The Sad and Infuriating Mike Daisey Case

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So many excellent things have been written about Mike Daisey's made-up reports while I have been hors d'Internet that my task now is easier and harder. Easier: just alluding to others who have made points I don't need to. Harder: refining what else there is so say.

On the "excellent" side: the PDF of This American Life's "retraction" show is absolutely riveting, even without hearing the real voices involved. I have intentionally not yet listened to the show, so as to judge from the words themselves. On that basis, it appears to me that Daisey has destroyed himself. (His "I stand by my work" statement on his site will not help him, in my view. The site is also the source of this photo of him.) I agree with Felix Salmon about the temptations and wrongness of "fabulous journalism." Credit again goes to Marketplace's Rob Schmitz for actually doing something about the unease many people with China experience, including me, felt when first hearing Daisey's monologue. Evan Osnos, of the New Yorker, gives the same list I would have given of the "tells" in what Daisey said:

Several places in the narrative sounded fishy to anyone who has spent much time here: 1) the gun-toting guards (maybe, but not at the factories I've seen; in China, guns usually belong to soldiers or armored-car drivers); 2) driving down a highway exit that ended with rebar jutting out into thin air (local taxi drivers usually know which exits aren't finished); 3) meeting workers who said they were twelve and thirteen years old (even if they were underage, they were probably too smart to blab about it in front of the gun-toting guards); [JF note: yes, this one especially] 4) workers who were such innocents that they'd never considered what they would change about the factories until Daisey asked them (where do I start?); and, perhaps most of all, 5) his description of going to the factory gates and talking to workers as a radical innovation in journalism. When he told journalists in Hong Kong about his plan, he said in his piece, they replied: "That's not really how we usually do things in China."

That was a howler. Going to the factory gates is exactly what reporters do in China.

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Here is a picture I took at one of the Foxconn gates in Shenzhen when I made my own "this is what reporters do" trip there in 2007. Notice the guns the guards are carrying? Oh, wait, they're not carrying any.

When I heard Daisey's Shenzhen riff on C-Span late last year, I wrote to a longtime friend who is also a friend and supporter of Daisey's and had been trying to get us together. I said: This doesn't sound right. I also said that I was bleakly amused by Daisey's presenting the far-off exotic territory of "Shenzhen, China" as some super-secretive realm that he alone had thought to unveil. I pointed out that I had done a gigantic cover story and on-line slide show about this unknown land back in 2007, plus later in a book and a video series; that the Wall Street Journal had done hundreds of stories with Shenzhen datelines before and since; that there had been countless books, picture shows, news features, etc, about the Shenzhen phenomenon; that "Foxconn" was hardly an unknown enterprise; etc.

What I didn't do was push the point any further. Evan Osnos very well explains one reason why many reporters (other than Schmitz) failed to do so: the suspicion that in a place as big, chaotic, contradictory, and surprising as today's China, Daisey could indeed have come across circumstances others had not discovered, or had stopped noticing. I also made a perhaps-craven "life is too short" calculation: I would spend my time trying to explain the China story the way I could, rather than devoting the time to picking apart an account I thought was wrong.

And, finally -- like Osnos, like Schmitz, like everyone else who has seen Chinese factories -- I knew that the main point of Daisey's monologue, that they were dirty and harsh and could be dangerous, was true and worth highlighting. Even if the way he made that point was exaggerated and fictitious and ultimately self-defeating.

What is left to say now? I'll suggest this:

1) Daisey's downfall is the sadder and more infuriating because it was so completely unnecessary and avoidable. If he had even once said that he was presenting a polemic, a metaphor, a dramatization, an "inspired by real events" monologue rather than real "facts," no one could ever have complained. Do we care whether Harriet Beecher Stowe ever saw runaway slaves jumping on ice floes as they fled across a river? (Stowe described Uncle Tom's Cabin as a "series of sketches" conveying the cruelty of slavery.) Do we care whether Upton Sinclair had actually seen the packinghouse cruelties he described in The Jungle?  Whether any family exactly like the Joads was known to John Steinbeck -- or exactly like George Bailey's or Mr. Potter to Frank Capra for It's a Wonderful Life? Charles Dickens and Oliver Twist? You get the point. Mike Daisey could have had 98% of the intellectual/social impact of his monologue, and zero % of the dishonesty and now disgrace, if he had described it as an attempt to convey the truth of a situation through imagined details.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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