For nearly two years now Mike Daisey has been performing a monolog called The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. Daisey presents this as a bit of investigative journalism, sparked by finding pictures of anonymous Foxconn workers on his new iPhone. He traveled to China and uncovered a scandal that would make Martha Stewart look like Employer of the Year. His work was used to produce This American Life’s most popular episode on record. It sparked a detailed piece by the New York Times on working conditions in Chinese factories. It even may have been the catalyst that caused Apple to increase its supplier responsibility reports to a monthly rhythm and allow the Fair Labor Association to begin inspections.
Last week we learned that Daisey had fabricated most of it. Took bits and pieces of the worst of the events of the preceding few years and collected it all into one nightmarish trip. He then packaged this as the truth and sold it to all of us.
He claims it was to bring attention to the problem. That if he presented it as fiction, or even ‘inspired by a true story’, that it wouldn’t change people’s minds. It would challenge them. It wouldn’t cause change. A certain author by the name Upton Sinclair would strongly disagree.
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries American workers confronted a problem of supply and demand. Demand for goods, manufactured, butchered, forged, cut, welded, or simply picked was increasing rapidly. There was little oversight of working conditions, no OSHA, no workers compensation. Corporations considered laborers as disposable and replaceable, and there was no one to stop them.
We as a society decided this was unacceptable. Through a combination of worker revolts, organized labor, and federal legislation, working conditions in the US improved dramatically. A line was crossed, society took notice, and positive change came as a result. Books like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle brought attention to the situation through a fictional account of the meatpacking industry in the early 20th century. Sinclair spent seven weeks working undercover in meatpacking plants in the Chicago stockyards. What he witnessed and the information he gathered inspired the book, which was presented as fiction. Despite it being fiction, it challenged readers to more closely examine the reality of the meatpacking industry, and to a larger extent industry in general. It had a significantly positive effect on America and left a lasting legacy.
This is not what Mike Daisey did.
Sinclair never presented his book as investigative journalism, despite spending seven weeks undercover. Daisey spent six days in China. Daisey did not get a job as a factory worker. He spoke to a handful of workers and toured a few factories posing as a businessman. He then returned and started selling this story as fact. Propping it up as a bit of activism. Trying to rally the troops! He encouraged others to perform his monologue (Red Flag #1?) and uses the phrase “spread the virus”.
On his blog, he writes:
In the last forty-eight hours I have been equated with Stephen Glass, James Frey, and Greg Mortenson.
The comparison is perfect. Stephen Glass frequently mixed fabricated quotes and events into his stories. He dramatized his stories, often slipping into present tense, skirting the edge of self-insertion. After his downfall he even wrote a book, turning himself into a protagonist. How, exactly, is what Daisey did any different than this?
Mike Daisey has a wonderful talent. He’s a great storyteller, he has presence, he knows how to work a crowd, and he’s a showman all around. It’s a shame that his decision to seek attention has not only destroyed his reputation and professional career, but has also distracted from the true issue of labor practices and working conditions in China.