Reporter's Notebook: Mike Daisey Lied to Me Waaay Before Ira Glass

Yep -- it was right over at the Berkeley Rep. Ira, you got lied to late my friend.

The story was updated to include an excerpt from Berkeley Rep's response.

You might have heard that monologist s on This American Life, which compelled Glass to spend an entire show issuing a retraction. But it’s also sparked an interesting conversation about journalism, storytelling and the blurring line between the two.

I previously produced a bi-weekly tech segment that aired on the NPR-affiliate in LA. We had Mike Daisey on our radio show nearly a year before This American Life (bragging rights!). We met up with Daisey at the Berkeley Rep where he was preforming his one-man-show calling attention to the horrendous conditions under which Apple products are made at the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen, China.

I heard about the news of Daisey’s giant fib first thing on the morning that the news broke. It was in an email from my former boss who had CCed nearly everyone in the universe (or so it seemed to me) saying that we too needed to issue a retraction.

 My heart started beating wildly.

But I went back and listened to the show and lucky for us, we’d been careful to call Daisey storyteller and monologist, rather than journalist, and to put an opposing argument next to his. And lucky for the show’s co-producer Queena Kim (whose more serious work can be seen ) she thought the whole thing was hogwash to begin with.

But it’s interesting to note that Daisey’s account of life at Foxconn in Shenzhen isn’t hogwash. Daisey did get a tour of Foxconn, as he said he did, and he did speak to Apple workers in China, as he said he did. But those workers he spoke to weren't at Foxconn. In other words he combined the two (speaking with Apple workers and touring the Foxconn factory). In short, he played loose with the facts.

What’s even more interesting is how theaters are reacting. The Wooly Mammoth Theatre came out strong, boldly throwing Daisey under the bus with a call to "boycott his work,” according to the Washington Post, only to then issue a retraction of their retraction when their fans became irate. 

Berkeley Rep, perhaps learning from Whoolly Mammoth's PR headache, appears to be playing it safe. They told the Bay Citizen:

     Mike could have been more clear with us about how he shaped his story. [...]      Yet the essential      argument remains and we should not be distracted
     from the conversation about social injustices that support our daily lives.

I’ve been curious to ask them a few questions myself, but so far they haven’t returned my calls or emails.

Meanwhile Daisey stands by his work. Daisey said in his blog:

        My show is a theatrical piece whose goal is to create a human connection
        between our gorgeous devices and the brutal circumstances from which            they emerge. It       uses a combination of fact, memoir, and dramatic
       license to tell its story [...] What I do is not journalism.

It’s true Daisey isn’t a journalist. And it’s true that his lies were, in essence, the truth. But if someone asks you point blank, as Ira Glass did, whether you met people standing outside the Gates of Foxconn, and you say that you talked to “about 100 workers” standing “outside the gates” of Foxconn, when you didn’t. It makes you a huge conman if nothing else.

But is successfully conning people part of the job description of a performer? Some might call it the essential element of any work of fiction: the suspension of disbelief. Well one thing we can safely say is that when performance and journalism mix, it makes for an interesting cocktail.

**An Excerpt from Berkeley Rep's response:

We are extraordinarily proud that our recent production of The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs helped raise consciousness about Apple's labor practices in China and the conditions under which many familiar products are manufactured. These conditions are not in question – and, as a result of recent scrutiny, meaningful reforms have been made. Mike Daisey's show is a passionate and persuasive story about how our everyday actions affect people on the other side of the globe.

Having said that, we are dismayed to learn that some of the incidents he presented as personal experiences were instead fabrications or composites of other people's reports. If we had known this, we would not have allowed Mike to bill the show as nonfiction; we would instead have worked with him to reconstruct the story and properly contextualize it for our audience.

We are saddened and disappointed by this entire situation, particularly as we continue to believe that Mike tells a damn good story and what he was trying to accomplish is important. Many sources confirm the harsh conditions faced by Chinese workers who produce goods for American consumers. It would be a pity if this incident distracted us from the larger conversation about social injustices that support our daily lives.


whereismikeyfl March 24, 2012 at 03:03 AM
You seem to have the opinion that the word "former" means "current. My opinion is that it means "no longer working for" which is why I do not believe that a "former" employee can be said to speak for an institution. We obviously have a different opinion of the word's definition--and all opinions are valid. Since you were writing a first person opinion piece, the facts obviously do not matter. If you had the opinion that Queen Elizabeth is an ax murderer, obviously you would be able to say it in an opinion piece, as long as you used the first person. One of the difficulties we face here and in Daisey's performance is that in the modern age the playing field is so level that as an audience we take what anyone says as valid--so even non-journalists on stage or in a blog can make whatever assertion they want and it has as much credibility to its audience as assertions of responsible journalists. Why does this irk me so much? I guess it is because I think truth matters. We have all been wrong, and the best writers admit when they have made mistakes. The worst (as we see in both cases) try to justify themselves till they make logic into pretzels. Some people love themselves more than the truth, which is sad.
Tanya Jo Miller March 24, 2012 at 05:50 AM
Hi Catherine, welcome. It's interesting to go back to the original article written by Rob Schmitz from Markekplace, who's currently reporting from China. Rob realized Daisey wasn't quite on the up and up because the hexane gas Daisey talked about didn't exist at Shenzhen. (though it does exist at Apple plants elsewhere) It was that one small fact…no hexane at Shenzhen…that unraveled the whole story. Rob got in touch with the translator (highly featured in Daisey’s one-man-show, though Daisey told Glass she “couldn’t be reached” because of an incorrect cell numer) So Rob tracked down the translator and relayed Daisey’s account…and one after another the translator said…no, that never happened…no, we never spoke to anyone like that. Interestingly enough, Queena Kim, the co-producer on my show, didn’t want to include the hexane bits in the show, for the very reason that it couldn’t be verified. I did want to, thinking, if this is what’s happening in the name of our products, people should know. In the end, Queena was right, the hexane gas could NOT be verified. I was also right, the nerve damage from the hexane gas at Apple plants is well documented. While, technically, Mike Daisey fabricated talking to anyone who’d suffered ill effects (nerve damage) from working with hexane gas, apparently they’re common with Apple workers in China. This is what makes this case so especially interesting is…what’s true is false and what’s false is true.
Lou Judson March 25, 2012 at 02:26 PM
... and guess which person had no heart! They installed one in Cheney yesterday. Maybe now he can go to Canada... and stay there to stand trial!
Lou Judson March 25, 2012 at 02:35 PM
On a slightly different slant, I never have perceived This American Life as "Journalism" - to me the arrgoant slant the Glass puts in his every utterance (my opinion!) puts it firmly in the realm of personal ego-theater, and no factual material needs such over-the-top abuse of music in a radio program. TAL has always made me turn the radio off, so I was spared the whole drama about Daisey's fictional solo theater piece. Maybe I just don't like it, but how could anyone ever think he ever tells the truth as a newsperson would? It is fantasy... as far as I am concerned.
Amaana March 26, 2012 at 11:16 AM
Tanya and Queena are doing a great job by bringing out these finer points in trying to get to the ultimate truth on this piece. This is the kind of journalism that is lacking in the much more important issues such as war on foreign nations, reported only by "embedded" journalists, and the whole Occupy movement where troublemakers are embedded in the peaceful protests, and then their message is hijacked and what is reported upon is the ruckus caused rather than why these protestors are gathering in the first place all over America! We need more from these kinds of journalists who haven't been tainted by power and stripped of their objectivity and diligence by their "employers."


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