“Inspired by true events”
These four words should precede Mike Daisey’s critically acclaimed stage play, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs”. Instead the events presented in this monologue, detailing Mike Daisey’s 2010 trip to Foxconn and other factories that manufacture Apple products, are presented as the truth, or at least they were when a portion of this stage play was excerpted on This American Life.
Last Friday, This American Life host and producer Ira Glass issued a press release stating they were retracting their January show, which had featured a 39 minute excerpt of Daisey’s stage play, because it “contained significant fabrications … we can’t vouch for its truth.” The story of this retraction was featured on last weekend’s TAL episode, which you can listen to here.
The fabrications consist of exaggerations regarding the amount of workers interviewed and factories visited, as well as meetings with workers that never took place. Two significant examples of this were meetings with workers who had been exposed to n-hexane, a neuro-toxin that was used in the cleaning of some iPhone screens, and with a worker with crippled hands seeing an iPad for the first time. In the case of the n-hexane exposure, Daisey admits he inserted this detail from a story that happened in a different factory 1000 miles away and that he never met workers who were exposed to n-hexane. In the case of the crippled worker, Daisey’s translator, whose name Daisey lied about, disputes his account of events saying this incident, which is one of the most emotional moments of the stage play and the TAL show. never happened.
“My mistake, the mistake I truly regret, is that I had it on your show as journalism, and it’s not journalism. It’s theater.” Daisey responded to questions from Ira Glass and Marketplace reporter Rob Schmitz, who first broke the story. Daisey later went on to say that he stands by the work as a piece of theater.
This gets into the troubling part of this story. What Daisey says about many of the conditions at Apple factories is true. Where he lied is his own experiences, the ones he talks about in his monologue. The monologue is a work of fiction, strung together from real things that have happened, just not to him, and not all in the same area. It is a simple narrative designed to tug at the heart strings, which I can attest it is very effective at doing.
I understand this idea of trying to tell a truth in a fictional way, because when I first heard these stories I was inspired to do much the same thing. The result, my short story “Competitive Edge“. There’s a proud tradition in science fiction of talking about societal problems in a fictional context, from Orwell to Heinlein to Star Trek. TAL itself has used fictional stories to highlight ideas about every facet of life, from love to job loss to rejection. In this case, however, Daisey’s story has a more documentary feel, and is presented if not “as” then certainly “like” journalism.
There’s a marked contrast between the way Daisey talks about this mistake and the way Ira Glass talks about it. When confronted with the fact that he had lied about the n-hexane workers Daisey’s response is “I wouldn’t express it that way.” In contrast Ira clearly calls the decision to run the story “a mistake” and is very clear about the fact that while Daisey had lied, it was ultimately TAL’s responsibility in not killing the story. Rob Schmitz describes talking to Daisey as “exhausting” and listening to the interview I would agree. I kept wanting Daisey to admit that he had lied openly, to “man up”. Instead he kept coming back to this idea that the cause and the “truth” of the problems was more important and that he wanted to construct this show to get people’s attention on this issue.
Again, I sympathize. I’m trying to do the same thing with the stories and blog posts I write about this issue. But I can’t help but think that Daisey’s approach lacked rigor. On TAL he exaggerated the number of factories he visited and workers he talked to, perhaps in an attempt to make it sound like he had been more thorough than he really had been. I’m not a giant fan of Michael Moore’s, but I was contrasting Daisey’s story to Moore’s first documentary Roger & Me. As with all documentaries there is definitely a narrative being told, but the amount of “boots on the ground” work that Moore did is astronomical when compared to Daisey. If Daisey had really wanted to construct a stage show based on the truth he should have spent several months in Shenzhen not several days, and let the truth speak for itself.
Daisey was not how I first heard about this issue. It was Jon Stewart, and I find it kind of amusing that Stewart’s story had more journalistic integrity than one presented on TAL, both shows I love. When Stewart is at his best he is telling the truth, and it’s the truth itself that is funny, or his reaction to it. The conditions at these factories are appalling, and are not in need of embellishment.
Tomorrow I’ll talk more about the second half of the TAL program, regarding what is true, and how we should feel about it.