Last week This American Life retracted a story for the first time. The story centered on Foxconn, a major Apple manufacturing supplier, and their working conditions in China and was broadcast back in January. The body of the original story was an excerpt from Mike Daisey’s one man play called The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. In the act Daisey weaves a story of traveling to China and visiting Foxconn factories, meeting underage workers, seeing the effects of n-Hexane gassed victims, and more emotional encounters. It is a gripping tale and very arresting, but unfortunately much of it is… (dramatic pause) not true.
When the story originally aired American news correspondents in China started to question some of the details. Once they tracked down Daisey’s interpreter, a prominent character from the story, everything began to unravel. Did Daisey and his translator meet underage workers? Probably not. Did they visit the Foxconn dormitories? No. Did the guards at the factory carry guns? No, in China it is illegal for anyone, aside from police and military, to carry guns. Did they visit ten plants posing as business people? They visited three. Did they meet ex-factory workers who had been poisoned by n-Hexane? No. The interpreter did corroborate some parts of Daisey’s story, but the majority is compromised beyond saving.
This American Life rightly retracted the story and dedicated last week’s entire show to sussing out what had happened. Ira Glass interviewed Mike Daisey and it was brutal and uncomfortable. Daisey defends his play claiming that it was really a combination of personal experience and research, assembled to create a compelling narrative. The goal was to create an emotional response in the audience, not stand up to journalistic rigor. This defense is weak given that it is unlikely his audience, on the air or in the theater, will do anything other than take him at his word. He does not begin his monologue explaining that it is an amalgamation of firsthand experience and third hand remixing, he allows the audience to assume his account is factual. Some theaters around the country are canceling Daisey’s scheduled performances and it is unlikely he will be taken as seriously in the future as he is right now.
This is not just a case of The Boy Who Cried Wolf. In his attempt to push American’s sensitive guilt buttons through embellishment he has done tremendous damage to his cause. There are harsh working conditions and occasional danger in Apple’s supply chain, much of which is detailed in their own supplier reports. Unfortunately, any momentum Daisey may have gained in bringing this to the public’s attention has been compromised because he lied. How much Apple, or any of us, can or should do to address these issues is really another topic, more political than I care to comment on. Here is the bottom line: advocacy that relies on lies undercuts itself.
That is not to say that fiction is an inappropriate form for advocacy, as long as it is properly labeled. Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad’s criticism of colonialism, was a work of fiction with a basis in the author’s own experiences on a steamboat in the Congo. The reader can focus entirely on Conrad’s message, rather than constantly checking to see if each plot point is verifiable, because the story is entirely fictionalized. This powerful device has been repeatedly used to comment on social issues and to great effect. Daisey seems to want it both ways, he doesn’t want to label his work fiction but at the same time doesn’t hold himself to the truth. In the end, I just don’t believe him.