The Lies of a Storyteller – The Trouble with Mike Daisey

I received some nice feedback for my short story “Clyde” published a few weeks ago.  Thank you for that, and thanks to everyone for reading my stuff.  I truly appreciate it.

A friend asked if “Clyde” was in fact a true story.  I said quickly, unequivocally, and publicly (on Facebook) that it was a work of fiction.  It is so labeled on the site, but I can see how that might be missed.  The characters, Clyde, the nameless narrater, Reverend Schlep, all exist only as pixels on the screen, the result of shadows in my mind which I crystalized into words and sentences.  Because the story has verisimilitude — anti-gay bullying, sadly, is a fact of life — I do not feel a need to say it is “based on a true story” for it to be taken seriously; nor would I say such a thing for the sake of potentially getting a bigger audience.  To do so, in my view, would be the quick and easy path to success, one traveled many times, but one that ultimately strands you in a ditch.

I followed the initial Mike Daisey story about potential work place abuses at an Apple-contracted factory in China from afar, but with some interest.  I am, after all, a good, artsy Mac-using queen, so I felt I should be aware.  And the story itself is not entirely new.  There have been other accounts of employee abuses at Chinese plants contracted to manufacture iPhones and iPods.  I expect Mr. Daisey’s account received so much attention because of the details it contained — child labor, armed security guards, a worker with hands mangled from making iPads, and the like — and also, too, from the level of artistry with which he presented these disturbing stories during his one-man stage show, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.”  Mr. Daisey went on various news shows, including PBS’s This American Life and MSNBC’s The Ed Schultz Show, to discuss his findings, the result of a six-day visit to the city of Shenzhen, home of the Foxconn factory that makes Apple products.  He discussed his findings as journalistic facts.

The only problem, as we all know now, is that the most lurid details of abuse were all fictitious.  At first Mr. Daisey claimed the mantel of “artistic license.”  Then he back-peddled a bit and revised his show.  Even now, though, he appears to be more upset at being caught than at what he did, complaining on his own blog that folks are more upset about the fabrications than about the situation at the factories.  He writes:

Especially galling is how many are gleefully eager to dance on my grave expressly so they can return to ignoring everything about the circumstances under which their devices are made.

He also complains about being compared to infamous fabulists Stephen Glass, the fired  reporter from The New Republic, and James Frey, the disgraced memoirist.

Well, if the keyboard fits.

In his introductory comments on This American Life’s episode on the Mike Daisey controversy, titled Retraction, Ira Glass discusses the fact checking done, and not done, by the show prior to its first program with Mr. Daisey.  In particular,  the show had requested contact info for the translator that Mr. Daisey worked with in Shenzhen for corroboration.  Mr. Daisey said that the translator’s cell phone did not work anymore, so that she could not be reached.  The source, in other words, was unavailable.  Damn, if that doesn’t smack of Stephen Glass!  Unlike a Stephen Glass source, though, the translator was not a figment of the imagination.  She does exist and eventually was contacted by reporter Rob Schmitz, Marketplaces’s China correspondent, blowing Mr. Daisey’s story out of the water.

So here’s the deal.  Stephen Glass, James Frey, fired New York Times reporter Jayson Blair, and many others, it can be argued, committed their excesses solely in the name of self-aggrandizement.  “Love me!” they blared on their big trombones, and we listened and believed, even when the notes went decidedly off key.  Does Mr. Daisey, however, have an out because his excesses were motivated by altruism?  Hardly.  If anything, by blurring the lines between what is and what isn’t, he may have damaged the cause he cares so much about.

Remember that controversy way back in 1993 about violence against women and the Super Bowl?  The claim was that Super Bowl Sunday saw a drastic spike in cases of domestic violence, purportedly making it the most dangerous night of the year for women.  Turns out to have been a myth, and a long lived one that continues to the present day, according to an article by The Daily Caller from just over a year ago.  The article quotes Christina Hoff Sommers, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, who warns about the dangers of exaggerated claims to promote awareness of a cause.

Sommers explained to The Daily Caller that while such dramatizations may serve a purpose for some activists, domestic violence is too serious a problem for such exaggerations and opportunism.

“Women who are at risk for domestic violence are going to be helped by state of the art research and good information,” she said. “They are not going to be helped by hyperbole and manufactured data.”

Read more:

If Mr. Daisey had told Ira Glass, Ed Schultz, and others, that no, not everything in the play was 100% true, that he mixed and matched bits of info on working conditions in Chinese factories from various sources, that many of the characters were, in fact, made up, that would have been one thing.  But since he went on record saying that the material was based on factual information he gleaned by talking to workers at and near the Foxconn facility, his work, then, is required to adhere to strict journalistic standards and a fidelity to the truth.  In other words, you can’t have it both ways.  You can’t say that your material is based on actual stories told by actual workers on the one hand and then, when that is proven to be a lie, claim artistic license on the other.  The cheat comes from blurring the line between fact and fiction and not coming clean about what’s what.  To maintain credibility, you can’t do that.

I have the DVD for “Shattered Glass,” the 2003 movie based on the Vanity Fair article of the same name about the fall of Stephen Glass.  Great flick.  I recommend it for every HR director in the country.  As an extra, the DVD includes an interview Mr. Glass gave “60 Minutes” years after his fall when he was on a mea culpa tour, which coincidentally coincided with the release of his novel “The Fabulist.”  During the interview, he explained that he began his fabrication binge when, while working on a story, he realized that if he had just the right quote to end it with, the story would be perfect.  Lacking the quote, he made one up.

So it would seem to be the case for Mr. Daisey.  Lacking what he felt were enough stories to damn Apple and its use of the Foxconn facility, he made stuff up.  Again, to maintain credibility, for yourself and your subject, you can’t do that.

It didn’t have to be this way.  Mike Daisey could have written a play about atrocious working conditions at tech factories in China based on the facts at hand, but embellished with artistic flourish, including fictional characters — Clydes, if you will — to give the story grist.  By using the facts as a starting point, he could have put artistic license to good use and in the process captured the larger truths the story had to tell about First World countries foisting working conditions they would never accept for themselves upon countries hungry for increased development.  Hell, he even could have still called it “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” a catchy title which connects Apple and similar companies with the abuses documented at their suppliers’ factories.  The trouble is that Mr. Daisey didn’t stop there.  He went on a vendetta, against Apple and against Foxconn.  He wanted, as Rob Schmitz reports, a simple, A-B-C story that would draw an instant and immediate response:

[Adam Minter, a columnist for Bloomberg who has visited over 150 Chinese factories] says Daisey’s become a media darling because he’s used an emotional performance to focus on a much simpler message:

“Foxconn bad. iPhone bad. Sign a petition. Now you’re good,” Minter says. “That’s a great simple message and it’s going to resonate with a public radio listener.”

Storytelling is an ancient human tradition.  It comes in many forms and shapes.  In his blog entry, Mr. Daisey even calls Ira Glass’s “Retraction” story a form of storytelling.  Indeed, some of our best storytellers have been and are journalists.  Even within the realm of fiction, though, storytelling has rules which must be adhered to, the biggest being “Thou shalt not claim fiction as fact.”  To do otherwise is cheating.

I take offense at cheaters because, well, I don’t.  As hard as it is to get fiction published, I still don’t cheat and I admire and emulate others who operate by the same maxim.  It doesn’t matter the reason for cheating, altruism, self-aggrandizement, or some amalgam of the two, it’s still cheating.  And a storyteller must never cheat his or her audience.

© 2012, gar. All rights reserved.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.