to this account by Erik Wemple, who writes:

In sincere tones, [Daisey] repeated his apologies to This American Life executive producer Ira Glass and extended his regrets to his audiences and to journalists. He confessed to being “wrong” for having exposed the radio program to such risk. But “I can’t say it was wrong to air” the program, Daisey argued.

We shouldn’t be stunned when Daisey’s contrition equation fails to add up. He apologizes to Glass, to his audiences, and to journalists and confesses to the “wrong” of hurting the radio show. But he “can’t say it was wrong to air” the show. As Wemple reports, Daisey still maintains that he got contested facts right in his monologue. Daisey told the Georgetown crowd that he did see guards with guns at the Foxconn plant, although nobody will confirm that. He did speak to a 13-year-old outside the factory, although confirmation of that is not available, and so on.

Daisey even feeds the audience this non sequitur: “If I wanted to make it up, I wouldn’t have gone to China.” Again, we should not be stunned if Daisey made up a bunch of facts after what he found in China was not the precise story he was dying to tell.

Anybody this given to prevarication must have revealed his methods at some point in his career, and — wouldn’t you know it? — Daisey gave away his secret of how to repel questions in an extended interview in 2005, in conjunction with the performance of his monologue 21 Dog Years: Doing Time @ Amazon.com in Portland, Oregon. The show, which also exists in book form, is based on Daisey’s three-year stint as an Amazon worker in Seattle.

When grilled, imitate Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and toss your interrogators a hall-of-mirrors response to chase, Daisey says. From the interview [emphasis added]:

I think Amazon made me the person I am today. Aside from making me very wary of corporate situations, I try to apply the marketing savvy I learned from Jeff Bezos. [laughs] I really pattern the marketing of this show and other shows after the way I saw Amazon talk about itself.

For instance, when people from the media started talking about the show and the book, they’d say, “Oh — he’s a disgruntled worker!” And I’d take a page from Jeff. In every interview about Amazon, someone would ask him a binary question: “Is Amazon x?” And he’d never say “yes” or “no” — he’d always take a middle path that opens up five more questions. So someone would say, “Why are you so angry at Amazon?,” and I’d say, “Oh, I’m not angry at Amazon. In fact, it’s more of a love story.” And it opens up conversations with the media: They’ll say, “Well, now I can’t write it in 20 words — I guess I’ll have to write a longer piece that’s more complex, or I guess I’ll actually have to be interested.”

Just when we thought Daisey had repeated every fabulist excuse in the book, maybe he’s given us something fresh: Jeff Bezos made me do it.

For those Johnny Deadlines eager to skim the published version of 21 Dog Years: Doing Time @ Amazon.com for additional Daisey lies, don’t bother. On the acknowledgement page, he indemnifies himself as completely as possible, writing: “Some facts were injured in the telling of this story. The truth, however, remains unharmed.”


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PHOTO: A protester wearing a mask of Apple Inc founder Steve Jobs performs a street drama with a university student playing the role of a Foxconn worker during a protest in Hong Kong, May 7, 2011. REUTERS/Bobby Yip


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Daisey lies do not change the fact that Apple has routinely uses contractors that grossly abuse and underpay their employees.

Apple could have taken 10% of the cash hoard from Q4-2011 and DOUBLED the pay of their wage-slaves in China. What a difference in the lives of their workers; how it could begin a process to address the huge imbalances of trade. But this doesn’t matter to MSM; the “lies” matter more.

The MSM is so enamored with all things Apple and Apple is such a huge company, it is no surprise to read these articles and columns disparaging Daisy again and again.

I suppose the truth squads will next want to start pulling copies of Harriet Tubman’s and Upton Sinclair’s “lies” from libraries.

How about for good measure we start burning piles of books to insure only corporate truth is heard?

Posted by upstater | Report as abusive

I’m missing something here. Why didn’t This American Life check out what Daisy said independently BEFORE they aired the piece?

Posted by r.felder | Report as abusive

Early Warning Sign? From page 61 of his downloadable monologue: “The monologue…has been performed over 200 times…Over 75,000 people have been in attendance around the world.”

Has anyone done the math on this i.e. looked at the capacities of the theaters where he’s performed and determined whether this is even POSSIBLE? (That’s 375 people PER SHOW.)

Capacity at the Public: 199.

Posted by facchecker | Report as abusive

This American Life got duped. Fine. It happens to everyone. It’s embarrassing, it’s a black eye, but ultimately it’s a pardonable offence.

But here’s the thing: TAL also lied. Knowing that Daisey’s story strained credulity, it promised us that its editors had fact checked the story nine ways to Sunday.

Except that they hadn’t—and TAL knew that they hadn’t even as it was assuring us that they had.

Now, instead of coming clean, TAL has cast itself as a victim of Daisey’s fabrications. It has turned this into a story of how it got taken in by a master fabricator. It wants us to see this as TAL’s Stephen Glass or Jason Blair moment.

But it isn’t. TAL didn’t just fail to do its due diligence. It told us it had while knowing it hadn’t.

TAL needs to acknowledge that it too lied to us and it needs to sanction the people responsible within the organization who authorized the lie. Its mea culpas will continue to sound awfully hollow to this loyal NPR listener until it does.

Posted by Indianapolis | Report as abusive