It has been a rough week for social-consciousness movements whose leaders have produced stories a bit too slick to be true. We wrote last week about the producer Jason Russell was arrested for public drunkenness and self-satisfaction, casting still further doubt on the veracity of the campaign and on the nonprofit ‘Invisible Children’.meant to inspire a public campaign against Joseph Kony’s child army in Uganda − if that army still exists and Kony is indeed in Uganda. Over the weekend, the
To add to the unnerving series of good stories gone bad, Mike Daisey’s story/one-man-show “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” has been discredited for his taking numerous liberties with what he claimed were personal encounters at Apple’s suppliers Foxconn in China. His story – somewhat truncated – was broadcast on the popular ‘This American Life‘ public-radio program this past January, causing quite a stir. And it now has been retracted by producer Ira Glass and Daisey has been reconfiguring his story in light of probing questions into its authenticity.
What might be behind the rise and fall of these stories?
Daisey’s show has been running for about two years at The Public Theater in New York (any links at the theater’s site to the show have been broken and the show closed this weekend). And it became the most downloaded episode/podcast of ‘This American Life’ over the last few months. The story concerned the joys of owning Apple’s mobile products − especially the iPad − while growing conscious of the dangerous and even fatal working conditions at Foxconn factories in China where iPads and iPhones are churned out by the millions by young people, even children, at least damaged by chemicals and repetitive assembly tasks.
On the episode of ‘This American Life’ that was entirely dedicated to Daisey’s show (usually the broadcast offers three stories considering a single theme), Glass offered a 20-odd minute investigation to Daisey’s account of what he claims he witnessed himself in researching the story. In particular, Glass’s team could find no report of child labor, even from those ready to challenge Foxconn on all kinds of terrible conditions. The staff wound up accepting much of the story that Daisey testified to and accepting that they could not possibly check each shift at each factory, where maybe kids were occasionally being accepted into the labor force.
Glass and his colleagues were thus not willing to take the story at face value, but accepted Daisey’s reassurances. But reporters at another NPR program, ‘Marketplace’, knew some of the translators and reporters that Daisey claimed to have met. And their followups showed that Daisey had not been in contact with the translator. When ‘This American Life’ went back to Daisey a week or so ago with further questions, he seems to have capitulated pretty quickly. Here is Daisey’s now-oft-quoted public statement:
I stand by my work. 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, and I believe it does so with integrity. Certainly, the comprehensive investigations undertaken by The New York Times and a number of labor rights groups to document conditions in electronics manufacturing would seem to bear this out.
What I do is not journalism. The tools of the theater are not the same as the tools of journalism. For this reason, I regret that I allowed THIS AMERICAN LIFE to air an excerpt from my monologue. THIS AMERICAN LIFE is essentially a journalistic - not a theatrical - enterprise, and as such it operates under a different set of rules and expectations. But this is my only regret. I am proud that my work seems to have sparked a growing storm of attention and concern over the often appalling conditions under which many of the high-tech products we love so much are assembled in China.
Be both admits to his lies, but is proud of them in the context of his work and the discussion he has spawned.
Apple, true to form, was stunningly quiet about the whole issue. It neither challenged Daisey nor pointed fingers at his backpedaling. Just as noteworthy, perhaps, Apple CEO Tim Cook said nothing about the issue or Apple’s efforts to bring change to Foxconn factories when he presented the ‘new iPad’ earlier this month. Why? Philip Elmer-DeWitt of CNN Money wonders if Apple knew the trajectory of the story was true but Daisey’s specific claims were fabrications and hoped that once outed by someone else, Apple could simply smile and say ‘we told you so.’ Out of sight? Out of mind.
If truth is the first casualty of war, then positive change might be the first casualty of lies − especially in social media. The real tragedy of this story is likely not yet played out: Daisey’s general points about how we western consumers get to love our latest shiny devices while Chinese workers sweat blood for 13-15 hours a day at a quarter of western wages are still true. But because he got us to think about the connections through a web of fabricated connections and personal experiences, how many of us will grow to doubt the general points as well?
How indeed can we trust the line between facts and a good story if organizations like ‘Invisible Children’ and individuals like Mike Daisey sacrifice the former to improve the latter − especially if they continue to claim that the facts corroborate the story even when pressed? Getting a story to go viral should not ever replace getting the story right.
Let’s give Max Fisher of The Atlantic (whose stories on Kony we linked to last week as well) the last word on this sad week in viral campaigns that could have done so much good:
By lying, Daisey undermined the cause he purported to advance. That’s the real scandal. Unlike the misguided Kony 2012 campaign, which sought to end Central African violence with a viral video so simplistic and condescending it could actually , Chinese labor abuses are a problem that Americans can do a lot to help simply by becoming more aware. Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony doesn’t care what American college kids think about him. But Apple (not to mention the many lower-profile consumer companies that use Chinese manufacturing) is incredibly sensitive to American public opinion. Their business model is predicated almost entirely on chasing the preferences of Americans (and other wealthy societies). … Mike Daisey traveled the country lying to the very people who are best positioned to do something about it. If they are less inclined to act as a result, he will have done far more harm than any number of misguided viral videos.
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Written by: Christopher Gardner, PhD