The True Victims of Mike Daisey’s Lies May Be Those Chinese Workers He Championed

Mike Daisey’s lies about what he witnessed in Chinese factories could wind up hurting the very people he meant to help.

Bloomberg; AP Photo

By now you’ve seen the many stories about Ira Glass’s This American Life having to make retractions and offer an apology for airing a piece where actor Mike Daisey presented the same claims that he made in his one-man show, The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs--some of which, it turns out, were made up.

The fraud was discovered when a correspondent for the public radio program Marketplace tracked down the interpreter who worked with Daisey during his China visit. The translator told This American Life that some of Daisey’s material was invented.

New York’s Public Theater, where Daisey was presenting his show, is standing by Daisey, saying in a statement that “Mike is an artist, not a journalist. Nevertheless, we wish he had been more precise with us and our audiences about what was and wasn’t his personal experience in the piece.” (Daisey’s show ended March 18, on schedule.)

Daisey’s lame response has been that he’s not a journalist, and that “I took a few shortcuts in my passion to be heard.”

This is rubbish. And it’s not at all what Mike Daisey was saying right up until he was caught.

I know because last fall the people at the Public Theater in New York invited me to come see a performance and participate in a panel discussion afterwards, with Daisey and Robert Krulwich, the host of RadioLab, a science show that airs on public radio stations.

I agreed, and went to an afternoon performance, then did the panel in the evening. I met Mike Daisey after the show, and spent time backstage with him.

During our conversation, I asked Daisey if everything in the show was true. I asked him because some of the stories he tells in his show seemed just a bit too good. My experience as a reporter is that you don’t just waltz into a strange new place and have a bunch of great stories fall into your lap. You do lots of reporting, develop sources, and get a few bits and pieces. Daisey’s material felt embellished.

So I asked him, flat out, if everything in his show really happened, or if some parts were fictional. Keep in mind that I moonlight as a fiction writer, and have written a novel that deals with real people and real events but takes lots of huge liberties, but was billed as satirical fiction, not journalism.

I don’t think journalism is better than fiction, or vice versa. There are ways in which fiction can tell a larger truth. And there’s no reason to try to pass off fiction as journalism.

Daisey could have said, “Oh, some of my stuff is made up, and this is just a work of fiction, or a work of theater that blends fact and fiction.”

But he didn’t say that. He insisted to me that he actually had seen all the horrific things he talked about in his show. Children who work on the assembly line. Workers with mangled hands and nerve damage from poisonous chemicals.

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He looked me straight in the eye and told me he had really met those people.

Moreover, Daisey complained to me about how no one in the tech press had bothered to do what he had done--meaning travel to China and do basic reporting about conditions there. In his version of events, tech journalists were just a bunch of lazy hacks who did whatever Apple told them, and he alone--he, Mike Daisey--was the only heroic “journalist” who had bothered to buy a ticket to China and do the old-fashioned shoe leather reporting. It seems he made a similar complaint to Adrian Chen at Gizmodo.

The thing is, some real reporters did do some real reporting, and they came up with a real story in the New York Times about poor conditions in Foxconn factories.

If you read through the transcript of the show where Ira Glass confronts Daisey about his lies, you’ll find an interview with Charles Duhigg, one of the reporters who did the work for the Times.

Duhigg makes an important point, which is that conditions in China really are much worse than they are here, but that they don’t need to be. We in the West could take steps to ensure that Chinese workers were given the same protections as workers here. Ultimately the responsibility lies not with Apple or other consumer electronics companies, but with us.

Duhigg’s money quote: “You’re not only the direct beneficiary; you are actually one of the reasons why it exists. If you made different choices, if you demanded different conditions, if you demanded that other people enjoy the same work protections that you yourself enjoy, then, then those conditions would be different overseas.”

What worries me is that now that Daisey has been discredited, people will think that all of this stuff about bad conditions in China was made up, and there’s nothing to worry about, nothing to see here, and the plight of the Chinese workers will be forgotten.

If that happens, the real victims of Daisey’s false claims might end up being the workers in China themselves.

Daisey says he made up all those lies because he cared so much about the workers in China and wanted to call attention to their plight.

I’m sorry, but it seems to me that Daisey told tall tales not to help Chinese workers but to make his show more sensational, and thus more successful.

He used the suffering of factory workers in China to sell tickets to a show. In doing so, he exploited those Chinese factory workers just like the factory managers he claims to despise.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified This American Life as an NPR program. The show is produced by public radio station WBEZ in Chicago and distributed by Public Radio International.