“I’m not making up any of these stories I’m telling you tonight. Um…except for one. Except for the fact that the banana sticks to wall when it hits. That’s the only one. Everything else is true.”—Spalding Gray, “Swimming to Cambodia”
At Macworld Expo 2011, I ran into Mike Daisey on the trade show floor. He was taking a walk around with Philip-Elmer DeWitt of Fortune and a producer from the regional theatre company that planned to mount the show they had helped workshop, “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.” I was not precisely pleased to see him, and we chatted awkwardly for a moment, before they went on their way. The show toured widely, Daisey became a much-quoted and videotaped expert on Apple’s supplier factories in China, and This American Life aired a shorter version of it in collaboration with Daisey.
It all came apart Friday, when This American Life retracted their endorsement of Daisey's work. I’m not surprised a bit, but it makes me blue how this played out.
I met Daisey in Seattle over a decade ago when he developed the monologue that put him on the map, “21 Dog Years,” later expanded into a book. I had worked at Amazon for six months in 1996–1997, and called Daisey up for lunch. We became something between acquaintances and friends. He took “21 Dog Years” on the road, and had a successful off-Broadway run. I saw the show again there, bringing a bunch of Mac writers and New York friends during the last Macworld Expo in that city. I saw a later version when a theatre company that produces typically “classic” theatre brought him back for a run, and participated in an on-stage discussion by past Amazonians after one performance. He and I have lost touch in the years since, but I followed his career arc until he had become something akin to Spalding Gray, if not yet quite as well known.
That made our encounter in 2011 difficult. Because I knew that Mike doesn’t speak literal truth in his performances. Unless a play or monologue is presented as being factual, one knows that the narrative is shaped to the needs of the form. The Amazon story (both play and book) was full of elements that I either know for a fact, learned from friends and colleagues, or could intuit were not factually precise or were fabricated.
That is fine in the theatre, although perhaps a disclaimer such as Gray’s at the outset of this article would have helped. Performers who tell stories are there to tell stories. They paint a world you inhabit during a performance and play your emotional piano. With a good script and good performers, you leave with insight, but not necessarily new facts.
And that would be why the This American Life debacle seemed inevitable. By early 2011, before I ran into Mike at Macworld Expo, I thought it likely that parts of "Agony" were dramatizations of things he had seen and heard about, made larger than life. I thought it might be a good item for the Economist, where I write a few items a week for its Babbage blog. I started to work on a brief article… and found myself mired again and again when I came to the details of what Mike was claiming based on what I had gleaned from show excerpts, his blog, and interviews he had given.
I did not doubt that conditions in Foxconn and other Chinese factories could be dangerous and difficult for employees. The vast majority of workers in all industries work harder every day of the week than the vast majority of workers in the United States and other developed nations. That is a fact we must all confront, and which has been highlighted more in the last two years than the last two decades. It is not an Apple-specific problem, nor one specific to foreign companies doing business in China.
But Daisey could not have gathered the amount of information he alleged he did for the show in a week in China. Daisey describes himself, in a PDF transcription of one performance of the show hosted on his site, “And at the end of the day, I am large, I am American, and I am wearing a f——— Hawaiian shirt.” Daisey claims to have walked in with a translator to Foxconn and other plants and to have talked to dozens of workers.
I thought he might have pulled it off. He’s compelling. He tells a good story. But the sheer variety of stories he collected made it impossible. In the transcript, Daisey says that some of the very first workers he met admitted to the translator that they were young teenagers—prohibited under Chinese law from being factory workers and against Apple’s supplier guidelines. In the same few days, he meets a fellow with a mangled hand, workers poisoned by n-hexane, and observes other violations and injuries. It was just too much. Ira Glass says that Mike Daisey admitted to him that the stories were second-hand, that he never met with the quantity of people he says he did—nor most of the folks he talks about. (Glass speculates that he didn’t meet with any of them.)
Long-form non-fiction, the stuff that the Atlantic, Harper’s, and The New Yorker specialize in, requires enormous amounts of time to gain the trust of people, gather information, put the pieces together. A single visit and random encounters aren’t enough. Daisey’s translator says that almost nothing Daisey says occurred did, and Daisey confirmed specific incidents were fabricated to Ira Glass.
I never finished that Economist blog item, nor, I believe, even told my editors I was working on it. But neither did I try to call Mike out. I had a strong inductive supposition, but I didn’t have affirmative evidence. And it was theatre. Do I really need to fact-check theatre? Not really. (Alex Heard picked apart David Sedaris’ embroidery of reality in his allegedly “true” radio stories and books for The New Republic, but Sedaris doesn’t pretend his work is reportage.)
When “Agony” came to Seattle, I received a few emails from Mike, with whom I hadn’t corresponded or seen in a while. I believe he sent three, and each one caused me paroxysms of agony. I did not want to see the show, and did not want to confront the fact that my logic insisted that Daisey had made up incidents he had now spent a year outside the theatre claiming as true in countless print and televised interviews. He had taken a theatrical work and turned it inside out, perhaps never evaluating whether the reality of what he experienced as a performer inside the show could be matched by objective reality.
He remains defiant, even after apparently being contrite to Ira Glass. On his website, he says he stands by his work and regrets letting This American Life air an excerpt. He omits the fact that he worked closely with the show to tailor his monologue to fit its parameters and lied to them directly about facts and factchecking. It’s a shame that he can’t own up directly to that on his own. (At least two theatres stand by his performance, which makes perfect sense: They are his current venue and an upcoming one, the same that launched the show in the Bay Area.)
What’s terrible is, of course, that conditions in Chinese manufacturing plants are not wonderful, or, at the very least, are not uniformly safe and good workplaces. I do not believe I could work a 40-hour week in a hog-rendering plant in the United States nor a 60-hour or more week in a Foxconn factory in China. I do not have the stamina, but such work is prized in China for the relatively high pay and good conditions. That’s the tragedy. A multi-part New York Times series explains the human cost of weaknesses in worker protection in China in the current system, and the level of complaint seems to have—in aggregate—prompted Apple to step up its oversight. We hear crickets from Apple’s competitors and consumer-electronics makers, not to mention other manufacturing industries, of course. (David Gallagher, a New York Times editor, told me via Twitter Friday morning that the series wasn’t prompted by Daisey’s monologue.)
Daisey could have saved himself all this trouble by having a disclaimer in his program or at the start of his show. “I’m telling a story that mixes accounts from people I’ve met and those in the news and through others to help you understand. Everything I’m telling you is true, but the circumstances are not.”
But then, of course, This American Life would never have come calling.
[Glenn Fleishman is a senior contributor to Macworld, and also contributes to TidBits and the Economist.]