Back when I was a kid, my parents explained Mutually Assured Destruction to me. They thought telling a kid they might be blown up in a nuclear attack (or, more likely, slowly eaten away by fallout radiation) would be a cool thing to do. They said that the Soviet Union was run by a corrupt oligarchy and that I should probably know they might kill everyone I knew at a moment’s notice.
So I asked who was in charge of our nuclear weapons. Well, it turns out he was an actor. And he was a very old actor whose brain was probably deteriorating. It wasn’t very reassuring.
All thoughts of nuclear apocalypse aside, I remember thinking it was probably a bad idea to have a leader who’s also an actor. It would be too easy for them to lie. They would just have to use their magical acting powers and everyone would believe whatever they said.
Mike Daisey, seen here herpin’ and a derpin’
Mike Daisey’s also an actor. And like Reagan, he’s also a compulsive liar. As you’ve probably heard, Daisey had a monologue on This American Life a few months ago about working conditions at FoxConn, a manufacturer for Apple in Shenzhen, China. It turns out several details of Daisey’s story were not true.
The details in question ran through the whole bullshit spectrum. There were lies which really misled the audience, unimportant ones that just seemed the product of a psychological compulsion, half-truths, misrepresentations, self-aggrandizing bullshit, and everything in between. When This American Life retracted the story last weekend, we even got to hear Daisey tell lies to cover up other lies. The only thing that would’ve made this even more depressingly funny would have been if his whole retraction were yet another lie spun to cover up some even darker and more disturbing truth.
So besides Daisey having acting experience, why did so many people fall for it? Some of the lies were pretty obvious. For example he said the guards at the Foxconn plant were armed. That’s weird since China has applied the Banhammer to guns. Obviously the military has them, but not private security guards. And the emotional encounter with the worker who’s hand was supposedly paralyzed from using some kind of dangerous cleaner at the end was all way too dramatic to be real. In retrospect we should have all immediately called bullshit.
And some people did. But most didn’t. I didn’t. I even used the subject for a few lame jokes in a satirical movie review at the time. I can’t speak for everyone, but I probably fell for it because of how I feel about labor in general. My parents are both in unions. I’m in a labor union. A lot of my family are union. So I’m more susceptible to being duped by a labor-friendly story, even when it’s clearly nonsense.
What makes this all the more frustrating is that working conditions at places like FoxConn really do suck. There’s no need to make shit up to make it look bad and raise awareness. Daisey claims in the Retraction episode that to the extent that he deceived he was doing so for noble reasons. But that’s another lie. A lot of the disputed parts of his reporting just steal the work of other labor reporters – real labor reporters, that is.
So for example, the part about how a cleaning agent was poisoning workers and leaving them partially paralyzed actually took place in another part of the country. Daisey just imported the real tragedy occurring there into his own story in order to make it look like he was the one breaking the story. From the point of view of alarming the world about unfair labor practices in outsourced US subcontractors in China, nothing would have been lost if Daisey just cited the story as it actually happened.
I’m a big fan of the trend in journalism where reporters not only give you the end result of their investigation but also document the process of reporting itself. Hunter Thompson’s widely credited for popularizing this and I’m a big fan of his. Most of us remember him for Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas and Hell’s Angels, but you don’t need to be writing about motorcycle gangs and drug binges to use this approach. Some of VICE’s documentaries do this very well in their coverage of North Korean labor camps in Siberia and what it’s like to make guns in a cave in Pakistan.
So maybe this Gonzo approach to journalism could be a cure to the problems we get from the Mike Daiseys of the world. Journalists could just document everything from beginning to end and make the story they’re reporting on their story of them doing the story. But the problem with that is that’s exactly what Mike Daisey did.
Fuck it, maybe everyone should just have cameras surgically implanted onto their foreheads so fact-checking is easier. Or we could all just try to train ourselves to be more skeptical when we read a news story that reinforces our existing worldviews.