the agony and the ecstasy of mike daisey

"Never let the facts get in the way of a good story."
--Nucky Thompson*

I listened to This American Life's "Retraction" episode yesterday, and it was truly painful.

If you really care about the working conditions of factory workers in China (and I will be the first to admit that this falls pretty low on my personal hierarchy of outrage), you should be furious with Mike Daisey. Because to the extent that the kinds of things he talks about might be happening in China, he's made it very easy for everyone from Chinese nationalists to American importers to simply point to the heaping pile of bullshit that is The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs and say, "hey, it's not really that bad."  Even the most hard-nosed, fact-based journalism on the subject--especially if it's done by someone from the west--is going to have to deal with the taint of this thing for a long time.

The tragedy here is that there is a long literary tradition--from Oliver Twist, to Uncle Tom's Cabin, to The Jungle, and beyond--of using fictionalized accounts of very real social problems to make the general public aware of what is happening. Daisey's play could have been performed exactly as it was written if it had simply been presented as such a fictionalization, and it very likely would have had the same impact**.

Even when you don't claim the mantle of "journalist", there is tremendous danger in putting yourself at the center of a story that you present as "true". It takes balls (or, if you prefer, ovaries) to be unflinchingly honest about yourself: about when you fail, when you lack courage, or (perhaps especially) when you are just plain boring. I suspect this is where Daisey fell. I suspect that his trip to China wasn't really all that interesting, though he probably heard some compelling stories while he was there. I suspect that there is probably a lot of truth in the story he told, even though the facts seem to be largely fabrications.

I have to hand it to Ira Glass and the rest of the TAL staff: they screwed the pooch on this one, but they've owned up to it as best as I think anyone can be expected to. We could all stand to own our mistakes like that.

*Naturally, this quote has been attributed to everyone from Mark Twain to the first editor of a thousand newspaper columnists. And of course, Nucky Thompson wasn't real, either, though Nucky Johnson was. Probably. 

**Erica Grieder makes a very strong counterpoint to this:
Some have suggested that Mr Daisey could have had a similar emotional impact, without all the controversy, if he had simply clarified that his work was largely fiction and merely inspired by real events. The problem is that Mr Daisey's monologue is only partly a critique of working conditions in Chinese factories. It's also an indictment of Western complacency in the face of the same—complacency on the part of the consumers and on the part of actual journalists. That being the case, Mr Daisey's description of his "reporting" techniques matters. We know that most of the things he describes happening at the Foxconn factory actually have happened, if not at the factory in question. We know that because journalists have reported them as they occurred. But Mr Daisey is suggesting that all of this is happening at once, at the same high-profile site, and that anyone could have strolled up and seen for themselves...

Mr Daisey is also making an argument about the failings of the observers, and his lies about how he came to document all these things aren't a dramatic device—they're the linchpin for that argument. [em. added] That is, one of the failures he wants to condemn is the failure of the media. But in order to make the case that the media is actually failing, he needed to support the counterfactual that they could be doing so much better. And he couldn't actually prove that, so he just lied about it.


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