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Defending Mr. Daisey, Part 2: Big Fact, Little Fact

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A little over a week ago, I began this series about the flap over This American Life's hour-long "Retraction" of its January broadcast of excerpts of Mike Daisey's The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Lobs. In Act One, entitled "Lies Like Truth," I made the fairly obvious observation that theatre and journalism are not the same thing, and that we should be looking a bit more critically at Ira Glass' inability to distinguish between the two. Judging from the comments on that post, there are quite a few people who are obsessed with the "lies" that Mike Daisey told in his performance, and they fail to see that the question of "journalistic fact" in the realm of memoir and creative nonfiction is not quite as settled and cut-and-dried as they would like to make out.

Which brings us to

Act Two, "Big Fact, Little Fact."

Let's begin by revisiting the statement Ira Glass makes at the very beginning of "Retraction": "in fact-checking, our main concern was whether the things that Mike says about Apple and about its supplier, Foxconn, which makes this stuff, were true. That stuff is true. It's been corroborated by independent investigations by other journalists and studies by advocacy groups. And much of it has been corroborated by Apple itself in its own audit reports." Indeed, less than two weeks after "Retraction" was broadcast, a new report by the Fair Labor Association, a workers' rights group hired by Apple to monitor its Foxxconn operation, found, in the words of Gizmodo's Sam Biddle "Illegal working hours, legal pay, crooked unions, and danger."

Conspiracy Theory?

I tend to not be a proponent of conspiracy theories, mainly because my experience has been that people just aren't smart enough to pull conspiracies off. However, I do waver in this belief when it comes to corporations, which history has shown have repeatedly done their best to attack and undermine anyone who threatens their bottom line. So it is with some suspicion that I note the timing of TAL's "Retraction" just two weeks prior to the release of the FLA's newest report, and almost simultaneous with Apple's release of the iPad3 or whatever it is being called. And alarm bells really start going off when I read TheVerge's Niley Patel saying in his March 16th story about "Retraction," "Our sources at Apple have told us for months that the company viewed Daisey as untrustworthy..."

This week Rob Schmitz, the Marketplace reporter who worked with Ira Glass in preparing TAL's "Retraction," has a report on -- you guessed it -- Foxxconn. In the show notes, we find that Schmitz was able to visit "the carefully guarded and usually completely secret Apple supply chain... because the company wanted him to. After his story last month exposing the fabrications of high-profile critic Mike Daisey, Apple invited Rob to see its production line at the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen." This is particularly significant because Schmitz is only the second Western journalist to be allowed in Foxxconn since Daisey's exposure of the factory's conditions. To be clear, I am not suggesting a quid pro quo. On the other hand, now that Marketplace has indicated the connection between its invitation to tour Foxxconn and its attack on Daisey, the message seems pretty clear: you help Apple, and Apple will help you.

Marketplace, however, seems not in the least bit concerned that they might be perceived as a corporate lapdog. In the introduction to the part of the report on "bosses" they acknowledged that "what you're about to hear was a tour arranged by Apple and Foxconn," i.e., that what they are reporting runs the danger of having been manipulated. Nevertheless, they say,. "we thought the access was worth it." One would assume that Schmitz, taking these factors into consideration, would be particularly skeptical about what he sees. Nevertheless, he provides what amounts to an apologia for Apple by trotting out the usual story about how much worse it is to work on a Chinese farm than work 60-hour weeks on an Apple assembly line.

And so we are treated to the spectacle of Schmitz nearly absolving Apple of guilt. Again, from the Marketplace transcript: "Last week, Marketplace's Rob Schmitz actually got inside a Foxconn factory in the southern city of Shenzhen. He didn't meet anybody who was poisoned on the job. He didn't meet any 13-year-old workers. Nobody he talked to had been hurt in an explosion. He says the stories he heard were more about China than Apple."

Did he really think that on a tour of the facility arranged by Apple and Foxxconn that he would meet underaged workers, people poisoned on the job, or people who had been hurt in a explosion?

Political and Economic Pressures

Before we examine the specific issues, I'd like to mention something that, to my knowledge, hasn't been discussed much in relation to this story: Mike Daisey's translator, Cathy, who is used as the primary source for discrediting Daisey's stories. Given all the journalistic bravado on display in "Retraction," I was a little puzzled to find that Cathy, a single source who like Daisey didn't keep any notes from two years ago, was being treated as if her statements were God's truth. While I am not myself a journalist, it seems to me that at best a journalist might create a "he-said-she-said" scenario in which readers are asked to weigh the statements and decide for ourselves who to believe. Yet Ira Glass and Robert Schmitz treat each of Cathy's memories unquestioningly as objective fact. And while I have no evidence to discount the veracity of her statements or the accuracy of her memory, it seems to me a salient fact that she is a citizen of what can most generously be described as a totalitarian Chinese state who makes her living serving as a translator for businessmen visiting China. Her life and livelihood may, in fact, be dependent on denying the very things that Daisey was committed to exposing. Nevertheless, Schmitz doesn't even hint at the possibility that Cathy's memory might be influenced by political and economic pressure. Yet in Schmitz's Foxxconn report on Marketplace, he reports about an interview with a Foxxconn worker whose boyfriend (a Foxxconn supervisor), when she complained about her job, "steps in and whispers to her: 'You shouldn't be saying this to a foreign journalist.'" Is it too far-fetched to imagine a similar pressure, perhaps less direct, being applied to Cathy?

Nevertheless, if, as TAL acknowledges, the big facts about Foxxconn are true, then what lies are there that could undermine them so thoroughly that even someone at The Nation took potshots at Daisey? Let's take a look, and for each let's examine whether it calls into question the center of Daisey's narrative about working conditions at Foxxconn.

Little Facts

Right off the bat, Schmitz mentions the two things that made him and other overseas reporters begin questioning Daisey's narrative: guns and Starbucks. Daisey remembers Foxxconn security guards with guns, whereas Schmitz tells us that guards are not allowed to have guns in China, a fact which Cathy confirms. This one does seem to be a problem, and while Daisey continues to be puzzled that he remembers guns, the legal prohibition seems persuasive. It is a good issue to start out with, since it seems unshakeable.

But the Starbucks issue seems flimsy at best. Daisey says that members of an illegal union with whom he met said they talk a lot at coffee houses and Starbucks. Schmitz: "Factory workers who make $15, $20 a day are sipping coffee at Starbucks? Starbucks is pricier in China than in the US." Seriously? Apparently, this is the level of journalistic "fact" that Schmitz is going to deal with. Daisey has always been very clear that he doesn't take detailed notes, and creates his performances each night from an outline scenario not a memorized text. But in going on TAL, he apparently opens himself to attack because, in trying to communicate with an American audience, he uses a common coffee shop brand to create recognition? As the basis for an expose, this seems pretty skimpy.

In fact, this is the point where my internal warning alarm began going off. Because Schmitz follows this non-revelation with the following: "We all noticed these errors. And it made us wonder, what else in Daisey's monologue wasn't true?" And what follows is guilt by accretion: the building up of little fact after little fact to imply that the big facts are untrue. Here is a list of the litle facts that Schmitz uncovered -- and let's keep in mind the Big Question: do these details really undermine the issues surrounding Foxxconn employment practices?:
  • Whether Daisey decided to portray a businessman before or after he visited Foxxconn's gates.
  • Whether or not a blacklist Daisey was given by a "bird-like woman" whom both he and Cathy agree gave him said blacklist had an "official government stamp."
  • Was Cathy with Daisey on a cab ride that ended up on an exit ramp 85 feet in the air? Or was Daisey all alone?
  • Was the "emotional conversation" that Daisey said he had with Cathy really emotional?
  • Did Cathy warn Daisey that interviewing workers at the Foxxconn gate wouldn't work?
  • These are trivial details that are part of the narrative frame used to tell a story -- they have no bearing on the reality of Foxxconn abuses. They certainly don't establish that Daisey is a "liar," but rather that he is a storyteller. And no, those are not the same thing (see Act One).Other damning details according to Schmitz:
  • Daisey says he met hundreds of workers, Cathy says fifty -- both agree he met workers.
  • Daisey says he went to ten factories, Cathy says three -- both agree he visited factories.
  • Daisey said he met with 25-30 illegal union members, Cathy says two to five -- both agree he visited with illegal union members. (And in this particular case, given that the union is illegal, might not Cathy be inclined to downplay the numbers just a bit?)

Nibbled by Ducks

Eric Severeid famously said that dealing with network executives was like being nibbled to death by ducks. I suspect Daisey knows how he feels. All of these are details within the narrative frame that really don't touch on the central purpose of Daisey's performance, all journalistic huffing and puffing to contrary. I continue to be astonished by the number of people who seem willing to dismiss Daisey's performance in toto because of a difference in memory between two people, neither of whom have notes, and one of whom might have political reasons for downplaying abuses. It seems an extreme over-reaction.

But the effect on the national discussion of this issue is significant: Daisey has been removed from the picture as far as the latest FLA report on Foxxconn. Instead of Daisey's moral outrage being included in news reports, we have a collective sigh of boredom from the journalist class, one best characterized again by Gizmodo's Sam Biddle, who writes about the FLA report: "Nothing shocking -- mostly just the confirmation of what we've been reading and seeing for months, though it's certainly possible workers held back form fear of corporate retribution." Ho hum. Another day, another sweatshop.

Underage Workers and the Claw-Handed Man

There are two main "facts" that Daisey's critics regularly bring up: the claw-handed man, and the underage workers. We'll start with the latter.

Schmitz admits, "Underage workers are sometimes caught working at Apple suppliers. Apple's own audit says in 2010, when Daisey was in China, Apple found 10 facilities, where 91 underage workers were hired." But Schmitz says Cathy doesn't remember an underaged worker. Cathy says, "I think if she said she was 13 or 12, then I would be surprised. I would be very surprised. Then I'd be remembering for sure." And Schmitz fills in, "She'd be surprised because, she says, in the 10 years she's visited factories in Shenzhen, she's hardly ever seen underage workers." And Schmitz -- surprise surprise -- didn't see any either. So they must not exist. Except for, you know, those workers Apple mentioned in their own 2010 audit -- the year that Daisey visited.

And the Claw-Handed Man -- the man whose hand had been damaged in an industrial accident and who was fired thereafter for working too slowly. "Cathy does remember this guy," Schmitz admits. "But she says the man never told them he had ever worked at Foxconn." She doesn't remember where he worked, but just that she didn't think it was Foxxconn. In Daisey's story, he reaches into his bag and hands his iPad to the man, who looks at it in awe because in China iPads are outlawed, and he says "It's a kind of magic." I can imagine this moment onstage, and I can imagine that it is powerful. It is a moment of pure theatre, one that takes reality and compresses it into an image that burns into the memory and singes the heart. And whether this man worked at Foxxconn or Wintek is irrelevant to the moment's power, or the bedrock truth of that moment.

But what seems to really irritate Schmitz is that this story is "the most dramatic point in Daisey's monologue. Apparently, on stage, it's one of the most emotional moments in the show." And so it's effect is magnified, which is the purpose of theatre. Indeed, Cathy suggests that because Daisey's a writer, "I know what he says, maybe only half of them or less are true. But he's allowed to do that, right? Because he's not a journalist." To which Schmitz replies: "I don't know. You're right. He's a writer. He's a writer and an actor. However, his play is helping form the opinions of many Americans." And we can' t have that -- that's the role of journalists.

Why Daisey Is Important

Glass finishes "Retraction" with an interview with New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg, who shortly after TAL's original Foxxconn broadcast, published a front page story entitled "In China, Work Hazards Reveal the Human Costs of the iPad." The synopsis of Duhigg's feature reads as follows: "The workers assembling iPhones, iPads and other devices often labor in harsh conditions. Problems are as varied as onerous work environments and sometimes deadly safety problems. In some cases, employees work seven days a week. They live in crowded dorms and some say they stand so long that their legs swell until they can hardly walk. Under-age workers have helped build Apple's products, and the company's suppliers have improperly disposed of hazardous waste and falsified records." Sounds familiar, right? Sounds like something that "liar" Mike Daisey said.

Nevertheless, Glass uses Duhigg as a contrast to Daisey to discuss what he calls "the news that's fit to print." After Duhigg has mentioned that many Chinese workers want to work as many hours as possible because they need to send money back home to their impoverished familiy, and how incredibly quickly Chinese industry is able to bring together 8,700 industrial engineers to oversee 200,000 workers, Glass addresses the elephant in the room: "To get to the normative question that's kind of underlying all the reporting and all the discussion of this, the thing that we all want to know when we hear this is, like, wait, should I feel bad about this? You know what I mean? As somebody who owns these products, should I feel bad? And I don't know that I feel so bad when I hear this." And Duhigg responds, "So it's not my job to tell you whether you should feel bad or not, right? I'm a reporter for the New York Times."

I would suggest that, when it comes to a humanitarian question, that isn't good enough. In the midst of all this breast-beating about the niggling details of Daisey's story, what has been lost is the true moral outrage that the Foxxconn factory represented in 2010 and, if the FLA report is to be believed, still represents in 2012. Daisey's performance made these abuses powerful and personal, and he made people feel a sense of responsibility. He knew whether his audiences were supposed to feel bad or not, and he didn't back away from acting on that knowledge. Without that voice, which Schmitz and Glass have removed from the discussion, the pressure on Apple has lessened -- and that is a shame.

Steve Wozniak said, after seeing The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, "I will never be the same after seeing that show." That should be the goal. When Ira Glass invited Mike Daisey to do an excerpt of his performance, he acknowledged the moral significance of that goal. And Daisey was right to say "everything I have done in making this monologue for the theater was bent toward that end, to make people care. I'm not going to say that I didn't take a few shortcuts in my passion to be heard. But I stand behind the work. My mistake, the mistake I truly regret, is that I had it on your show as journalism. And it's not journalism. It's theater. It uses the tools of theater and memoir to achieve its dramatic arc. And of that arc and that work I'm very proud. Because I think it made you care, Ira. And I think it made you want to delve. And my hope is it has made other people delve."

And that is what has been lost thanks to TAL's "Retraction." Now it is up to journalists to make people care and make people want to delve. Do we really think that will happen?