The Agony of Lying, the Ecstasy of Getting Caught

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For those of us interested in technology (particularly Apple), non-fiction storytelling (particularly on This American Life), and journalism (wherever it might occur), the Mike Daisey saga has been an absorbing case study.

Daisey is the monologuist who has become one of the fiercest critics of Apple’s manufacturing process, going so far as to visit the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen where iPhones and iPads are produced, and creating a hugely successful show, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, that described his visit in detail. It painted Apple and Foxconn in an appalling light – he met underage workers, people poisoned by chemicals, a man whose hand was crushed while making one of Apple’s beautiful devices. Ira Glass excerpted the show for This American Life in January – surely the highest accolade for a storyteller. The episode had a huge impact, and piled the pressure on Apple and Foxconn to improve their workers’ conditions. Daisey seemed like a one-man union, bringing the fight to the man.

Except it was mostly bullshit.

A lot has been written about how Daisey lied about who he actually met, and how he misled Glass – the Retraction episode of This American Life, which forensically details Daisey’s hoax, is a masterclass in controlled indignation. Daisey’s ultimate non-apology is painful to listen to, as if the stage offers some sort of exemption from honesty in the name of some great truth that only Daisey can perceive.

It was an exemption he was determined to use everywhere else, too – on the pages of the New York Times, on the cable news networks where he became a high-profile Apple critic, on talk shows and radio shows and in person with people who queried how a guy with no experience of investigative journalism and no Mandarin managed to get first-hand testimony about all these heinous acts in just a few days in Shenzhen.

His only regret, he writes, is that he “allowed This American Life to air an excerpt from my monologue. This American Life is essentially a journalistic ­- not a theatrical ­- enterprise, and as such it operates under a different set of rules and expectations.”

These weren’t some incidental details at the margins he softened to streamline the narrative; all the most substantial details of his story were fabricated. You gotta love the fact that the one detail he told Ira Glass wasn’t true – that his translator was called Cathy – turned out to be one of the only details that was entirely factual.

But at no point does he convincingly argue why the “greater truth”, as he sees it, couldn’t be told in an entirely factual manner – the lie, every time, was to place himself as a first-hand witness to the suffering of these people. Daniel Engber at Slate does a terrific job illustrating why this is so misleading – if anyone can stroll up to Foxconn gates and meet underage workers within a few hours, then surely the problem is so endemic that it’s a rampant problem – “It inflated the prevalence and massaged the data. How much deeper could the lies have gone?” as Engber puts it. John Gruber makes a similar point here.

At no point does Daisey acknowledge that his narcissistic adventure has actually harmed the welfare of the workers he claims to care so much about – it will be significantly more difficult for Chinese workers’ rights advocates to advance their cause in the wake of his dissembling. It seems to me that Daisey has been more than happy to use the plight of Chinese workers for his own benefit, no matter what good he thought he might be doing while he was at it.

There have been plenty of comparisons to the Kony 2012 viral video – the vanity of the western saviour figure, the simplification of complex issues, and the deceptive notion that doing something simple, such as liking a video on Facebook or buying a theatre ticket, can help solve extremely difficult developing world problems.

But elements of this sad story also remind me of the Johann Hari plagiarism case. Hari always claiming that he borrowed quotes not to distort the truth, but to better serve the story he was trying to tell. But just as in Daisey’s case, there is no reason why he couldn’t have just cited the other quotes accurately – the lie was that he managed to extract these pearls of wisdoms from his interview subjects. Just citing the quotes would reveal that he was a terrific researcher able to dig up apposite quotes to flesh out his profiles; insinuating that he managed to extract the quotes himself was meant to give the impression that he was a rarely gifted interviewer who could get subjects to reveal their true selves.

Those of us who do try to tell stories from the facts understood immediately what they were trying to do – by pretending that they had met the abused workers or extracted the most perfect quotes, Daisey and Hari were exaggerating their own prowess. It takes quite the investigative reporter to go to a foreign country and assemble such an array of evidence, and it takes one hell of an interviewer to get his subjects to articulate their stories in such a cogent manner. Acknowledging that you hadn’t met the workers yourself or citing the actual sources of your quotes doesn’t dilute the story, as Daisey and Hari might have you believe – it dilutes the impression of their own relevance that they are making central to their story.

After the Hari story broke, I started considering that monumental piece on Dubai that he wrote in the Independent in 2009 – a terrific piece of reportage that lifted the lid on every facet of Dubai’s tawdry underbelly. There was nothing Hari didn’t encounter on his trip – the slaves, the prostitutes, the clandestine gay bar, the obnoxious local, the entitled ex-pat. And then I began to wonder how many of those details happened as Hari said they did, how many people said those things he quoted them as saying, how did all those pieces of the jigsaw fit so perfectly into place? It was all just too convenient, and all of it served to illustrate Hari’s journalistic brilliance.

For what it’s worth, I do believe Hari has learned his lesson, and I believe his contrition is genuine. Daisey’s latest, blustering self-defence, however, suggests he’s far too enamoured with his own sense of self-importance to realise there’s a lesson that needs learning here. As Felix Salmon puts it, “The fact is that the chief beneficiary of the success of Daisey’s monologue has been Mike Daisey, much more than any group of factory workers or underground trades unionists in China.”

 

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