Would-be Apple Killer Mike Daisey Goes Down in Flames

March 17, 2012

I love me a good journalism scandal, even when the person involved isn’t really a journalist. In this case, we’re talking about “dramatist” Mike Daisey, whose one-man show, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” drummed up a great deal of outrage at Apple supplier Foxconn’s China labor practices.

Daisey’s show was a monologue, which contained descriptions of Foxconn working conditions, retelling of conversations he had with Foxconn workers, and a lot of haranguing about how bad Apple is.

I dimly recall reading several Op/Eds about Daisey and his show, including (I believe) one or more articles he penned himself. I last wrote about the subject on January 30, a post that was mostly devoted to asking why so much attention was being given (by the New York Times and others) to what was essentially an old story. The one thing that seemed pretty clear at the time was that Daisey didn’t know very much about China, nor did he understand business all that well.

Nevertheless, it seemed as though he had put in a great deal of time over here (I was surprised to learn later that it was only a six-day trip), visiting a lot of factories and talking to a very large number of workers. As I’ve consistently maintained over the years, all those stories you hear about China labor practices are true, the only question being how often they occur and where. With no China background and a tenuous grasp of international business, Daisey had somehow stumbled upon some rather egregious goings-on down in Shenzhen. Foxconn was apparently a great deal more evil than we thought.

One small problem: Daisey is not a journalist, but a playwright, and he engaged in artistic license to make his show more attractive. This has come back to bite a lot of folks out there who not only praised Daisey’s work but also gave him a platform upon which to disseminate his message. The biggest loser here seems to be National Public Radio, which ran excerpts of Daisey’s play earlier this year and have since had to run a huge retraction and one-hour debunking show. Ouch.

So exactly what happened, and how is it that we even know about this problem? We can thank Rob Schmitz, a real journalist at Marketplace who is based here in China and has reported extensively on Foxconn’s labor problems. If you’re going to start reading through the reports on this scandal, start with Rob‘s article from yesterday:

It’s Daisey’s story about visiting a Foxconn factory in China where Apple manufactures iPhones and other products. With the help of a Chinese translator, Daisey finds underage workers, poisoned workers, maimed workers, and dismal factory conditions for those who make iPhones and iPads.

“I’m telling you that in my first two hours at my first day at that gate I met workers who were 14 years old…13 years old…12,” Daisey recounted. “Do you really think Apple doesn’t know?”

Daisey told This American Life and numerous other news outlets that his account was all true.

But it wasn’t.

Bazinga! Rob tracked down and talked to Daisey’s Chinese interpreter, who basically said that some of the information presented in the one-man play was fabricated. I would also recommend listening to the seven-minute radio piece that Rob did for Marketplace, which by the way has a nice quote from Shanghai Scrap’s Adam Minter.

OK, I could go on here for a while, but I want to cut to the chase and get back to my fog-enshrouded Beijing Saturday. The bottom line here is that Mike Daisey is not a journalist. He did some research on a popular issue, including a week-long trip to Shenzhen, and threw it all together artistically in a one-man show. As Rob Schmitz mentioned in his radio piece, the anecdotes Daisey included about Foxconn/Apple workers in China have happened, albeit not always at the time and place cited by Daisey.

So didn’t Daisey pretty much get it right? Shouldn’t we cut him some slack here? Well, you know me. I’m nothing if not merciful. I get lots of things wrong on this blog too, and I’d like to think that my readers will forgive my errors in light of the medium and the fact that I’m not a journalist. So sure, I’m happy to give Daisey a break.

But I can’t. As a blogger, I may have absolutely no journalistic standards, but I do try to be as honest as possible. Regular readers of China Hearsay probably roll their eyes every time they read one of my frequent disclaimers about sources and incomplete information – I included one in last night’s post on McDonald’s. You might think that language is some sort of lawyerly “don’t sue me” gambit, but it isn’t. It’s my attempt at transparency, and it’s important. If all I know about a story is a two-paragraph blurb I read in China Daily, then it’s not right for me to suggest that I have additional knowledge. (By the way, after I wrote that McDonald’s post, additional information did, in fact, come out.)

If Mike Daisey had taken that route, then some, although not all, would be forgiven. Some sort of disclaimer about dramatic license along with the one-man show, and subsequent interviews, would have been appropriate. Daisey’s “belated asterisk” on this sordid mess would have worked pretty well if it had been made up front:

My show is a theatrical piece whose goal is to create a human connection between our gorgeous devices and the brutal circumstances from which they emerge. It uses a combination of fact, memoir, and dramatic license to tell its story, and I believe it does so with integrity.

But of course, that didn’t happen. As it turned out, Daisey made some statements to the press about the veracity of the incidents portrayed in his show. Although I’m not sure I would characterize his show as containing “lies,” his statements that everything was true, well, that was false. He also lied to NPR and made it more difficult for them to reach out to his Chinese interpreter. As usual, the cover-up (or PR campaign) was the more egregious error.

Even with such a disclaimer, though, I still have a problem with what Daisey did, and it was something that was obvious from the beginning. What Daisey has done, what many journalists do (hell, what I do all the time – mea culpa), is take a few incidents and suggest that they are indicative of a general trend or, in this case, widespread corporate practices. Perhaps Daisey did meet a couple of underage workers at Foxconn. Does this mean that Apple is employing a lot of kids, and if so, do they know about it? All those big headlines with “Child Labor” don’t really make those distinctions.

Why is this important? Because a lot of this is inherently misleading, even before we get to the issue of fabrications. Daisey’s show received a great deal of attention, sparking boycotts and demonstrations against Apple. Would this have happened if Daisey’s show contained a disclaimer about dramatic license? I have no idea, although I have a feeling that distinction might have been lost on some journalists. This is powerful stuff that plays into existing narratives. As Adam Minter noted, this was successful because it contained a simple message and used emotion to get the point across.

If you’re looking for the essential reading on this:

Transcript of Mike Daisey’s show (PDF) (h/t Ars Technica)

Marketplace: An acclaimed Apple critic made up the details (contains link to radio piece)

The Guardian: Mike Daisey’s betrayal of This American Life’s truth – and my trust

NPR: ‘This American Life’ Retracts Mike Daisey’s Apple Factory Story

This American Life: RETRACTING “MR. DAISEY AND THE APPLE FACTORY”

China Digital Times: This American Life Retracts Episode on Foxconn Abuses (contains additional links)

New York Times: ‘This American Life’ Retracts Episode on Apple’s Suppliers in China