Mike Daisy was outed last weekend by This American Life for his not-exactly-first-hand heart wrenching story about the plight of workers in China. It seems Mr. Daisy’s theatrical monologue is more based-on-a-true-story, than journalism. There’s nothing wrong with that; we’ve all seen dozens and dozens of movie depictions of real-life events that have been exaggerated. Dramatization is often more powerful. It helps us to connect with the true meaning behind the story and more is effective as an impetus for change. Mr. Daisy’s problem is that he was unwilling to let his version of events stand on their own, instead hoping to engender more response by implying his story was fact.
Pity. As other media outlets have reported, the gist of Mr. Daisy’s presentation on Apple’s sub-contractor Foxconn and the general plight of the Chinese worker today is true. Our shiny iDevices (and, mind you, most everything else made in China too) often come from factories where workers do not enjoy the same protections that workers we have come to expect in the West. Imagining Chinese workers whipping out their own iPhones to check in with friends on the way to happy hour would is woefully far from the truth. It took the U.S. and Europe decades to develop labor protections but we’ve exported jobs to China without the protections that we enjoy. A lack of pesky labor protections goes a long way to explain how these amazing little devices can be so inexpensive. Even if nobel prize winning, and notably liberal, economists agree that sweatshops may still be a step up from the otherwise horrible living conditions, Mike Daisy hopes to make us aware of these conditions and hopes we can put some pressure on U.S. based manufacturers so that the Chinese don’t have to wait as long as we did to get weekends off. If labor laws make it to China, the prices of our coveted electronic toys may increase. The good news is that more of us might be able to afford them if jobs here were competitive with our developing nation counterparts.
Of course, the simple omission of where his story comes from means Mr. Daisy may have done more damage to his cause than good. Most folks find a powerful dramatic story more convincing than a lie, even if they are actually the very same story, just with a different prologue. Mr. Daisy was lying, and he admits as much by contradicting his comments made on the initial This American Life episode with more recent remarks on his blog that “I stand by my work. My show is a theatrical piece whose goal is to create a human connection between our gorgeous devices and the brutal circumstances from which they emerge. It uses a combination of fact, memoir, and dramatic license to tell its story, and I believe it does so with integrity.” His work is dramatic, not journalistic. Why didn’t he mention any of this when asked, directly, by This American Life host Ira Glass during the original airing of his piece?
And what about This American Life? While not strictly journalism, it’s clear that listeners we’re mislead. Even journalists make mistakes from time to time, but this weekend’s apology for not thoroughly fact-checking the claims of one of its performers shows that the real quality of the show is not its flawlessness, but its respect for its listeners by vigorously addressing error when they are found. Mr. Daisy could learn much from the show that was kind enough to produce part of his monologue on the air.
It’s not the first time I’ve written about stretching the truth. James Frey’s million little lies caught my eye even before he was outed. For my part, if, sometimes, it takes me a while to write new posts, it’s because I am trying to think of a story I can make interesting, without making up details that didn’t exist. Reactions are yours, regardless of the facts. A good writer aspires to engage readers with his reactions, even if the real story is often mundane. This isn’t journalism, but rather a blog. Your expectations ought to measured accordingly, and yet, dear readers, if I’m lying or making stuff up, I promise to let you know. If you don’t think I have, don’t hesitate to let me know!