Sure, Mike Daisey Lied To You, But Did He Teach You Anything?

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A couple of months ago, we pointed your attention to the work of monologist Mike Daisey, a writer and performer whose one-man show — The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs — purported to dive deep into the dark world of Apple’s often controversial production practices. As broadcast on This American Life it was a harrowing, revealing tale of abuses of workers, choking pollution, ruined lives, and capitalism run amok.

Daisey’s recounted journey to Shenzhen’s infamous Foxconn plant was eye-opening, riveting, and revelatory. It was also, as it turns out, filled with lies.

If you keep one ear to the digital ground, you know that all of Mike Daisey's various untruths came unraveled by one of his biggest champions — public media. Working for American Public Media's Marketplace, Rob Schmitz tracked down Daisey's interpreter and found out that, yes, some of his facts were too bad to be true. Eventually, Ira Glass of "This American Life" — who had presented Daisey's work to the masses — sat down with the playwright for one of the most uncomfortable interviews it has ever been our displeasure to hear. Between denials, prevarications, and half-admissions, it became clear that that some of the most nail-biting and touching moments of The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs simply didn’t happen. A playwright, Daisey used what he believed was artistic license to gin up what others believed was the truth.There were no underage Foxconn workers and no veteran laborer with a mangled hand saying iPads were, “a kind of magic.” These breathtaking abuses of human rights are fictional and, as you might expect, Daisey has headed for cover.

As the author of these untruths continues to pepper the public sphere with both honest, thoughtful apologies and cheap, self-serving rationalizations, we’re wondering about what we wrote about him and what it means given that Daisey can no longer be trusted. Should we continue to press the fight against Apple and other producers of consumer electronics and apparel, or is there nothing to fight against?



Our take: We’re sticking to how what he wrote made us feel. It’s not just Mike Daisey who thinks that Apple can improve their practices — it’s a large community of experts and observers. Daisey might have been the most dramatic and enthralling of Apple’s many critics, but he’s only one of many. While things at Foxconn and other factories may not be as bad as Daisey suggested, they are still well below acceptable and worldwide consumer production chains could use more — not less — oversight.

Despite the opinions of the blogosphere, we don’t look at Daisey as the new James Frey. No, when we think of The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, we think less of A Million Little Pieces and more of The Jungle.

Upton Sinclair’s 1906 book famously captured Chicago’s stockyards, painting in vivid prose the lives and deaths of workers and their families as they toiled in abattoirs and rendering plants. As disgusting and sensational as the unsanitary accounts of meat preparation were, the hopelessness and death he reported was even more so (he describes factory workers falling into grinding machines alive). Based on Sinclair’s own research, The Jungle swayed public opinion so substantially that, eventually, the controversy created a blanket of laws that, for the first time, addressed questions of worker safety, food hygiene, and brought into being The Food and Drug Administration. The Jungle was also filled with big, fat lies.

True, Sinclair’s work was a novel, but — like Daisey’s play — it purported to be based on fact. Many hailed Sinclair as a public hero, but almost as many considered him a fraud and a sensationalist. History now understands that both factions were right — Sinclair was exactly the liar America needed.

Whether the same will hold true for Mike Daisey in our time of more rigorous standards for truth and a shorter attention span, no one can be certain. But we do hope that the focus stays on the cause of reform and his fictions, while odious now, will become the lies we needed to move it along.

But then again, you may want to see him tarred and feathered. Please let us know in the comments below.