I’m not a regular listener of “This American Life,” but I did download the latest episode, in which Ira Glass and his colleagues retract and apologize for a show they did earlier this year with Mike Daisey, the monologist whose off-Broadway show, “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” has drawn a lot of attention. It’s about working conditions at FoxConn, the Chinese factory complex where iPhones and iPads are made, based on Daisey’s first-hand accounts of what he saw during a trip there.
Or so he said.
It turns out that several parts of Daisey’s monologue aren’t true, a fact that “This American Life” didn’t uncover until Rob Schmitz, the China correspondent for another public radio show, “Marketplace,” heard the “TAL” episode with Daisey and thought parts of it sounded wrong. He then did some digging that uncovered the falsehoods, and brought them to Glass’ attention.
What happened last week was something remarkable in American broadcasting history. “TAL” devoted an entire hour to Daisey’s lies, apologized for not being more diligent in checking out his stories and, to my amazement, got Daisey to come into the studio where Glass and Schmitz confronted him with the concocted parts of his story. At times, there are long pauses between their questions and Daisey’s answers. Most other producers would have edited those out, but Glass left the dead air in, allowing the listener to feel how uncomfortable it must have been in that room that day.
Daisey, for his part, continues to obfuscate, saying that his monologue is true enough for the theater, but admitting that it’s not journalism, as if there’s a different standard for the truth onstage and on the radio — there isn’t. It’s one thing to tell a fictionalized story that’s based on real events, or doing composite characters for the sake of time and process, but it’s another thing to say “I saw this” or “he told me that” in a first-person piece when neither of them occurred. Taking stories you’ve heard from other sources and pretending you witnessed them yourself isn’t “theatrical,” it’s a lie.
Several times in the “TAL” retraction, Daisey says he regrets taking his monologue to the radio show. At first, it seems like he’s apologizing to Glass and company. But after some reflection, it seems to me Daisey’s only regret is that he finally encountered a reporter who didn’t believe the words coming out of his mouth, and a show that would expose his lies to the world. Other media outlets didn’t do that. He appeared on MSNBC and CNN and more, all of whom accepted his stories as fact. So did Glass, initially, and you can hear the hurt in his voice as he admits this to his audience.
I don’t think Mike Daisey is a bad guy. He’s obviously been moved by what he’s heard about working conditions in China and wanted to use his platform to alert the world to them. There are enough real stories about FoxConn (e.g. the NY Times pieces by Charles Duhigg and David Barboza) to raise genuine concerns about the people who make the i-products we use every day and whether Apple can use its 800-pound-gorilla status to change them. But Daisey let his agenda get in the way; his departures from the truth undermined his cause. He has probably hurt his reputation permanently — only time will tell if he falls into the same abyss as Jason Blair, Clifford Irving, and Judith Miller. One of the great ironies of this saga is that another of Daisey’s monologues was about James Frey, whose memoir “A Million Little Pieces” was revealed as a fraud in 2006.
That Daisey piece was called “Truth,” a word that can no longer be applied to his Jobs monologue. But Ira Glass, Rob Schmitz, and the team that produced the stunning “Retraction” hour deserve praise for the way they handled the story and their commitment to the truth. Give it a listen here.