I’m an NPR junkie. I wake up to my local station, WNYC, every morning, and throughout the day I listen while I’m working at home. Years ago, This American Life was my gateway drug to NPR. They have a way of telling very human, straightforward, and surprisingly non-judgmental true life stories that are a refreshing alternative to the heavily manipulated “reality” shows that fill up the airwaves these day (I have my own guilty pleasures in that genre, more on that later).
I rarely get to listen to TAL in its initial radio broadcast on WNYC on Sunday nights, usually I have a backlog queued up on my phone that I listen to the once or twice a week when I’m on the subway or bus. I had heard bits and pieces of the show of actor/playwright Mike Daisey story about his trip to the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen China in 2010, adapted from his one-man show “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.”
I was aware of the Foxconn controversy before the original TAL, I think it first came to my attention with an article in Wired about the worker suicides. There are no less than 6 apple mobile devices in my apartment at this moment, so I’ve been feeling twinges of consumer guilt and that I should do some more reading and research of my own and think about whether I really wanted to continue tacit support of the conditions under which employees of these factories allegedly work.
Tonight I actually caught the show as it was being broadcast on WNYC, and got to listen to almost all of it before my kitchen was clean, cornbread baked, and toddler needed to go to bed.
The show began with the host, Ira Glass, painfully explaining that they have come to believe that aspects of the story that Mike Daisey presented to them and told on their show to be untrue. He stated that this is the first time in the history of the show that they have ever had to do this, which is pretty remarkable and a testament to how committed they are to being true journalists and documentarians, and not making compromises in the name of telling a good story. Glass admits in this on-air retraction that when Daisey claimed that he was no longer able to contact the Chinese translator who enabled his trip, TAL went forward with the story without the translator’s corroboration of the facts.
I can’t think of a news TV or radio show, newspaper or magazine that hasn’t had to retract a story now and then. At the pace that news moves these days, with the advent of 24-hr news channels and insta-news on the internet, it’s inevitable. Most of the time, it’s a footnote, and doesn’t get as much attention as the original story. Occassionally, a trusted public figure torpedoes their career over it (Dan Rather) or brings their full fury to bear on the deceiver (Oprah).
Ira Glass and This American Life could have stopped at making a retraction. But they chose instead to use this week’s show to do what they always do, tell the human story behind the headline. They corrected their mistake, tracked down Daisey’s Chinese translator and interviewed her on air about specific issues with Daisey’s story. If she is to be believed, then much of the most affecting and poignant moments of Daisey’s show simply did not happen as he is telling them. They then got Daisey back on the air with the Chinese-based Marketplace reporter Rob Schmitz , who started questioning the original story, and finally Glass interviewed Daisey alone again at the end of the show.
In the segment with Schmitz, Daisey refuses to come out and admit to lying in the original show, when pressed he casts the discrepancies as a difference in perspective. Ira Glass, in his gentle but relentless way, presses Daisey on the facts until he finally admits, after a fair amount of unedited awkward radio silence, that he lied about the name of the translator and his ability to contact her and that he had been terrified that his fabrications would be exposed (I’m paraphrasing here, I don’t know that he ever said it quite that baldly). The whole thing felt like a star student being called on plagiarism by a favorite teacher. Ira even says that he feels bad for Daisey. I’ve been on the teacher side of that scene (though I’m guessing in that scenario I was wasn’t a favorite teacher!) , and the way Daisey reacts to being called on his BS is pretty much how my student reacted. Even in the face of pretty incontrovertible evidence, he wouldn’t admit to the lie, and scrambled to make an explanation for why what he did was not lying, stealing or cheating. It’s an awful, uncomfortable place to be for everyone involved, made doubly so by being played out in public.
We seem to live in a culture where it is really difficult for people to say “I lied. I was wrong. It was a mistake, my mistake and no one else’s.” Instead it’s “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” or “Somebody hacked my Facebook account” (or was it Twitter where Anthony exposed his Weiner?). Most people have been in a situation where they are caught in a lie and try to bluff their way through, and we can sympathize a little with these public shamings. But we live in a time when it is damn hard to keep your skeletons in the closet, we’re the most documented society in history, we pretty much have to assume that we can’t so much as send a text message and expect it to stay private. I have to think that in the long run this public airing of our deep dark secrets will force us to be more honest.
The other thing operating here is where the line is between entertainment and journalism. No question, it’s a very fuzzy line these days — who has more truthiness, Stephen Colbert or Rush Limbaugh? Mr. Daisey is an actor. Actors tell lies for a living. There is a long history (ever here of a guy named Homer?) of embellishing the facts to make a more compelling, entertaining story, movie, play. And plenty of fictionalized accounts have shown a light on real issues, increased public awareness, and spurred people to take action.
The difference is, at least in modern times, these works were clearly labeled “Based on a True Story,” and often have a disclaimer at the end about names being changed, etc. As far as I can tell, Mr. Daisey made no such distinction, until called on it. He’s now saying that he is not a journalist, and that his presentation was theatrical, blah, blah, blah. After the fact, it feels like spin. Maybe if he had stayed in the theater he could hide behind his dramatic license. But the moment that he stepped onto an MSNBC news show and sat down next to journalists and pundits, he pretty much gave up that defense.
The real shame is that the net effect of all this will probably be that consumers like me will probably stop questioning at what human cost our iPhones and iPads are produced. It damages the credibility of Daisey’s entire experience. I can’t help but compare him to Michael Moore, who, although he could win the grand prize for snarky self-righteousness, managed to make a fantastic documentary about not getting an interview with his intended subject rather than fabricate a better “story.”