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The Agony of Mike Daisey




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.


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  • David Patrick

    Some of the lies were very plausible and not necessarily obvious. The relationships that governments and businesses have; it’s very easy to conceive a company bribing someone to let their guards have guns for instance. Yet that reinforces your other point, you don’t need to lie about this type of subject matter. Affairs are so murky in this realm, I can’t believe someone would feel compelled to fabricate details in this manner. Some people will do anything for fame and money I guess. Point well taken, we should all be more diligent in stories that follow out worldview. It’s in there that our guard is dropped and things can go terribly wrong.

    To think Daisey was willing to risk being known as a liar and a plagiarist, and for what? Then he lost the bet. People need to consider what happens when the need to pay the house, and they bet more then they can afford to lose.

  • Oggy Bleacher

    Next thing you know Daisey will be calling up the CEO of Apple pretending to be a Chinese factory owner so he can record the whole conversation and bait the guy into spilling lots of dirt that can be used against him later. Who would do such an underhanded thing?

  • Mike C.

    @ 2. Oggy Bleacher

    Because the obvious crime in that equation is the crank call, and not all that stuff that quantifiably destroys peoples’ lives.

    I mean, eliminating the checks and balances that limit the exploitation of labor, taking subsidies while dismantling the public infrastructure, running businesses with razor thin wages because workers are too desperate to complain… those are all above board practices, at least after you’ve lobbied for the laws to be changed to accommodate them. Clearly, it’s uncouth reporters that let idiotic politicians run their mouths that are in the wrong. Even if exposing the moral bankruptcy of political whores may not be technically illegal, it’s just bad sportsmanship to call people out for cheating. Even to the death, we should endeavor to be civil—civil meaning whatever rich people say it means.

    How’s David Koch? Still a fat, soft ballet patron? Are you being paid properly, or is demeaning yourself for the rich just a hobby?

  • Diablo

    I can’t help but be real depressed. When I first heard the broadcast on NPR, I started laughing at some of the claims he was making. Don’t get me wrong, as an engineer, I know very well that our standard of living is based on a lot of blood and pain. Hell, the Coltran trade is a primary driver in keeping the Congo a fucking hellhole. I figured right away that he was saying some obviously over the top shit. So naturally the American public leaps onto going one direction…and then enough people see through the bullshit that it goes 180 degrees in the opposite. Now I sit here thinking…maybe this dude is getting paid by Apple just to generate this story, get his ass handed to him, and then the public turns a blind eye to any further stories.

    Of course this is nonsense. I just am so sick of this same shit happening all the time, where the public is so easily directed to various positions. I think of the Simpsons episode “Wacking Day” when the mayor stands up with a bunch of dead snakes and the town boos. The mayor proceeds to call them all morons that constantly change their mind…and one of them realize that he is right so he yells “Give us hell Quimby”. That is what the US feels like to me now.

  • racing

    Ok so I am thinking about removing my site from Tumbler and get it to a WordPress website. I think this is a wordpress site right? If it is, may I ask where you got the theme? Thanks a bunch!

  • business

    I will definitely show this to my buddy we were just talking about this last week!

  • Frank VanderShoot

    Like many actors, Daisey’s a narcissist.

    Was it enough to let people know all the terrible shit that happens at FoxConn?

    No, it had to ALL have happened right in front of Mike Daisey, so Mike Daisey could do Mike Daisey’s stage show about it.

    Pretty goddamned insulting to the workers who suffered and the people who worked to uncover it.

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