Lessons from the 'This American Life' Daisey Debacle

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After hearing what Mike Daisey had to say for himself on this weekend's retraction episode of This American Life, the Internet has had a moment to step back and think about what it all means for Foxconn, Apple, journalism and the cause of worker's rights.

On Friday, This American Life host Ira Glass announced the retraction of Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory, explaining that parts of Daisey's influential monologue about Foxconn were not true. The episode aired over the weekend, including a reported response story from Marketplace's Rob Schmitz a painful interview-cum-cross examination between Glass and Daisey and a follow up interview with The New York Times's Charles Duhigg, who co-wrote the two Times exposés earlier in January, about Apple subcontractors' working conditions in China. Considering the resonance of the original story, which was This American Life's most downloaded broadcast ever, the retraction has had an equal and opposite reaction. 

What it means for journalism. Journalism is about finding and reporting the truth. Mike Daisey lied. Though Daisey defends his position as a monologist, he presented his story as truths to Glass and This American Life's audience. But, Daisey still told an important story. "Is it O.K. to lie on the way to telling a greater truth?" asks The New York Times' David Carr. He comes up with a simple answer: "No."

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But even worse than his lying, Daisey's whole ordeal suggests that great news stories require these types of fabulous fabrications. "I’m more concerned about the suggestion that you have to cheat to come up with remarkable journalism that tilts the rink," continues Carr. "It’s a lot easier to tell a great story if you don’t also need to be factual about things," adds Reuters' Felix Salmon. Of course, the Times David Barboza and Charles Duhigg with their reporting have proven that the truth can have an impact, but Daisey's monologue connected with listeners in a way that few stories do, explains Salon's Mark Oppenheimer. "It is exceedingly difficult to get most of us to care about anything that’s happening “over there” in faraway places where people look different from us and speak different languages," he said. Unfortunately, he did that by lying.

Even if Daisey doesn't consider himself a journalist, the whole thing makes us, the American press, look bad. "Daisey's lying will hurt the Western press and international worker-rights groups," explains The Atlantic's James Fallows. "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," he writes pointing to a well known site Anti-CNN. It makes us look bad in America, too.

What it means for Mike Daisey. If Daisey had just said that he based his story on truths, rather than detailed exact truths, this whole thing would have never happened, explain both Salmon and Fallows. Looking back, his story couldn't have possibly been true. "One of the central problems with narrative nonfiction is that the best narratives aren’t messy and complicated, while nonfiction nearly always is," writes Salmon. Yet, the fact-checking process didn't out him, for which infamous fabulist Jayson Blair does not fault the system. "All the good editing, fact-checking and plagiarism-detection software in the world is not going to change the fact that anyone is, under the right circumstances, capable of anything and that journalism is essentially built on trust," he told Carr over e-mail. No, Daisey should have taken the responsibility himself, either embracing his "hybrid art-form," as Oppenheimer calls it, or not engaging at all. 

What it means for Foxconn. The saddest part of it all, is that Daisey's fabrications have undermined the entire cause. "By lying, Daisey undermined the cause he purported to advance. That’s the real scandal," wrote The Atlantic's Max Fisher. Being on the side of a good cause does not excuse Daisey's actions. And luckily for the cause of workers' rights, there are other reporters dedicated to the truth out there. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.