Mike Daisey Says His Show Is “True” Even If It’s Not True

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The episode and transcript of the This American Life episode retracting Mike Daisey’s piece about Apple and Foxconn are now live. If this is an issue you care about, you should listen to the whole thing.

As host Ira Glass announced yesterday, the show found “significant fabrications” in the story, to the point where “we can’t vouch for its truth.” For example, Daisey admits that he never met a worker who had been poisoned by n-hexane, as he claimed in the episode (which was a version of his one-man show “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.”) Many other aspects of Daisey’s account, like his meeting with allegedly underage Foxconn workers, were also disputed by his translator, although Daisey still says that they happened.  In a blog post, Daisey says he stands by his work, but he regrets allowing TAL to excerpt the show because it’s “not journalism.”

One of the most amazing things about the episode was the fact that Mike Daisey is, in fact, an eloquent critic of Mike Daisey. At one point, Marketplace’s Rob Schmitz (who tracked down Daisey’s translator) asks, “Does it matter if the things you’ve said in this play are untrue?” Daisey replies:

Yeah I think the truth always matters, truth is tremendously important. I don’t live in a subjective universe where everything is up for grabs. I really do believe that stories should be subordinate to the truth.

To which I can only say: Yes. Even if “most of what he said was, technically, true” and “his mission to help the oppressed was a good one” (as our own John Biggs put it yesterday), it sounds like Daisey still failed to get the facts right. To borrow his own phrase, he subordinated the truth of what he actually saw to the larger story that he wanted to tell.

Daisey seems to be a member of the William Faulkner school, which holds that “the best fiction is far more true than any journalism.” Except he isn’t willing to call his show fiction. When asked if he should label his show a “work of fiction,” Daisey pushes back, arguing that it’s true “in a theatrical context” (at which point I started to think about Bill Clinton dissembling about “the meaning of word ‘is’“). Glass says:

I understand that you believe that but I think you’re kidding yourself in the way that normal people who go to see a person talk – people take it as a literal truth. I thought that the story was literally true seeing it in the theater. Brian, who’s seen other shows of yours, thought all of them were true. I saw your nuclear show, I thought that was completely true. I thought it was true because you were on stage saying ‘this happened to me.’ I took you at your word.

The real tragedy here is it reduces this enormously complex, difficult issue into the story of one man. Luckily, no one seems to be saying, “Okay, well, Mike Daisey’s story was untrue, so I don’t have to think about that stuff anymore!”

This American Life closes its retraction with an interview of Charles Duhigg, one of the reporters of an investigative series in The New York Times about Apple. Duhigg goes into a lot of detail about what we know and don’t know about how Foxconn treats its workers, and what Apple is doing about it (again, listen to the whole episode). Ultimately, he says we still need to ask ourselves, “Do you feel comfortable knowing that iPhones and iPads and other products could be manufactured in less harsh conditions, but that these harsh conditions perpetuate because of an economy that you are … supporting with your dollars.”

It’s something that people have said before, but it’s something that we need to be reminded of again and again. Which is what Mike Daisey did.