Journalism is part storytelling, but where do we draw the line? Well before what Mike Daisey did to This American Life and Apple.
If you are a fan of the spoken word, you probably know that This American Life (TAL) is one of the most popular radio programs in the country and has consistently been the most downloaded podcast on iTunes for years. In early January, TAL broadcast its most popular episode ever (more than 800,000 downloads), entitled “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory”. The episode was based on Mike Daisey’s one-man theater play, entitled “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” a critique of Apple’s pivotal role in the exploitative global manufacturing sector. The story made a big splash, particularly because it came out only a couple of months after the death of Steve Jobs, but also because we are all becoming resigned to the fact that Apple is slowly but eventually taking over our lives.
Daisey’s play is moving and sad. If only it were true though. It turns out that much of the play’s content is fiction or at the very least exaggerated. This would be fine for a theatrical production – anything less would be boring on stage. For a journalistic radio program, it is highly inappropriate, especially considering the precision with which the material targeted one particular company (Apple) and one particular factory (Foxconn in Shenzhen).
Following the broadcast, many journalists began questioning some of Daisey’s accounts. It seemed unlikely to Rob Schmitz (China-based reporter for NPR’s Marketplace) that factory workers would hang out at Starbucks to discuss their illegal labor union. Starbucks is even more expensive in China than in the US and is not the sort of place factory workers frequent. Daisey also describes the scowling security guards with guns standing in front of the factory gates. The problem with this is that in China, only the police and military are permitted to carry firearms.
Schmitz was able to track down Daisey’s translator, a person whom Daisey repeatedly lied to TAL about in order to prevent any verification or corroboration. Daisey also lied about meeting several underage factory workers, some as young as 12, and others who had suffered hexane poisoning. Earlier this week, TAL put out its first ever retraction episode (inspiration for my previous post), devoted entirely to saying sorry and setting the record straight.
TAL has taken a lot of flack for the mistakes and is currently the unfortunate victim of false equivalence – pretending that TAL and Daisey’s points of view are equally valid in the name of impartiality. (see here, here, here, here, here and here).
Yes, TAL should have been more careful. Yes, conditions in Chinese factories are probably difficult. Yes, Mike Daisey is a theatrical performer and is entitled to a great deal of artistic licence when performing.
Mike Daisey lied (we’ve got the tapes) and intentionally deceived journalists. He remains almost unapologetic and is playing the victim card now. TAL has gone out of its way to correct for errors – a remarkable action in this day and age.
The radio program made mistakes, but what the actor did was near criminal and deserves the bulk of the opprobrium. Meanwhile, Apple barely blinked.