The first time I saw Mike Daisey was more than a decade ago, when he performed a monologue called 21 Dog Years, about his time working at Amazon.com (AMZN). Since that time I’ve seen three more of his shows, including the latest, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. That one, coming just after Steve Jobs’s death and focusing on Apple’s (AAPL) iconic products, did a great deal to set in motion an examination of our relationship with how the goods we use are made. The show turned into a sensation, setting off a chain of investigations. Now This American Life, which aired a radio version of Daisey’s monologue, has announced it is retracting the claims in the show. Rob Schmitz, a reporter for
NPR’s American Public Media’s Marketplace tracked down Daisey’s translator in China and found that a lot of the stories that Daisey tells just don’t check out. Daisey now says he stands by his work—just that it’s not journalism.
Well, fair enough. Journalism has to be true, fiction certainly has the right to be merely truth-y. The problem though, is that Daisey’s show (about which I wrote positively) draws a lot of power from the idea that its core—the stories of Chinese factory workers—are in fact true. In the monologue, Daisey says he loves his computers so much that he takes them apart and cleans them with an air blower. I didn’t assume that was true. But when Daisey says he spoke to a worker whose hands shook from nerve-toxin poisoning, I took that to be true. Otherwise, what’s the point?
In a show that Daisey did in 2009 called The Last Cargo Cult, he starts by recounting a hard landing on a seaplane going to a small atoll. As the plane was about to hit the water in choppy seas, the whole cabin erupted in shrieks. Thinking they were all about to die, the passengers developed an instant connection. And then they didn’t die. They looked at each other and it was … awkward. Awkward, Daisey repeated, enunciating carefully for the audience.
That’s exactly how I feel now. Daisey says in his blog that his goal was creating a “human connection.” Well, he did, for me and a lot of other people. That human connection has now fallen apart. I have no idea if the seaplane episode was precisely true. Very likely it wasn’t, and that doesn’t especially bother me. The stakes in this case are very different, though. Daisey can say what he wants about his own experiences. But when he talks about the experiences of workers in the factories that make Apple products, or any others, the stories draw their strength from the idea that they are true.
In a Bloomberg Businessweek cover story in 2010, Frederik Balfour and Tim Culpan visited a Foxconn (2038:HK) factory and didn’t find a house of horrors. They found a factory with long, difficult shifts and workers with many complaints. Is this the final word on Foxconn? Probably not. On all the labor issues in China? Certainly not. The material that Daisey draws from is based in fact. The issue of nerve damage from hexane in an iPhone factory, for instance, is one that was brought up in a real PBS Newshour investigation. How the products that we use and take for granted are made is worth serious inquiry—and yes, soul searching. But once we find out that the “human connection” all this soul searching rested on wasn’t 100% real? Well, Mike, it’s awkward.