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.”