Chris's Story of the Week addresses the factual distortions in monologist Mike Daisey’s production, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” that prompted NPR to retract a story featuring Daisey’s work. Watch the video above and read the full text here:
But first, a story that broke last week, that involved this program somewhat, albeit tangentially.
My friend and colleague Ezra Klein was filling in for me -- thanks, Ezra -- and said that I would have my response when I returned.
My thoughts on the story are somewhat complicated, so I decided to make it My Story of the Week: Truth and Consequences.
I first heard of Mike Daisey's monologue, "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs," sometime last spring when two friends of mine went to see a very early version of the work in Washington DC. They were both blown away and I particularly remember one friend recounting to me what would be the monologue's climactic moment, when a Chinese worker whose hand had been crushed and disfigured while working in a plant that made IPads was handed Mike Daisey's own iPad, and saw the device turned on for the first time.
As he flicks through the icons with his "ruined hand" he tells Daisey through Daisey's translator that "it's a kind of magic."
It now appears that that moment never hapened. The man with the "ruined hand" appears to have worked not at Foxconn, the factory Daisey visited but at another factory and it's unclear if he actually made iPads or if Daisey ever actually showed him an IPad.
You've probably heard all this by now because Daisey's been in the news in the wake of This American Life running an episode length retraction of their airing of Daisey's monologue. Daisey lied to This American Life's fact checkers about his translator's contact info and whereabouts and when his actual Chinese translator was contacted and interviewed by Marketplace reporter Rob Schmitz she contradicted many of the most dramatic details of Daisey's monologues, including him meeting with underage workers, the guards at Foxconn factory toting guns and the incident with the iPad and the man with the injured hand.
Daisey's defense is that, fundamentally, he was miscast in the role of journalist on This American Life: that he's a storyteller, a theater artist and he employs the narrative tools of the trade to tell a larger truth.
In fact he made that argument, more or less, on this very show just two weeks ago, before I or the general public knew about the factual inconsistencies that had emerged in his story.
Daisey on video:
“It's a complicated subject, I work as a monologist and a storyteller so fundamentally I tell a story and I use the tools of storytelling. I use compression, I use all these tools that the world of objective journalism doesn't use."
That's a perfectly fair distinction to draw, but like Ira Glass, I, too, took Daisey at his word when I saw his show, twice, that what he said he saw, he actually saw. When he said "I met workers who were 15, 14, 13, 12" I thought what he meant was "I met workers who were 15, 14, 13, 12."
It wasn't just my own naivete that led me to this conclusion. That was the explicit impression that Daisey himself conveyed. Here's an interview Daisey did with Seattle radio and podcast host Luke Burbank back in May, in which Burbank explicitly confronts him on the question of the factualness of his work.
Daisey interview audio:
Burbank: "How do you reconcile telling a good story with also trying to get the facts right and when do you decide what is the more important goal?”
Daisey: “Oh, well you know what I've found over the years is that the facts are your friends, like if there's ever a case where I'm telling the story and I find the facts are inconvenient, 9 times out of 10 it means I haven't thought about the story deeply enough. I really believe in this because the world is more complex and more interesting than my imagination. So the world is full of really fascinating things. You have so many tools on stage as a story teller. Like any time you want something to happen, you don't have to pretend it happened and lie, you can use a flight of fancy, you can say "I imagine what this must look like." You can say anything and you can go in whatever direction you need to go, but be clear with the audience, but be clear with the audience that at one moment you're reporting the truth as literally it happened, and another case you're using hyperbole, and you just have to be really clear about when you're using each tool. No for me it's not actually that hard if, and this is a big if, if you're pretty scrupulous, about not believing you know the story before you see it.”
I've had Mike Daisey on Up three times, so a little housekeeping is in order.
First, when we booked Mike on the program two weeks ago and had a conversation that was eerily resonant about the line between truthfulness and good story telling, I had no idea what was coming down the pike.
Second, we've reviewed Mike's appearances on the program and it doesn't appear that he ever made some of the most dramatic claims -- such as personally meeting underage workers -- that have now been called into question. That said, there were a few statements that now raise red flags.
At one point he mentioned that he was interviewing "hundreds of people" in China, but his translator told This American Life the number was more like 50. Additionally, Mike said this:
Daisey on video:
"Like officially, in China, the work day is eight hours long. In the books. I never met anyone, literally never met anyone who had even heard of the idea of an eight hour shift, when I was interviewing hundreds of people over there.”
This may have been a bit of hyperbole, but even the official Chinese news agency Xinhua quoted a study that found that in China 86% of migrant workers work longer than 8-hour days and the New York Times reported that the norm at the Foxconn factory is quote "more like 12."
Which brings me to my final point on this. Certain apologists are gleefully taking the opportunity to use Daisey's distortions to excuse Apple and the rest of American electronics manufacturers for the conditions in the factories in China that make their products. Forget Daisey even exists: the fact remains that working conditions in Chinese factories are incredibly harsh, workers have essentially no rights and violations are common.
There is ample documentation of underage workers, though they are quite a bit rarer than you'd be led to believe by watching Daisey's show.
There is ample documentation for unsafe working conditions -- a chemical-plant explosion just last month killed 25 people. Most importantly, however, to focus on the most dramatic instances of violations also loses the larger point, for the vast majority of workers in Chinese factories aren't underage, and aren't going to be disfigured in a gruesome visible way. No, for them the work is grinding, endless, with no work rules or autonomy that might give respite. As one Foxconn worker told CNN, at Foxconn "women work like men and men work like animals."In fact, in the version of Daisey's monoogue that I saw in Washington DC, he had an extended riff that zeroed in on this point. He invited the audience to consider what it would actually feel like to stand in one place for hours at a time, with few if any breaks and do the same small, repetitive hand motion over and over and over. In identical sequence, unending.
The line in front of you never stopping, the drudgery seemingly endless and the discomfort of standing still in the same position for hours beginning to light your nerves in your spine and legs on fire and how imprisoned in this monotony, you might take a chance to just knock something off the line, down to the ground to give yourself the briefest and most delicious of reprieves, to bend over and change position and feel those nerves quiet for just an instant. And he asked the audience to imagine the anxiety and dejection that might overtake you exactly mid way through the motion of bending down to pick up the item you've knocked off the assembly line, knowing you are now half way through this momentary break, that you're headed inexorably, swiftly back to the prison of the monotony of the line.
That moment was cut from the play in the later version I saw, but I still remember it and to me it's Daisey at his best. It is why the Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs was so powerful, because it forced us to recognize that there are actual human beings, with private lives and hopes and dreams and feelings and ailments and family and friends and souls like our own, who toil to make the disembodied devices that just show up in our Apple store. It forced us into a posture of empathy, to consider that under another set of circumstances those human beings on the other end of the supply chain could be us, our family, our friends, our loved ones. It forced us to ask the question why is it that we get to be the ones who delight in the beautiful design of the nifty devices while others have to be the ones that work under harsh conditions to make them. And what is our moral responsibiltiy, as fellow humans to those other human beings on the other end of our devices.
And it's actually this reason that I find the distortions in Daisey's work maddening, because it undercuts his own empathic project.
That man with the ruined hand, actually had a ruined hand it appears but didn't work at Foxconn and the magical moment when he encountered the iPad didn't, according to Daisey's translator happen. If that man were your father or uncle or you, you would want your actual story told about what happened, you wouldn't want to be simply used as a narrative prop in some other story. Genuine empathy means taking that man's humanity seriously and honoring that humanity by being truthful to what happened to him.
To see him as a means to a theatrical end is to make him into a cog in your own machine. And we are called to fight against exactly that.