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Mar 22, 2012

Does it matter if Mike Daisey lied?

Last year monologist

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Pure Poison IconLast year monologist Mike Daisey performed a season on his one man show “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” at the Sydney Opera House in which he detailed his first hand experiences of speaking with Foxconn employees who had suffered due to horrific labour conditions there. By all accounts it was a harrowing and powerful show as Daisey recounted his meetings with workers who had been poisoned, had limbs crushed in machinery and told the story of others who had dropped dead on the production line. He also pointed out that a lot of the workers were actually children, some as young as thirteen, which added to the shock of his story. The problem is, it now appears that the most harrowing parts of his story were all fabricated.

Was this theatre or journalism? Does it matter if Daisey embellished his story to make a larger point? And what responsibility do media outlets have to check the authenticity of the stories told by whistleblowers?Daisey’s story unravelled after reporter Rob Schmitz raised concerns about the authenticity of his claims after radio program This American Life did a feature on Daisey.

The China correspondent for the public radio show Marketplace tracked down the interpreter that Daisey hired when he visited Shenzhen China. The interpreter disputed much of what Daisey has been saying on stage and on our show.

This American Life subsequently retracted the story and did an entire program pointing out the errors in their original interview with Daisey. Of course This American Life isn’t the only news outlet to have covered Daisey’s stage show, when he toured Australia his claims were reported uncritically in our own press, and there are no doubt a lot of journalists and editors at news outlets throughout the US who are understandably angry at being taken for a ride.

Daisey now claims that his work isn’t journalism, though his show was advertised as being non-fiction. Does it matter if he fabricated or embellished stories? Is it alright for him to weave stories from other places into his first hand monologue if it helps reinforce his point? Or has he actually harmed the cause he claims to be championing with his misdirection? There’s certainly a chance that by drawing attention to non existent problems Daisey has made it harder for real issues to gain focus, and now that he’s been largely discredited it’s inevitable that it will be harder to raise the issue of labour conditions in China with some people in the future.

There’s a friction here between journalists wanting to believe that they’re spreading a whistleblower’s story against the need to fact check a story that’s difficult to verify. This same issue occurs whenever a whistleblower approaches the press, whether it’s a story about animal welfare, working conditions at a factory or the Prime Minister applying pressure to a bureaucrat to help someone who lent him a ute, editors and journalists need to make a judgement call about whether that can believe their source. What can be done to separate hoaxers like Mike Daisey and Godwin Gretch from legitimate sources, and what responsibility should news organisations bear for getting it wrong?

While Daisey’s story was about a consumer electronics manufacturer it still demonstrates the problem of uncritical reporting from the press when what consumers actually want are “truth vigilantes”. How that disconnect gets solved is the question that confronts our news organisations.

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19 thoughts on “Does it matter if Mike Daisey lied?

  1. Fran Barlow

    [What we often don’t see is that our facts are usually not incontrovertible. It’s an old example, I know, but there was a time when earth being flat was a ‘fact’ that most people accepted. What are the analogous ‘facts’ today? I don’t claim to know – but it is that honest uncertainty that makes me reluctant to put my support behind the media enquiry.]

    Hmmm … not really.

    It was always the case that the idea that the Earth was flat was contested, albeit that it remained widely held. What the status of these claims was at the time is hard to say because the framework within which we now determine things as reliable stanements of observed reality has changed. It is doubtful if ‘facts’ in the modern sense of the term existed in ancient or medaieval times.

    The word “fact” (from the Latin factum — a thing done, an event) appears early in the 16th century, but here it is describing not the state of the world but some event. The more modern usage appears about 100 years later but as noted, it couldn’t, by definition, have anything like the standing that claim has now. Notions of truth and how to get at it were tossed about by Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Descartes and so on for quite a while. Comte didn’t even write his stuff on positivism for another 200 years — in 1830. Nor was there in any real sense, a scientific community in constant dialog to speak of until arguably the mid-to-late 19th century.

    In any event one may add that what we want from our media is basic professional rigour. If, a few years ago, relying on the consensus view, the media had spoken of the causal link between stress and stomach ulcers, that would have been fine, notwithstanding that a new understanding of the provenance of ulcers has emerged. Now they ought to include this new understanding in their accounts at least until there is something new and interesting that might force that view to be modified.

    No reasonable person expects the media to get quite subtle things 100% correct all of the time. Allowing that insight into truth may change over time is not the same as endorsing reckless disregard of what is knowable and salient to an issue at the time. Still less is it an endorsement of deliberate deception in the service of some cause. Journalists ought to be given the time and resources and political support to apply intellectual rigour to their reports on matters germane to public policy. That’s not a guarantee that everything that is reported will be absolutely correct now and forever, but it would be an excellent start.

  2. Tim Dymond

    I’m reminded of the ‘Gay Girl in Damascus’ issue from last year. An example of someone fabricating an entire person supposedly to draw attention to events that were ‘true’, just not happening to them: http://www.smh.com.au/technology/technology-news/gay-girl-in-damascus-is-a-man-called-tom-20110613-1fzmw.html

    ‘Gay Girl’ was criticised for endangering activists because people actually put their lives at risk trying to track down ‘Amina’. I’m hoping no actual workers at Foxconn got in trouble because of Daisey.

    On a lighter note, humans have always done this sort of thing. David Niven’s reminiscences of Hollywood, ‘The Moon’s a Balloon’ are generally accepted to be him inserting himself into others’ gossip and anecdotes. But nobody worries because it’s all in good fun: http://www.foliosociety.com/book/MBL/moon-a-balloon

  3. EKDV

    This guideline from Slate about who can make stuff up is rather good.