The Sad and Infuriating Mike Daisey Case


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.

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.

2) Daisey's lying will hurt the Western press and international worker-rights groups.  When they get all huffy, Chinese nationalists love to present the Western press as being irremediably biased against Chinese achievements and ambitions, and willing to pass along the most outrageous slanders about China without checking them for accuracy or even plausibility. A site called Anti-CNN is a well-known outlet for such views. This is a constant nuisance when you try to write critical assessments. Worse, it gives ammo to those inside China who want to pooh-pooh complaints about safety, pollution, working conditions, and so on. Daisey is everything they warned against, come to life.

3) The Apple obsession is weirdly narcissistic. For Americans, the conditions in Apple supply-chain factories are vivid and symbolic, because of the amazing human connection they create. Today I open a box containing an elegant new Steve Jobs-inspired, Jony Ive-designed iPad or other icon. A week ago, who knows what hellish conditions were giving birth to this very machine? Dramatic connections like that are important -- and the leverage they create, across borders of nation and language and class, can make a difference. Orville Schell has explained how Wal-Mart has become an important force for environmental improvement in China. International firms like Apple can and should become a force for workplace and environmental improvement in China -- showing the way, as Wal-Mart is, for domestic Chinese firms. Of course, it's not just "firms like Apple" that should do this. Especially Apple should, given its prestige and iconography. (Just as "especially Google" had an obligation to stand up to Chinese censorship.) Steve Jobs was renowned for emphasizing "purity" of design. That concept should spread to his supply chain as well.

But Apple is not the main worker-safety problem in China. Nor even Foxconn. Not even close.  Internationally owned factories are at the better end of the Chinese spectrum in wages, working conditions, safety, and (usually) environmental policies. Foxconn's wages are higher, and its accident rate is lower, than for Chinese-based factories as a whole -- and Chinese manufacturing overall is much safer than the Chinese mining or metals industries. (Back in 2007, I saw an item in a Chinese paper saying that 32 metal workers had been horrifically boiled to death, when a giant ladle full of molten steel slipped off its hoist and spilled onto them. The episode got almost no international attention.) Pressure on the Apple supply chain is sensible and valuable if it always presented as a lever for raising Chinese safety and environmental standards generally -- and as an ever-ascending standard that the rest of them should meet.

4) Go read that This American Life transcript again. It is superb in its unraveling of Daisey's inventions; in its exploration and explanation of "real" journalistic values and the difference between fact and metaphor; and in its ending with a re-introduction of the real problems of workplace safety in China. It is full of passages like this, between Daisey and Ira Glass, after Glass has pointed out that some of Daisey's monologue flat isn't true:

Mike Daisey: Yeah. We have different worldviews on some of these things. I agree with you truth is really important.
Ira Glass: I know but I feel like I have the normal worldview. The normal worldview is somebody stands on stage and says 'this happened to me,' I think it happened to them, unless it's clearly labeled as 'here's a work of fiction.'

"I feel like I have the normal worldview" is a line that will live, or deserves to.

Several readers have just sent in interesting observations about Daisey, journalism, and "truth" -- including some more sympathetic to Daisey. This is too long already, so I will save those for tomorrow.