Since 2010 Mike Daisey, a writer and actor, has been performing a show which exposes harsh conditions in factories that produce Apple’s popular iPhone and iPad devices. When his show came to the attention of Ira Glass, the presenter of This American Life, an entire episode was dedicated to the explosive monologue entitled Mr. Daisey and the Apple factory. The episode became one of the highest-rating shows in the history of This American Life and put working conditions in Apple’s factories on the news agenda.
Two weeks ago Mike Schmitz, a reporter who works in China for public radio show Marketplace heard the podcast of This American Life and, detecting a few anomalies, decided to properly investigate the report. Schmitz tracked down the translator who worked with Daisey when he compiled his stage show and asked her to verify some of the central claims Daisey made about his findings during the weeks he spent visiting Apple factories and talking to Chinese workers.
The translator, Cathy Lee, revealed numerous inaccuracies and exaggerations in the report, which spurred This American Life to revisit the story with Mike Daisey, and ultimately forced them to broadcast an embarrassing retraction.
The show was a fascinating exploration of the different standards of truth expected in journalism as opposed to other forms of story telling. On the show Mike Daisey admits to a number of fabrications and says he feels bad that he allowed his monologue to be broadcast on the radio as a piece of journalism. However, Daisey says he stands by the show, saying, in effect, that its basic thrust is true and justifies the monologue’s inaccuracies and that people who visit the theatre expect drama rather than factual reporting.
“I don’t know that I would say in a theatrical context that it isn’t true. I believe that when I perform it in a theatrical context – in the theatre – that when people hear the story in those terms that [they understand]. We have different languages for what the truth means […] I don’t think that label [fiction] covers the totality of what it is,” says Daisey.
In a series of excruciating encounters, Ira Glass asks Daisey to justify why he lied to producers from This American Life who attempted to fact-check his story before broadcast. Glass says that he doesn’t agree with Daisey that people who see his live shows understand that his monologues are not entirely true.
The episode is an interesting exploration of truth, which culminates in an interview with New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg on what is actually known about labour standards in Apple’s Chinese factories.
Perhaps most interesting of all is the fact that the report from Duhigg, littered as it is with examples of immense malpractice, is significantly less emotionally engaging than Daisey’s fact-bending report.
There can be no justification for bad journalism, of course, but the whole episode exposes the power of good story-telling in its ability to capture the public imagination. What is necessary though, and what Glass underlines in his interviews with Mike Daisey, is that such works must make perfectly clear that they are works of fiction rather than fact.
Listen to the episode online here