Doubting Mr. Daisey

In retrospect, I’m glad that I thought to take a slightly skeptical tone in a blog post about my reaction to Mike Daisey’s “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” which I saw him perform at D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre last April.

In the play, he describes such unconventional, perhaps implausible research techniques as standing in front of mega-contract manufacturer Foxconn’s factory gates before armed guards and soliciting workers’ testimony at the end of their shift, then posing as an American executive looking for a new outsourced manufacturer.

My skepticism was well-placed: Daisey lied about how he got these stories, in some cases making up sources.

Rob Schmitz, Shanghai correspondent for American Public Media’s Marketplace, uncovered these fabrications in a story posted Friday that led This American Life to retract January’s “Mr. Daisey And The Apple Factory” episode. TAL (produced by Chicago public-radio station WBEZ, distributed by Public Radio International, and a favorite on the radio in our car) is devoting this weekend’s episode to unpacking how it bought Daisey’s story.

(3/17, 1:04 p.m. I listened to that episode late last night, and you should too–or at least read the transcript. The dead air between some of host Ira Glass’s questions and Daisey’s measured answers are some of the most uncomfortable moments I’ve ever heard on radio. Oh, and it turns out that Daisey fabricated more than just sources.)

In a blog post this afternoon, Daisey defended his monologue as using “a combination of fact, memoir, and dramatic license to tell its story” but expressed “regret that I allowed THIS AMERICAN LIFE to air an excerpt from my monologue.” Schmitz’s story quotes him as explicitly apologizing for lying to TAL’s fact-checkers.

It’s an appalling turn of events all around. Making things up is the worst sin you can commit in journalism, worse than plagiarism and multiple levels worse than simple sloppiness with facts. It will get you excommunicated from the profession, then it will tar your employer and your colleagues for years to come.

But in this case, Daisey’s fabrications also gets in the way of an unpleasant reality that his flawed work helped publicize: Some of the gadgets that we use are made under conditions we would never endorse. The New York Times’ in-depth reporting from China documents this. (Yes, my client the Consumer Electronics Association has an interest in this; see this Investor’s Business Daily op-ed by CEA president Gary Shapiro, in which endorses stepped-up efforts by vendors to enforce labor standards after saying he was “horrified” by two earlier visits to Chinese factories.)

I’d planned to have written something about this myself before I got sidetracked by some other stories. I suppose it’s good that this delay rescued me from placing too much trust in Daisey’s testimony. But if his errors lead to people concluding this entire issue has been overblown… well, another one of Daisey’s monologues is titled “How Theater Failed America.”

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10 thoughts on “Doubting Mr. Daisey

  1. Thanks for the info…I am streaming the show right now. Ira is clearly upset he bought into it without his usual fact checking.Belt and suspenders should be the norm for checking stories. I listened to the original broadcast and was horrified. I don’t know what to think now.

  2. I was disappointed to read that Woolly Mammoth is supporting him. I think it’s wrong to use Apple and Steve Job in a show that is fabricated but sold as being true. As every tech writer or blogger knows, any mention of Apple leads to more clicks on a website. Here it is leading to more tickets for Daisey and Woolly Mammoth.

  3. Nice post, Rob, including the link to Janet Cooke for those who may not remember. (Cute title, too.) This story has so many shades of gray now. Clearly, Daisey was up front in the TAL piece as being a “storyteller,” not a “journalist,” and what TAL focuses on is “storytelling.” But there is always an assumption of journalistic truth and ethics behind TAL’s “stories,” even though the line between non-fiction and fiction has probably been crossed before on the show. The stakes were much higher here, though — it’s one thing for David Sedaris to enhance or compositize some details about his experiences as a Xmas elf at Macy’s, and something else to initiate and feed a worldwide firestorm of critique on Apple and the Chinese CE industry. And TAL wasn’t the only vehicle — Bill Maher had Daisey in his 1:1 interview slot at the top of his show generally reserved for actual newsmakers (although he focused on Daisey’s NY show as the peg). This issue blurs the line between news and entertainment in a new way, although perhaps it’s a line that has been constantly migrating, particularly in the age of the web. Worst outcome here is that Daisey’s “story” may now be largely discredited, even though the basis of it is still true. Just look at the nets (to catch the jumpers) on the Foxconn building in the photo that has been used on many of the retraction pieces this week. The story will likely be grist for journalists’ ethics mill for some time to come.

    • Skip,

      Good points. There is a fair argument to be made that theater is in general not a non-fiction medium. But Daisey should have known that once he left that context–certainly once he started hectoring tech journalists about how they should do their jobs–he could not expect to claim theatrical license.

      BTW, as a radio guy, what’d you think of TAL’s “retraction” episode? To me, that was stunning.

      – R

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  5. I thought Ira did a good job asking the questions I would have asked. Kudos to him for leaving the extended periods of silence while he waited for responses from Mr. Daisey. The silences were louder than words.

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