This American Life retracts Mike Daisey’s China labour story

If only I’d known this show may contain nuts. Mike Daisey’s monologue, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, a powerful exposé about labour abuses at the Apple factory in China, turns out to contain falsehoods.

Daisey did what he claims no journalist had done: he went into the Foxconn factory under cover as a businessman and emerged with a shocking eyewitness account of suicide nets, gun-toting security guards and under-age child labour spilling out into the streets. Forbes reports:

To cite just one example: child labor. The abuses of many foreign factories, including Apple’s, have been extensively documented by journalists and NGOs, and employing children is the among the most explosive and damaging. The New York Times has reported that Apple itself had cited Foxconn for hiring 15-year-olds. But the Times reporters evidently found none of them, nor is it clear how extensive a problem it is. Schmitz, who has also reported extensively on this topic, says “these things are rare,” and Apple claims it’s been addressed. Yet Daisy claimed the problem was literally overflowing into the street: “I’m telling you that in my first two hours at my first day at that gate I met workers who were 14 years old…13 years old…12 …Do you really think Apple doesn’t know?”

Ira Glass, presenter of This American Life, the Chicago Public Radio programme that first aired Daisey’s show and propelled the performer to stardom and hero status, has fessed-up to failing to fact-check, falling for the writer’s claim that he didn’t have his Chinese interpreter’s mobile number. They are now pulling the original programme and broadcasting one this weekend that investigates where it went wrong.

Daisey is unrepentant. Yes, it is true that you can tell a bigger truth by juggling the facts, especially in fiction where dramatic license is a stock-in-trade. You can use a distorting mirror to pull into view aspects that an audience might have otherwise missed, as long as the audience is in on the game. However, pure invention of facts that you know will be taken at face value, that you have not signalled as being tampered with, makes you more than a “fabulist” as some are politely labelling him: it wrecks the very case you are making. Daisey says:

I stand by my work. My show is a theatrical piece whose goal is to create a human connection between our gorgeous devices and the brutal circumstances from which they emerge. It uses a combination of fact, memoir, and dramatic license to tell its story, and I believe it does so with integrity. What I do is not journalism [italics mine]. The tools of the theater are not the same as the tools of journalism. For this reason, I regret that I 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. But this is my only regret.

There are real problems in China regarding harsh labour conditions and a polarisation of rich and poor. Outflanked by unofficial strikes and protests, the approved trade unions are having to negotiate towards a better life for their workers, and there is a growing movement for the establishment of independent trade unions, but this sensationalising does not help. It adds to the weight of dehumanisation of the Chinese. Sadly, there is such a feeding-frenzy around demonising China and the Chinese that such exaggerations are assumed to be literal truth. Any carpet-bagging opportunist can thereby pluck what they like from the collective fantasy being constructed and build a career on it.

Daisey is a mesmerising performer who had a long and successful career stretching out in front of him. His reputation is now in tatters and the bigger truth has not been served.

PODCAST This Americal Life investigation here or here

Apple at fault at Foxconn. Fair Labor Association’s findings on Apple and Foxconn

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