I’ve written before about how much I love This American Life, living proof that public broadcasting is a very good idea. Every week I download the podcast introduced by Ira Glass and its eclectic, insightful, human stories of life in all its forms.
In January 2012 TAL broadcast a monologue by Mike Daisey, a long-established and successful writer and performer. The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs was a compelling and powerful piece about Daisey’s experiences in China, when he visited factories used by Apple to produce their iPhones and iPads. His performance is extraordinary, relating meetings with people poisoned by industrial chemicals, with underage workers, with a man whose hand has been ‘ruined’ by machinery, with armed guards at the factory gates.
Mike Daisey is a great storyteller. That episode of TAL has been downloaded or streamed over 1 million times. He has become an unofficial spokesman for the campaigners seeking to expose industrial conditions in American companies’ plants in China and elsewhere. He has been all over American news channels. His monologue is extremely moving in many different ways. Most importantly, I believed that he had seen and experienced all these things, and it made me care about what’s behind the beautiful Apple touchscreens.
Last week TAL retracted their broadcast of his story; not because it’s all made up, because it’s not. Many of the stories he reports are true, well-reported and documented, often by Apple themselves. Their episode in which they explore the allegations against Apple and other suppliers makes for sometimes bleak listening. The scale of this industrial production is astonishing. Hundreds of thousands of workers fleeing rural poverty has elements of the 19th century about it. But as the programme explains…
There were times in this nation when we had harsh working conditions as part of our economic development. We decided as a nation that that was unacceptable. We passed laws in order to prevent those harsh working conditions from ever being inflicted on American workers again. And what has happened today is that, instead of exporting that standard of life, which is in our capacity to do, we have exported harsh working conditions to another nation.
It is right that people raise these issues. We deserve to at least understand what is done to produce these wondrous devices.
But, and this is a blindingly tough challenge for the bleeding-heart liberal, how far should the truth be manipulated to create a more powerful, more compelling narrative?
Mike Daisey accepts that his monologue is not a factual, historical document of his experiences in China. TAL contacted his translator after a simple Google search despite Daisey claiming he could no longer reach her. She says many of the things in his performance didn’t happen. He attributes conversations to her that didn’t happen. He told TAL producers that her name isn’t Cathy (but it is, for professional purposes at least). He never met a worker whom he actually verified was 12 years old, but in his monologue he says he did.
There are countless inconsistencies in his account. But why should that be a problem if the wider story he is telling is true, and if his methods are getting that story to a wider audience?
I Reckon that the truth should get in the way of a good story, when that story attempts to challenge the status quo, expose hypocrisy or double-standards, and crusades against the the System. A challenge to the vested interests or the established wisdom has to stand up to scrutiny. Scientific research that challenges the existing paradigms, that uncovers anomalies in the way we understand the world, has to be peer-reviewed before it can become the new reality, the new way of explaining the way things are.
Mike Daisey claims that his performance doesn’t need to live up to noraml journalistic standards of accuracy, that he can hide behind the smokescreen of theatrical licence. He claims to be exposing a wider context of truths, and as such his only mistake has been to allow TAL (which takes its journalistic standards very seriously) to broadcast his story.
But I Reckon he is kidding himself. Mike Daisey seems to believe his only mistake has been to allow TAL to broadcast his performance. So lying to their team of producers about the facts and accuracy of his story was their fault?
I Reckon that deep down he knows he has run fast and loose with the facts in a bad way. Noone with his experience writes a piece called The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs without thinking, expecting, hoping that it will become news. He wants to expose the reality of the manufacturing process of the iconic products of the 21st century, but instead of his recent interviews being about those realities, they’ve focused on questioning his integrity. TV & press journalists have been challenging his standards (yes, really…). He has become the story. But he isn’t the story. He’s just a messenger, and he’s become a distraction. The TAL team believed his performance was a reflection of what actually happened to him. I believed it. He wants us to believe it.
I Reckon he should apologise, tell the truth about his performance, but keep performing.
Meanwhile, Apple has reported that in the first launch weekend, it has sold 3 million units of the new iPad3.