I can't blame This American Life for falling for disgraced monologuist Mike Daisey's lies because I fell for them, too. I once confronted Daisey with my own doubts about his story, but he gave such a convincing performance that I stupidly dropped the issue.
Last year, I started trying to check the facts of Mike Daisey's hit monologue, "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs," about his trip to investigate the Foxconn factory that makes Apple products in Shenzhen, China. This was before it was adapted into the hugely popular This American Life episode, which was retracted after Marketplace reporter Rob Schmitz discovered Daisey had fabricated many facts in his story and lied to producers during the fact-checking process. You can listen to this week's This American Life here, which shows the extent of Daisey's deceit.
My own skepticism was bolstered after reading reports about Foxconn from the respected Hong Kong-based labor rights organization Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM). Daisey claimed to have met a number of child laborers as young as 12 outside the gates of Foxconn. But SACOM's undercover investigators never found underaged workers at Foxconn, according to their reports. In fact, SACOM project officer Debby Chan Sze Wan told me last April, activists had been conducting interviews outside the gates at around the same time Daisey visited but turned up no child laborers.
So last September I emailed Daisey about an interview in advance of "The Agony and the Ecstasy" opening last October at New York's Public Theater. I didn't mention my doubts, figuring it would be best to catch him off-guard, but it was naive to think he'd actually admit to fabricating even then.
After more than a week with no response I emailed again, on Oct. 4:
"I've spoken with a labor rights activist who cast doubt on some of the facts presented in 'The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,' and wanted to clear some things up with you." Daisey quickly responded and suggested we meet in person at Soho's Think Coffee. What followed was an hour of rehearsed bullshit that left me as dazzled as a member of Daisey's audience.
Daisey is as intense in person as he is onstage, though more piercing than the loony American Abroad persona he's cultivated for "The Agony and the Ecstasy." When I asked Daisey about the concerns raised by the SACOM reports, he barely blinked before delivering a sprawling exegesis of his storytelling techniques, how he wasn't interested in "cutting hairs" or obsessing over facts about Foxconn because "no matter what we actually do, we're still colluding with a fascist country. We're still working with people who are fundamentally not free." That was the fact that really mattered, he implied.
It was such an awesome bit of dissembling that I thought it might end with an admission that the child laborers had been an embellishment. Of course not. Daisey told me he had indeed met a number of children employed by Foxconn, some as young as 11. This was a lie. Daisey's translator, Cathy Lee, says she and Daisey never met any underage workers.
Daisey's explanation as to why he was able to find child laborers when SACOM couldn't was laughable, in retrospect. He said maybe workers had been more open to him because he was a storyteller.
"I wasn't a member of the news organization and I didn't have a camera next to me. And I was able to tell them honestly that I was a storyteller form America, which sounds goofy. But people were really into that... People in China really responded to that."
Another moment in Daisey's monologue troubled me: An encounter with a man whose hand had been mangled while manufacturing iPads, whom Daisey meets through an illegal labor union. The man has never seen a finished iPad and Daisey shows him his; he's mesmerized and compares it to "magic." Come on.
Did that actually happen? Daisey assured me it had, and even joked about how the detail seemed too good to be true. "I know," he said, "if it was a traditional play people might be like, 'I don't know about that guy.'" The mangled hand guy was also a lie: Daisey's translator told Marketplace that, while they did meet a Chinese worker with a mangled hand, he never said he worked at Foxconn, and the emotional iPad moment never happened. Another of the most heart-wrenching moments—when Daisey met a worker who had been poisoned on the iPhone line and was left shaking uncontrollably—was also fabricated.
The talk turned eventually to the press, which Daisey has relentlessly criticized for not being able to turn up the kinds of stories about Foxconn that he'd made up. He lamented to me that journalists had so failed that I was reduced to talking to him, a simple monologuist. He grew angry at the absurdity.
"We should be able to talk to the tech journalist who went and wrote this story," he said. "Oh wait, there isn't one. It's fucking retarded. It's ridiculous. It is absurd that there aren't people writing this story. I mean it's really absurd. It's actually disgusting. There's an entire field. I mean, not many fields of human endeavor are lucky enough to have an entire field of people who are technology journalists. How can there be no one who has enough fucking time to go do an in depth story about this."
Daisey got to me with that. Throughout our interview, he'd been so convincing; his lies were so detailed and full of compassion and humor. And now I wondered why I was wasting my time trying to poke holes in his facts when I should be writing about the awful things he saw. We talked for a bit more and he invited me to his show. I went, and dropped the story.
This is how Daisey perpetrated his con since "The Agony and the Ecstasy" premiered in early 2011: He took a vacation to China, hacked together a story out of some sensational lies then paraded them around like the world owed him a favor. While we were too busy wallowing in self-recrimination to check if what he said was true, he used his fake facts to leverage himself into the position of the world's most prominent Apple critic, appearing on MSNBC and "Real Time with Bill Maher," and writing an op-ed in the New York Times. In the process he debased anyone who actually cared about the true injustice of Apple's manufacturing process. Daisey's lies hurt labor organizations like SACOM by giving their critics ammunition to ignore their real complaints. He cynically warped the stories of Chinese workers to promote his campaign, and trivialized the work of journalists who actually do real reporting on the issue.
When confronted on This American Life, Daisey never really cops to lying. And when I emailed him for an explanation after news about the retraction broke, he responded:
Adrian, this isn't about me lying to you or anyone else. This is about me doing everything I could to get the media to pay attention to an issue that had previously been ignored but that now, thank goodness, has been properly covered and verified. Did I go too far in that effort? Maybe. That's for others to judge.
OK. Let's judge: Fuck you, Mike Daisey.