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Mike Daisey, Sandra Fluke, and the importance of credibility

The big news in my little corner of the world today is This American Life’s retraction of the show they did that included a long excerpt of Mike Daisey’s one man show, The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. In the show, Daisey contrasts the Apple products that are known and loved by both he and most of his audience with the labor conditions under which they are produced in China. Much of the emotional power of the story derives from the fact that Daisey travelled to China himself to meet workers in the factories. In his show, he alternates between telling the history of Apple and his own first-hand accounts of meetings with the workers.

Today we learn that This American Life has issued a retraction because they fact-checked Daisey’s story and found that it was not 100% true. The translator Daisey hired features prominently in his stories, so This American Life asked to contact her to verify his story. He gave them a fake name for the translator and claimed he could not get in touch with her. They wound up locating her themselves and found that she disputed significant portions of Daisey’s tale.

Daisey claims to have met a 13 year old worker in the Shenzhen factory. He did not. That said, Chinese factories do employ underage workers to build Apple products. Daisey claims to have met workers who suffered permanent damage because they are forced to use n-hexane to clean the screens of devices. That chemical is not used in the factories he visited. Even so, that chemical is used in other factories that assemble Apple products. He claims to have met a man whose hands were twisted due to repetitive stress injury caused by assembling iPads who had never actually used an iPad. According to his translator, that did not occur. Can there be any doubt that nearly all of the factory workers in China never get to use the products they assemble?

The problem for Daisey in terms of credibility is that he tells these stories in the first person. He went to China to find out what was really going on, and this is what he found. Much of the power of his story derives from this personal connection — he is telling you first hand what he heard. You can find the same facts using Google, just like I, and presumably he, did. The personal narrative is the hook. People who find stuff on Google and tell you about it have blogs, not critically acclaimed stage shows. Unless the “Mike Daisey” in the show is a fictional character, the audience expects that his first-hand stories are true. When we learn that they are not, the air leaves the balloon.

People tend to pay more attention to stories when they are personal. Let’s look at the example of Sandra Fluke. Her Congressional testimony made a couple of essentially non-controversial points — many women use contraception for reasons other than birth control, and that it can be difficult to afford if your insurance doesn’t pay for it. You can find any number of politicians, reporters, public health experts, doctors, and random people on the street who will confirm them.

When a story pricks at our conscience, our brains tend to look for a way out and the easiest way out is to dismiss the story because we don’t trust the person who told it. So it’s easier for Rush Limbaugh to attack Sandra Fluke than to attack her testimony. His goal was to make people feel that she could be safely ignored, and he went about it in just about the most disgusting way possible.

Because the power of stories is so tightly coupled with the credibility of the teller, it’s especially important to avoid self-inflicted wounds. Here’s what 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. Certainly, the comprehensive investigations undertaken by The New York Times and a number of labor rights groups to document conditions in electronics manufacturing would seem to bear this out.

I’m sympathetic to his argument. All the stuff he talks about really did happen, if not to people he talked to. The problem, though, is that the impact of his story hinges upon his credibility as the teller. He must have known that when he tried to prevent This American Life from getting in touch with his translator.

Fortunately for the workers in China who deserve to work under better conditions, their story has taken on a life far beyond The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. Finding out that Mike Daisey was more interested in telling a powerful story than telling a true story is not enough to let Apple or its customers off the hook. He should be thankful for that.

For reasons of thoroughness, here’s Rob Schmitz’ report on his investigation into Daisey’s show. I also note with sadness that Cathy the translator does not seem to wear overlarge glasses that always need to be pushed up.

Update: This American Life digs deeper this week.

4 Comments

  1. You’re giving Daisey far too much of a pass. He lied. And he made premeditated efforts to dupe people into believing that his lies were true.

    Investigations by The Times and labor rights groups haven’t uncovered the sensational things Daisey claims to have found. And there were plenty of interviews he did where he claimed his made-up stories were factual.

    This is the kind of stuff that sickens me. There are real problems with working conditions in China, and people who do really need help and pressure from the West to make things better. Daisey’s lies don’t help.

    By Daisey making up bogus stories like this, many others who honestly and legitimately care about these issues will now be feeling duped and burned, and will be less likely to believe others with legitimate stories to tell of worker conditions in China.

    And companies like Apple, who really do seem committed to making things better in China, will continue to be the focus of negative attention, while so many other electronics companies who do far worse than Apple will continue to get a free pass. Because punishing one of the few companies making a real effort in this area is totally the way to show those other companies that they should make the same effort.

    Too many people take an “ends justify the means” approach to situations like this. Telling a lie, in the service of a greater truth, only makes that “greater truth” look like a sham that can’t stand on its own merits. That’s no way to achieve long-term positive change.

  2. I definitely do not take an “ends justify the means” approach.

    I’m fine with the negative attention on Apple. Apple may do more than some of its competitors, but Apple is also the most profitable company in the world. They have over $100 billion in the bank. They could be doing a lot more than they are.

  3. This reminded me of an interview On the Media did with John D’Agata about a feud with his fact checker D’Agata wrote a mediation for a magazine on a young man’s suicide but got many of the facts wrong, including the organizing facts of the essay. He used a similar defense, and I bought it exactly as much (none).

    Behavior like that is writer malpractice. When you are presenting something as factual, it’s power and persuasiveness stem in large part from what you’re reporting.

    You’re right that we look for easy reasons not to believe unpleasant facts. What Daisey has done is throw any reporting on unfair labor practices in China into doubt.

  4. I’m all for keeping the pressure on Apple to make sure they’re following through on their promises. But it makes zero sense to me that Apple’s very real efforts in China are vilified and cynically assumed to be mere PR stunts. All while their peers in the tech world are apparently allowed to be free from scrutiny.

    If all Apple gets for their efforts is vilification and criticism, what other company in their right mind would try to emulate Apple’s efforts to make things better in China?

    This is the very real damage cynicism does – we assume companies making true humanitarian efforts are just faking it. And that same cynicism expects less from the companies who don’t even try, giving them a free pass. Daisey’s work directly fed into this cynicism.

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