Mike Daisey defends his mash-up reporting technique
MIKE Daisey wrote and performed the hit monologue The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. The show is about his visit to the Foxconn factory that makes Apple products in Shenzhen, China. Only, Mike Daisey made up big bits of it. He fabricated to make his point. Mike Daisey wanted to entertain.
It was broadcast over This American Life. That firm’s Ira Glass tells it:
“Daisey lied to me and to This American Life producer Brian Reed during the fact checking we did on the story, before it was broadcast. That doesn’t excuse the fact that we never should’ve put this on the air. In the end, this was our mistake.”
American Life says:
As best as we can tell, Mike’s monologue in reality is a mix of things that actually happened when he visited China and things that he just heard about or researched, which he then pretends that he witnessed first hand. He pretends that he just stumbled upon an array of workers who typify all kinds of harsh things somebody might face in a factory that makes iPhones and iPads. And the most powerful and memorable moments in the story all seem to be fabricated.
We meet Cathy. She’s the Chinese interpreter, Mike Daisey hired:
Mike Daisey: There’s a group that’s talking about hexane. N-hexane is an iPhone screen cleaner. It’s great because it evaporates a little bit faster than alcohol does, which means you can run the production line even faster and try to keep up with the quotas. The problem is that n-hexane is a potent neurotoxin, and all these people have been exposed. Their hands shake uncontrollably. Most of them…can’t even pick up a glass.
Rob Schmitz (for American Life): ..shake uncontrollably. Some of them can’t even pick up a glass. Did you meet people who fit this description?
Cathy Lee: No.
Rob Schmitz: So there was nobody who said they were poisoned by hexane?
Cathy Lee: No. Nobody mentioned the Hexane.
Rob Schmitz: Ok. And nobody had hands that were shaking uncontrollably?
Cathy Lee: No.
So where did this come from? Two years ago, workers at an Apple supplier were poisoned by n-Hexane. It was all over the news in China. But this didn’t happen in Shenzhen. It happened nearly a thousand miles away, in a city called Suzho.
Oskar Eustis, the director of the Public Theater in New York, told Entertainment Weekly that “Mike is a great storyteller, not a journalist. I wish he had been clearer about that distinction in the making of this piece.”
NPR reprots Daisey saying: “The mistake that I truly regret is that I had it on your show as journalism and it’s not journalism. It’s theater.”
He allowed excerpts of his show to be used as a factual report on a news-radio program and vouched for the authenticity of his monologue during interviews with news outlets.
In the last forty-eight hours I have been equated with Stephen Glass, James Frey, and Greg Mortenson. Given the tenor of the condemnation, you would think I had concocted an elaborate, fanciful universe filled with furnaces in which babies are burned to make iPhone components, or that I never went to China, never stood outside the gates of Foxconn, never pretended to be a businessman to get inside of factories, never spoke to any workers.
Especially galling is how many are gleefully eager to dance on my grave expressly so they can return to ignoring everything about the circumstances under which their devices are made. Given the tone, you would think I had fabulated an elaborate hoax, filled with astonishing horrors that no one had ever seen before. Except that we all know that isn’t true.
If you say it is true and it isn’t ,are you a liar or an entertainer? Surely it depends on whether or not you were entertained by Daisey’s story? As we said:
The object of the exercise is to bring to vivid life an encounter of usually short duration. The good writer-interviewer, as the ruthless, opportunist carnivore he or she must be, will be alert for signs of weakness in the subject, ie for signs of entertainment material that makes a mockery of the PR or of the book/film/whatever that whorishly accounts for the interview in the first place.
Readers are not interested in ideas or lectures, not even godless ones.
Has Mike Daisey damaged his career? Absolutely not. He has already done the essential thing and made a name for himself. Once you’re a name, it is very hard to self-immolate, professionally. What may look like public scorn and contempt now is nothing more than glamour-enhancement without sequins. Readers just love a name, and harmless notoriety goes down well with editor-scrotes desperate for promotional material (eg names).
Mike Daisey has hit the big time…