This American Lie: The Ecstasy and Agony of Mike Daisey

In 2010, Mike Daisey — who had previously garnered acclaim for 21 Dog Years, a book and monologue about his experiences working for Amazon in the late ’90s — published a new monologue titled The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. In it, Daisey discusses his geekiness, his love for Apple products, and even his admiration for Steve Jobs’s ability to “[make] us need things we never even knew we wanted.”

His love and admiration took a hit, however, when he read about someone purchasing an iPhone with photos already on it, photos of the people and places involved in its construction. He began considering the humans whose hands assembled his beloved Apple products, and he set out to find the truth. This lead him to Shenzhen, China’s third largest city, and to the gates of Foxconn, the world’s largest manufacturer of electronics, including the iPhone and iPad.

Foxconn had recently been in the headlines, not for their manufacturing prowess, but because people — fourteen by the end of 2010 — were committing suicide by throwing themselves off Foxconn’s buildings due to poor working conditions. In the shadow of that tragedy, Daisey arrives at Foxconn’s gates, and he begins interviewing the workers congregating there between shifts. His findings are poignant and disturbing:

  • He meets underage workers, including a 13-year-old girl who cleans thousands of iPhone screens by hand.
  • He interviews members of “secret” labor unions.
  • He meets people whose minds have been wrecked by exposure to n-hexane, a chemical used to clean iPhone screens that also happens to be a neurotoxin.
  • He meets a man whose hand was crushed in a metal press used to make the iPad.

On January 6, 2012, This American Life aired an episode containing part of Daisey’s monologue, and it became the most downloaded This American Life episode ever. Other news organizations also aired portions of Daisey’s monologue and used his monologue as inspiration for their own exposés.

There was just one problem, however: Mike Daisey’s monologue was riddled with lies, fabrications, and half-truths.

On March 16, 2012, This American Life aired a new episode simply titled “Retraction” in which they explained the numerous discrepancies in Daisey’s story that had been uncovered by Marketplace‘s China correspondent Rob Schmitz. (Schmitz tracked down Daisey’s Chinese interpreter, who disputed a number of details in Daisey’s monologue.) The most interesting part of the episode — which I highly recommend listening to — occurs when host Ira Glass interviews Daisey himself about his fabrications. Between incredibly long, awkward silences, Daisey explains why he kept up the facade:

I think I was terrified that if I untied these things, that the work, that I know is really good, and tells a story, that does these really great things for making people care, that it would come apart in a way where, where it would ruin everything.

Even just reading the transcript of The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs reveals Daisey as a gifted storyteller. The Agony reads like part detective story, part spy thriller, part geek manifesto. And by all accounts, he’s a gifted public performer. But even so, what was it about this story in particular that caught so many people’s attention, and that got even respected and acclaimed journalists to let down their guard and forego their usual fact-checking processes?

It obviously touches on our sense of justice. Few causes can work up sympathy like that of “sweatshop” workers, of people made to work long hours in deplorable working conditions for paltry sums of money. Nobody will dispute — not even Apple, who has increased their own watchfulness over their supplier’s actions — that conditions in China’s factories have considerable room for improvement. But without diminishing the harsh reality that Chinese workers might face, the situation is a bit more complicated.

China has become an undisputed global economic powerhouse in the last decade or so. As a result, many Chinese have moved from the country’s rural areas to major cities like Shenzhen in search of economic opportunities. Many of these people end up at factories like Foxconn. (Foxconn currently employs hundreds of thousands of Chinese, with many of them working 12-hour days and living in a massive compound called “Foxconn City.”)

But here’s the rub: According to Adam Minter, a Bloomberg columnist who has traveled to many Chinese factories, most of those workers are glad to have such a job. Working at a factory can bring them far more money than they could earn back home, and many of them go to outlandish lengths to acquire factory jobs. Indeed, Tim Culpan, who has covered Foxconn for many years, recently wrote:

We went inside the same Longhua campus in Shenzhen, which required Foxconn’s approval, and chatted with workers. We stood outside the gates (possibly the same gates where Daisey claimed he found underage workers), with Foxconn unaware we were there. We wandered farther into the local neighborhood shopping strip, among the bubble-tea stands and food vendors, where the young workers went on dates and caught up with friends. These weren’t Daisey-esque scenes of woe and horror.

Rather than forced labor and sweatshop conditions, workers told of homesickness and the desire to earn more money — two impulses that seemed to drive each other for workers planning to go home once they’d earned enough. The homesickness had been alleviated, somewhat, by more Foxconn-led extra-curricular activities, with one worker elated to share that “now I have a girlfriend.” And the drive for money satiated, somewhat, by a large pay raise a few months prior.

Again, this is not to say that reform isn’t needed in China — a recent report found that Foxconn does, in fact, have “serious and pressing noncompliances” that need to be addressed – nor that companies like Apple don’t bear a responsibility to improve the good of those who produce their products.

Daisey’s monologue also plays to our love of seeing the “big guys” get their comeuppance. While Apple is one of America’s most respected companies, it has also garnered a reputation for being elitist and willing to crush anyone in its way. (Witness their recent legal kerfuffle with Samsung, for example.) Who doesn’t like to see such corporations taken down a peg or two, especially given today’s economic climate? But is it possible that, in a desire to see a generally respected company like Apple take a precipitous fall — which would certainly make for a fantastic narrative — conclusions were rushed to? That certainly seems likely, especially given that Daisey’s allegations had already become common knowledge and were being dealt with by the time his monologue hit and impugned Apple for its callousness.

However, it may not only be Apple that folks were hoping to take a fall. In a fascinating reflection on the Daisey situation, Evan Osnos — who lives and reports in Beijing — wonders why people were so quick to buy into Daisey’s descriptions of Chinese society. Osnos concludes that Daisey’s story was so captivating because “it satisfied so many of our casual assumptions about China and Apple.” It plays to our ignorance of Chinese society, which Osnos explores as well, and further reveals the duplicity in Daisey’s account. (There may also be some not-so-subtle racism going on.)

It is entirely possible that Daisey set out with noble intentions. Those intentions, though, became corrupted by hubris — which allowed him to manipulate and make up facts to fit his desired narrative. As becomes painfully aware during his interview with Ira Glass, as well as subsequent statements, Daisey saw this as acceptable because the end result — raising awareness about poor working conditions in China — was good. The ends justified the means, in other words, regardless of the harm or error those means might have incurred. (Indeed, some believe that Daisey’s lies might have harmed labor reform and human rights efforts in China.)

Those of us who call ourselves Christians can learn much from Daisey’s exposure and fall. Our devotion must always be to the truth, and not to our own hubris and pride, or to some predefined narrative that may very well be a good one, but that we are willing to support at all costs. (Alan Noble’s “Citizenship Confusion” column frequently touches on this, e.g., his article on Robert Spencer.) We believe that the truth will set people free. It doesn’t need our “help” — i.e., embellishments and fabrications — to help it along. The minute we lie to help the truth, we undercut our own position and integrity, and risk the integrity of everything. The ends do not justify the means.

On March 25, Daisey posted an apology to his blog. In it, he quotes a rather damning passage from an interview he had given last year:

…what I’ve found over the years is that the facts are your friends, like if there’s ever a case where I’m telling the story and I find the facts are inconvenient, 9 times out of 10 it means I haven’t thought about the story deeply enough. I really believe in this because the world is more complex and more interesting than my imagination. So the world is full of really fascinating things. You have so many tools on stage as a storyteller. Like, any time you want something to happen, you don’t have to pretend it happened and lie, you can use a flight of fancy, you can say, ‘I imagine what this must look like.’ You can say anything and you can go in whatever direction you need to go, but be clear with the audience, but be clear with the audience that at one moment you’re reporting the truth as literally it happened, and another case you’re using hyperbole, and you just have to be really clear about when you’re using each tool. No, for me it’s not actually that hard if — and this is a big if — if you’re pretty scrupulous about not believing you know the story before you see it.

In our pursuit of the truth, we must never let our judgment waver, nor must we ever assume that we know where a narrative will lead. We must always be clear and think deeply about the narratives we convey. At the same time, we shouldn’t give in to skepticism. Rather, we must calmly and patiently explore the facts, avoid jumping to conclusions and knowingly spreading deception, look at the various perspectives — which is that much easier to do now with the technology at our fingertips — and exercise humility.

The truth doesn’t need our “help” to make it better, stronger, or more noteworthy and impactful. Rather, it needs us to step aside with our pride and preconceived notions, to submit to it, and give it room to spread and advance — and change the world.

Illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne. Check out his graphic novel and comic review site, Good Ok Bad

About Jason Morehead

Jason Morehead lives in the lovely state of Nebraska with his wife, three children, zero pets, and a large collection of CDs, DVDs, books, and video games. He's a fan of Arcade Fire and Arvo Pärt, Jackie Chan and Andrei Tarkovsky, "Doctor Who" and "Community," and C.S. Lewis and Haruki Murakami. He's also a web development geek, which pays the bills — and buys new music and movies. Twitter: @jasonopus. Web: http://opus.fm.

  • http://www.diannaeanderson.net Dianna

    I didn’t know of this story until the Retraction episode of This American Life aired. That episode was one of the most fascinating pieces of journalism I’ve ever heard, and the interview section with Daisey was awkward to the point of discomfort. It amazed me the intense amount of cognitive dissonance he was going through in order to justify himself. When asked if truth matters, he replies:

    “Yeah, I think the truth is tremendously important. I don’t live in a subjective universe where everything is up for grabs. I really do believe stories should be subordinate to the truth. [reporter asks him why he didn't tell the truth in this story, then] Everything in this monologue is built out of the trip I took and the time I spent on the ground, so I don’t know that I would accept that interpretation.”

    It’s a sort of fascinating look at human nature to see how he refuses to admit that he was wrong and that he did manipulate things. That’s what I found most …interesting? I guess.

    Thanks for posting about this, Jason.

  • http://listento.jaketolbert.com Jake T

    I found the whole thing utterly fascinating–I heard the first Daisy episode and found it compelling, if not suprising.

    And then the whole Retraction episode was so full of heartache on every side.

    Because I could see it from Daisy’s side: this amazing opportunity comes along to Be On This American Life!!! Who can turn that down? And somewhere along the way, he realizes “Oh crap, they want real, factual journalism…uh…let’s just see if we can get through this.”

    And then it all falls apart.

    I’ll be the first to argue that good writing needs to lie its way to the truth. It doesn’t take long in an entry-level college creative writing workshop, seeing the (true, mostly autobiographical) stories of people’s high school romances get torn apart to realize how important it is to disregard the truth and write the real story.

    But journalism is such a different beast. And Daisy clearly works in a strange place between the two.

    It’s a shame that the truth of Daisy’s story will be mollified by the fact that it was presented as journalism, but isn’t (by both TAM and Daisy himself).

    PS. the heartache and regret in Ira’s voice throughout the Retraction episode was pretty brutal, too.

  • http://lecoupdoeil.wordpress.com mkross

    The “truth” that gets lost in this whole Dailey debacle is the almost flippant way Ira Glass and Charles Duhigg speak about the real working conditions in China in Act Three of the Retraction episode. The whole thing smacks of elitism; especially the part where Glass and Duhigg agree that

  • http://lecoupdoeil.wordpress.com mkross

    (sorry for the accidental premature post, allow me to continue) …Chinese workers are different than American workers. I say Glass agrees because he merely says “Um-hum,” to everything Duhigg says including this line:

    “I do not think that you would find any factory in America where you would find those same conditions and you would not find any Americans who would tolerate those conditions. That being said, I think that China is a little bit different and that the expectations, particularly as a developing nation of workers, are a little bit different. I don’t think holding them to Americanstandards is precisely the right way to look at the situation.”

    Another line that really stuck in my craw is Duhigg speaking about the difference betwwen harsh and life-threatening conditions:

    “I think the important thing here is that some of these are simply very, very harsh conditions and some of these are life-threatening situations and the life-threatening conditions, as far as we know, seem to be limited to a relatively small number of incidents.”

    As if “very, very harsh conditions” are the acceptable cost of business? If truth is to be “[given] room to spread and advance — and change the world,” then we do not need to “step aside with our pride and preconceived notions” but instead examine the subtleties of our pride and preconceived notions and how they allow us to focus on Dailey’s lies yet miss the racism of Duhigg’s and Glass’ view on Chinese workers.


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