Last 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.