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.


Paul D March 22, 2012 at 01:41 PM
Tell me no lies... "there are wmd's in Iraq" Dick Cheney Result: minimum..hundreds of thousands of dead people. "there are horrendous labor practices in Apples factories in China" Mike Daisey Result: probably fewer dead people than before, slightly better conditions. Guess which one was ultimately correct. Guess which one got crucified for 'lying'.
whereismikeyfl March 22, 2012 at 02:01 PM
Speaking about playing fast-and-loose with the truth! Woolly Mammoth NEVER threw Daisey under the bus as stated here. In fact, the link given says just the opposite. Their former PR person asked for a boycott and the theater stood by Daisey. Maybe this error is a genuine misreading, but it (along with the misspelling of the theater's name), seem to be part of the same casualness with the facts that made it possible for Daisey to get so far with his fabrications. Just like this writer, who did not take the time to read her source article carefully enough to understand it, others did not take the time to do even a minimal check, others probably said, this is just an opinion piece or this is just an interview or this is just for the entertainment pages--why actually push further? While a honest mistake is different from a deliberate fabrication, they both come from the same type of thinking--I need to get this in, I need to post it, I need to get this show up, I need to get my piece online--so that factual details seem to be unavoidable collateral damage.
Jeff Nelson March 22, 2012 at 03:12 PM
Okay, I'm not defending Daisey. I think he's a tool. But it is hilarious to see an account of this story that brags about journalistic integrity and skepticism and then incorporates a fresh pile of errors into the mix. Very meta. Your item actually serves to make me more sympathetic to Mike Daisey, but only because I've been paying attention to this story through other outlets. You did not listen to his show or his recent apology at Georgetown very closely. You can't spell "Woolly" correctly. I'm pretty sure you didn't manage to read the Washington Post item accurately. (I could be wrong, but -- ) I don't believe that Daisey said he got a tour of Foxconn. In his Georgetown talk, he says that he always had to correct reporters on this point. He toured other facilities -- and for whatever reason, he did not incorporate a tour of Foxconn under his 'dramatic license' or whatever he's calling it. One thing I find annoying about Daisey is that he rags on journalists for not doing their job. Nobody could report and re-create the story that he, um, made up. But I see where he's coming from.
Tanya Jo Miller March 22, 2012 at 04:14 PM
Howdy, thanks for the Wooly fix and your comments. I do still think, in my humble opinion, that they threw Daisey under the bus -- initially -- and it was only after the fans became irate...demanding refunds for tickets, etc...that they changed their course of action. But naturally there are many different reads on the situation. I do agree with Paul D that ultimately Daisey got the word out about the conditions in Shenzhen and that’s a good thing, even if he could have been more transparent about what took place in his trip to Foxconn.
JNelz March 22, 2012 at 06:32 PM
Daisey has posted the audio of his Georgetown talk to his website. It is an interesting listen because he describes the process of how he ended up painting himself into the corner he finds himself in. As he describes it, it started with innocent and minor-seeming reportorial goofs that he didn't bother to correct. As it happens he used, as an example, one of the same errors made again in this 'reporter's notebook' item. So, the article here actually serves to support his account of how he contributed to his own downfall. Do you correct every minor goof, or do you keep the focus on the bigger picture? Well, we all know how Daisey played it. I don't find it excusable on Daisey's part, but it is amusing, in a dark way, to see news items that unintentionally demonstrate his side of the story.
Queena Kim March 22, 2012 at 06:51 PM
Hey Jeff - I can't resist getting in the fray! RE: "In his Georgetown talk, he says that he always had to correct reporters on this point." If you saw the show, a large part of it was dedicated to his tour of FoxConn. When I interviewed Daisey with Tanya, I remember pushing him for more details about his FoxConn visit because his answers were broad, generic and sorta wonky. But no matter how much I pushed, Daisey NEVER said: oh actually, the show was an amalgam of everything I've read and other things I've seen. Perhaps Daisey believed he was telepathing that he didn't see FoxConn with his vague answers? What's so fascinating is that Daisey continues to debate the minutiae when I think TV and radio interviews make clear he did lie on certain points. A better tact would be making the debate more meta or about non-fiction storyteller vs. journalist. Journalism is a craft with very specific rules, which layman couldn't be expected to know. I've worked closely with citizen journalists who quote people as if they witnessed it said when in fact they'd read that the person said it. The facts were often correct and served the drama of the story but it broke the rules of journalism. A great storyteller's first duty is to entertain and create drama, which is what Daisey did. However, a journalist's duty is to report the facts as they SEE them. Sometimes that makes for great storytelling but often, it's boring because sticking with the facts often is.
Queena Kim March 22, 2012 at 07:55 PM
Oh by the way, I'm just going off what you said, in terms of Daisey not visiting FoxConn - I actually think he did visit it and that's not in dispute but I have to check my facts, haha!
whereismikeyfl March 23, 2012 at 01:34 PM
It may be your OPINION that Woolly Mammoth threw Daisey under the bus. But you state it as fact, with NOTHING TO BACK IT UP. All of Woolly's public statements supported Daisey. You actually claim that Woolly Mammoth called for a boycott--which is completely untrue! Maybe in private conversation the leaders of the theater discussed this. But "calling for a boycott" means that the theater made a public statement. That is simply not true. Even your link contradicts your assertions. You speak as if this was some grey area, some ambiguous action open for interpretation. But again, where is the ambiguity? There is none. I think you just got confused and thought that the words of a former employee speaks for the institution. And digging in your heels (and finding a new way to misspell the theater's name) seem to oddly mirror the process Daisey describes where he made one exaggeration in an interview and then incorporated it into the play rather than admitting to his wife that he made a mistake (or lied). You are probably going to claim that Woolly Mammoth called for a boycott (with absolutely no evidence), and unfortunately some people will take your word.
Tanya Jo Miller March 23, 2012 at 04:59 PM
Hey whereismikeyfl, Thanks for the comment. You’re right the piece is entirely my opinion -- which is why it's called reporter's notebook and written in the first person. I wrote it as an opinion piece, partly, because I know this is a complicated issue and reasonable minds will and should disagree. I respect and in fact agree with many of the statements here, though in some cases I simply see it slightly differently. But below is the part of the article that makes me feel Woolly Mammoth went one direction (as you’ll see the “former communications director called for a boycott”) before ultimately deciding to go another, after their customers got anger (demanding refunds on tickets, etc.). I feel it was good business sense on their part to reverse the decision to boycott Daisey since their customers felt so strongly against it. My broader point isn’t that it was good or bad, but more that it’s just an interesting place theaters now find themselves in. But again, there are many reads on this and as you said, it’s simply my opinion. Looks like this exceeds the limit for comments, so I'll have to post the excerpt from Post piece in a separate comment...
Tanya Jo Miller March 23, 2012 at 05:01 PM
From the Post article: Glass added that Daisey “lied to me” during the fact-checking process for the segment and as a result, a “mistake” was made in ever airing it. Shalwitz, however, came to a different conclusion, not concerning whether Daisey had made errors in judgment, but in how as an institution Woolly should respond. … [T]he company’s former communications director called for a boycott of Daisey’s work, subscribers and others took to Woolly’s Web site to vent and irate theatergoers went so far as to demand refunds for their summer tickets, Woolly’s leadership decided to stick by Daisey and continue with plans for the return engagement of “Agony and Ecstasy
Catherine (Kate) Rauch March 24, 2012 at 01:43 AM
Interesting discussion you've got going Tanya. It makes me think a bit of the Koney 2012 business, in terms of getting messages out in ways that aren't journalism, at least not with the ethical safeguards of standard journalism (impt. in my view), but with passion, conviction, story and truth, adapted for the messenger. Education happens, for sure. But there's potential for disaster, too, of course, with loose-flying facts. Both of these cases seem to have more truth going for them than not. But what if the next time. . . . .
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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