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Does it matter if Mike Daisey lied?

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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  • 1
    Matthew of Canberra
    Posted March 22, 2012 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    This American Life actually did their last show as a retraction of the claims about foxconn. They devoted the whole show to it, looking into where the information came from, where it didn’t come from and how they got it wrong. Nice work, I say. But, then, they ARE public broadcasting.

    If people are expected to believe the things that somebody says as being factual (or at least substantially factual) then I think there’s an ethical obligation to check facts and fess up with they’re wrong.

  • 2
    EKDV
    Posted March 22, 2012 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

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

  • 3
    Posted March 22, 2012 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    Just in case anyone thinks that rhetorical question in the title suggests we think the answer might be “no” – for the record, of course it matters if Daisey lied. It matters a lot.

    I agree with Dave:

    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.

    That’s a real problem. Daisey’s done those who’d abuse human rights in China a massive favour.

  • 4
    monkeywrench
    Posted March 22, 2012 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

    Not to suggest that there weren’t abuse at the Foxconn facility, but the unholy glee with which some media commentators leapt onto it was always suspicious of that stratum of the media that hate Apple no matter what they do. News coverage rarely pointed out that other manufacturers had similar questions raised over their Chinese sources.

  • 5
    Tim Dymond
    Posted March 22, 2012 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

    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

  • 6
    returnedman
    Posted March 22, 2012 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

    Andrew could put all his regular material into a Melbourne Comedy Festival show and claim the “Daisey Defense” when challenged.

    His columns are certainly funny enough for it to be a hit.

  • 7
    Fran Barlow
    Posted March 22, 2012 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

    I looked at the This American Life retraction, and I thought it was a credit to them. As embarrassing as this was for them, it seems clear that they take accuracy very seriously and are likely to be a lot more careful in the future. Their retraction was timiley, thorough, candid and declined to blame shift.

    How wonderful would it be if the media in this country decided to approach the same ethical benchmark?

  • 8
    returnedman
    Posted March 22, 2012 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

    The Yes Men do it better than anyone.

    http://theyesmen.org/

  • 9
    mondo rock
    Posted March 22, 2012 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

    Instead of forcing the media to act as arbiters of truth (a largely impossible task), why don’t we ask ourselves as citizens to apply a slightly more sensible approach to media consumption? That is, to understand that NOTHING in the media should be taken as gospel and most reporting is filtered through an ideological lens.

    Dave – you argue that consumers want reporters to be “truth vigilantes”, but I would argue that consumers only really want reporters to do this when the outcome reinforce their worldview. Most consumers don’t like to be confronted with facts or viewpoints that challenge their assumptions and will generally seek out media outlets that minimise the chance of this occuring.

    Take this website as an example.

    The problem is that so many of us become convinced that our self-selected sources of information deliver us some sort of absolute truth, instead of realising that every source of information needs to be approached with caution.

  • 10
    Matthew of Canberra
    Posted March 22, 2012 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

    “I looked at the This American Life retraction, and I thought it was a credit to them. ”

    The very first T.A.L I ever listened to started with ira glass reading some apologies that some prominent people had recently made. Full and forthright “I was wrong and I’m sorry” type apologies. And he responded with a genuine-seeming “Nice work. Well done” (the subject of “sorry” was relevant to the following story). I’m not really surprised that they might face up to their mistake and admit it – they just seem to be that sort of people.

  • 11
    Aliar Jones
    Posted March 22, 2012 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

    The problem is that so many of us become convinced that our self-selected sources of information deliver us some sort of absolute truth, instead of realising that every source of information needs to be approached with caution.

    Nice spiel…if only that were the case..

    Take you for example.

  • 12
    fractious
    Posted March 22, 2012 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

    mondo

    Instead of forcing the media to act as arbiters of truth

    Maybe I’m under a misapprehension, but I don’t think that’s the point here. What’s being suggested (if not implored) is that journos have a duty to report the facts, and to check the facts they report as far as they are able to, and when they and/or their employers get it wrong make a full apology in plain sight. In that sense much of this ties in with the Finkelstein inquiry recommendations.

    That said my (doubtless cynical) view is that the general culture of both print and online mainstream media is antithetical to the attitude that encourages (if not requires) journos to check facts, report them honestly and make public amends when mistakes are made. After all, there is more than enough evidence of MSM journalistic failure (and in some cases blatant dishonesty) even on stories and issues whose facts can be readily checked and corroborated – this blog’s primary premise – so what chance they would check (let alone burrow hard enough to discover the reality of) a claim whose context was hard to get at?

  • 13
    Howard,B.
    Posted March 22, 2012 at 8:49 pm | Permalink

    Jonesy

    Given that Mondo appears to be suggesting that people are naturally prone to filter news through their own set of prejuidices to arrive at a comfortable conclusion, I can only assume that your disagreement means you believe people are generally infallible arbiters of a truth without bias. I admire your faith in your fellow man, Jonesy.
    That you hold up Mondo as some example of this impartial perfection is exceedingly generous of you.

  • 14
    Aliar Jones
    Posted March 22, 2012 at 8:56 pm | Permalink

    That you hold up Mondo as some example of this impartial perfection is exceedingly generous of you.

    No doubt the other folks who comment here regularly will find this interpretation by you most amusing.

    I admire your faith in your fellow man, Jonesy.

    Cough…I have you as a low tide marker Howie.

  • 15
    Howard,B.
    Posted March 23, 2012 at 12:15 am | Permalink

    No doubt the other folks who comment here regularly will find this interpretation by you most amusing.

    Perhaps they will, Jonesy. Thankfully though, most of the other regulars are able to articulate why it is they would find it amusing. This is a skill I would encourage you to develop, if for nothing else than to allay my suspicion I’m interacting with litlle more than a random insult generator.

    I have you as a low tide marker Howie.

    A man who responds to an expression of admiration with a disparagement probably isn’t humanity’s high-water mark himself.

  • 16
    mondo rock
    Posted March 23, 2012 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    Hi Fractious

    I agree with you in principle – but I guess the point I was trying to make was that ‘facts’ are often quite subjective in the sphere of public debate. We tend to approach an issue from an assumption that what we believe to be facts are definitely facts, and we react when we see a journo or other commentator writing from a different assumption.

    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.

    Aliar – do you ever have anything to offer other than childish ad-hom?

  • 17
    Fran Barlow
    Posted March 23, 2012 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

    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.

  • 18
    Aliar Jones
    Posted March 27, 2012 at 12:09 am | Permalink

    A man who responds to an expression of admiration with a disparagement probably isn’t humanity’s high-water mark himself.

    Oh per-f-lease…acting skills are not in your bad of tricks either Howie.

    What a pathetic and melodramatic attempt to take some moral high ground.

    Anyone familiar with your contributions here ain’t buying that for a millisecond.

  • 19
    Aliar Jones
    Posted March 27, 2012 at 12:09 am | Permalink

    bag…not bad (typo)

    though your bag of tricks is indeed also bad.

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