Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Crimes of Mike Daisey

Two years ago, a friend and I were looking for billboards to modify. We were working on art related to Hewlett Packard and the clothing manufacturer H&M, both of which had big ad campaigns on, but the city was awash in iPads. Every surface we really wanted to hit had an apple in the corner. Then I saw a piece in the paper about workers at one of the iPad manufacturing plants in China committing suicide because the working conditions were so terrible. I sent it to my friend with a note – “something to do with all those iPad billboards.” She mocked up some great art, but before we had it ready to go the ads were down, the iPad was old news, the company had agreed to pay the workers a few cents more per hour and the story was forgotten.

Flash forward a year. Just about one year ago, a friend invited me to a play her aunt had given her tickets for. It was a monologue called “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.” A one-man show by someone named Mike Daisey. When we settled into our seats and I looked at the program, I looked at my friend doubtfully. “A two-hour monologue with no intermission?” When I saw Mike Daisey, I had even more doubts. He didn’t present like a guy who could carry that kind of thing.

Two hours later, I walked out shell-shocked. The first thing I did was call my friend. “We have to do that iPad campaign.” The iPad2 was on the way, and there was a whole BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) station covered in iPads. I took a picture of a couple perfect spots and sent them to my friend. Problem was, I was leaving town in a few days for a month-long writing retreat at Hedgebrook. I hoped my friend would be able to do it with someone else, but she was busy too. Didn’t happen.

I carried that regret with me to Whidby Island, but I also carried something I had gotten from the show: a newfound awe for the written word. I went into my precious writing month mesmerized by what I had seen.

It was not the content that was so powerful to me. Many of the stories I had heard – the one about the suicides, the one about the people poisoned by the toxic cleaning solution. Some, like the ones about the overcrowded dorm rooms and the workers frisked on their way out of the plants, I had seen for myself, years ago at an export-processing zone in the Philippines. The one about the 13-year-old workers I did not find particularly memorable. Child labor and China have been virtually synonymous for decades.

What captivated me was the way Daisey wove the stories into a powerful drama. He created a seamless emotional roller coaster without ever making you feel manipulated. The story begins all light and fluffy, his Hawaiian shirt, his bumbling attempts at cultural sensitivity, his efforts to make a passable business card in a foreign city where he doesn’t speak the language, and then the fact that it all works! Sasha and I exchanged knowing looks, because we’ve both been there. I thought about giving Israeli soldiers at military checkpoints a laminated business card proclaiming me a “legitimate human rights worker” in Hebrew, and them nodding and letting me through. And then he is talking about people jumping off roofs and standing up doing repetitive motions for twenty-four hours in a row without the opportunity to rest their arms, all so we can have cheap iPhones. Sasha felt for hers in her pocket. She’d been telling me about how she was watching the Arab Spring on the alJazeera app all day long.

I thought, how is this guy ever going to pull us back from this abyss without it seeming incredibly hokey? I don’t know how it happened, but suddenly I found myself laughing again.

I write mysteries about Palestine. I do it because it’s fun. I also do it because I want people to care about Palestine. Now my first one, Murder Under the Bridge, is pretty Manichean. There are moral complexities in it, but basically there are some really really bad Israeli guys and a lot of the Palestinians are damned near saintly and there’s a teenage girl for angst and good measure. That’s okay, it’s a first mystery. But Murder Under the Fig Tree, which I was going off to Hedgebrook to write, is much more ambitious. It has a lot more shades of gray, but I don’t want anyone to get the idea that I think there’s any gray about the Israeli occupation. I never want to leave any doubt that the biggest problem facing every Palestinian in the world today is the theft of their land and denial of their national rights. Seeing Mike Daisey’s show made me believe, more than I ever have before, that if I write a good mystery, people will understand what I want them to understand and care about it.
Two weeks ago, Mike Daisey was all over the Twittersphere, and it wasn’t good news. “Mike Daisey Apologizes For Fabricated ‘This American Life’ Foxconn Story”, screamed the Huffington Post. “We're horrified to have let something like this onto public radio,” said Ira Glass, Executive Producer on the website of “This American Life.”

“This American Life,” which had broadcast parts of “The Agony & the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” ran a full hour called “Retracting Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory.” In what many have called one of the most painful things ever broadcast on radio, Ira Glass interviewed Mike Daisey about the lies he told and why he did it. There’s a long bit of silence in which you can hear Daisey wrestling with his conscience before he answers the question “So you lied about that” with a Santorum-esque “I wouldn’t express it that way.”

The crux of the problem is this: The show is based on a 5-day trip to China, during which he worked with a translator. When This American Life’s producers asked if they could talk to the translator to corroborate what he told them, he lied and said he couldn’t reach her and said her name, which is “Cathy” in the show, is really Anna. TAL, having checked the basic facts about how Apple products are manufactured and found them solid, let it go. Then Rob Schmitz, a reporter for NPR’s “Marketplace,” who lives in China, heard the piece and was surprised by a few things and went and found the translator, whose name really is Cathy (it’s not, but that’s the name she uses with Westerners). She contradicted a number of things in the story Daisey tells onstage, which he also told on TAL.

 The main things are:
  • He said he visited ten factories, then when Ira pressed him on it on air, he said it was really five, but the translator says it was three.
  • He said he met twenty workers who belong to an illegal union, but it was only three to five.
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  • He said he met some workers who were twelve to fourteen, but the translator says he did not meet any underage workers. No one disputes that there are underage workers at that plant and others, but they dispute that Daisey met any. He insists that he did.
  • He said he met some workers who had been exposed to the solvent n-hexane and had lasting injuries from it. In fact, he did not meet those workers; he heard about them from activists he met in Hong Kong.
  • He said he saw security guards with guns but security guards in China are not allowed to carry guns and the translator says they don’t.
  • He said there were cameras in workers’ dorm rooms, but the cameras are only in the halls.
  • He tells a story about a worker who had lost his hand in an accident at the factory where iPads are made. When the worker saw Mike’s iPad, he got wide-eyed and wanted to touch it, because he’d never actually seen one assembled. The translator says the incident happened but that man did not say he’d ever worked at that plant.

On his blog last week, he posted a talk he gave at Georgetown. In that talk, with the same cadence and intensity I found so riveting in the show, he explains how it all happened. How one little lie became a bigger one, how he ended up going on TAL, how he got interested in the labor issues related to Apple, which he says he never had been. He says he never was an activist, but when he heard the stories and saw what there was to see at FoxConn and the other factories, he felt he needed to make people care. And he says something that made perfect sense to me: He just happened to get to China at the time that the suicide story had broken. At the time that he was there, everyone was buzzing about it, and while he was there, a memo from the government went out about how to contain it, and he saw the story die. And that’s what fueled his passion for telling the story, because he’d been there and seen it with his own eyes and now everyone was moving on.

I’m not trying to say that Daisey didn’t screw up. Obviously, he did. But what did he really do wrong? Well, he lied to Ira Glass, which is a big mistake, because that’s someone you sure don’t want to piss off. He probably made sure that he’ll never be taken seriously as a “reporter” again, but of course he is not a reporter.

Without trying to cast aspersions on people I don’t know, let me just raise a couple questions:

  • Why do both Ira Glass and Rob Schmitz assume everything the translator said is true? According to the TAL piece, neither she nor Daisey took notes. But for Daisey, this was a world-changing mission on which he was going to base his next several years of work. For the translator, he was one five-day client out of dozens – this is what she does. She has apparently taken lots of foreigners to these factories. So without notes, why do we assume she’s going to remember every interview she did with this one guy better than he does?
  • According to Schmitz, a lot of the things in the show are things that are confirmed by Apple’s own audits of the manufacturing plants, and the disputed facts are things that it denies. The Chinese government, he says, wants corporations to have better labor practices, but maybe it doesn’t care as much about that as keeping its economy growing. Given that, is it possible that people like this translator know that confirming things that Apple says are not happening would be bad for her business, or could even get her in trouble with the government?
  • What support does “Marketplace” get from Apple?
  • Isn’t it ironic that Mike Daisey’s exaggerations have had a longer news cycle than the original suicide story did?

In the first draft of Murder Under the Bridge, probably about 40% of the story was lifted from my Palestine journals. As a novel, it was pretty terrible. The more I went through it, the more real stuff got cut and the more my ever elusive imagination began to take over and supply better stories. It doesn’t matter, because it’s a mystery, not a memoir. But even more than that, it doesn’t matter because at its core, it’s still true. Even though I never heard of a trafficked nanny-cum-prostitute being murdered in an Israeli settlement, I have little doubt that something like that has happened.

But something else is interesting, and that’s that when readers say, “That part just struck me as completely improbable,” they’re almost always talking about one of the things that really did happen.


  1. I saw the show, I would go see Daisey read the phone book so of course I went. His other crime was, implying in the show, that Schmitz reported his story from his hotel room in another city. The Grey Lady will not be dissed!