Mike Daisey radio episode retracted after lies in story were discovered

Chris Nguyen

Somehow, it had gotten into the mind of Mike Daisey that a half-truth and a half-truth (along with buckets of other non-truths) equal a truth.

This past Friday, public radio show “This American Liferetracted a segment it aired in January adapted from Daisey’s one-man show, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.” In the show, Daisey described the dire working conditions of a Foxconn factory in China he visited in 2010 that produces numerous Apple products. The show helped stoke the flames of discussion about the labor that manufactures the products that many of us hold in our hands every day.

However, those groups of teenage Chinese factory workers Daisey talked to? The man who maimed his hand while working in the factory, and to whom Daisey handed for the first time one of those iPads he helped produce when he lost his hand? Lies; nothing but a few of the outright false, unsubstantiated, or embellished details Daisey created.

After airing, Marketplace reporter Rob Schmitz noticed false information, such as the security guards who hold guns at the entrance of the factory that Daisey vividly introduces his segment with. Schmitz eventually opened up the avalanche of other falsities when he contacted Kathy, the translator who followed Daisey on his trip and confirmed the lies. According to Kathy, he met no underage workers. Kathy recalls the man with the maimed hand, but he had never said he worked at the factory.

Instead of the typical mix of stories, this week “This American Life” listeners were treated to a retraction episode, in which Ira Glass talked to Daisey and attempted to get the facts straight. One fact was certain: Daisey lied, and his biggest regret is that in informing listeners about the conditions of factories, he had presented the segment as journalism rather than in the “context of theatre” and memoir, where according to him, the tools of truth are different.

You could hear the anger bubbling in Glass’s voice when he talked to Daisey. It represented the anger of the thousands upon thousands of listeners who were horrified at the tales Daisey told of the factories. Daisey had breached the implicit agreement made between readers and listeners and the person who is informing any part of our reality (whether labeled journalism or not): here is the truth, the facts as we know them at this very moment.

What Daisey did was systematically ignore the truth in front of him and replace it with what he perceived was the reality. If the facts did not suit him, he created them.

Daisey’s non-mea culpa shows he just doesn’t understand. Memories from a memoir are false if they did not happen; they are simply imagination. A theatre show that describes an existing factory is false if the people and occurrences in the factory do not exist. If Daisey wanted to create action about factory conditions, he should have realized a real, substantial movement is built on the truth. Otherwise, the lie is just waiting to collapse.

According to the producers of “This American Life,” under no circumstances leading up to the airing of the show did Daisey admit to any falsehoods. That’s because he understood the only crutch that these concoctions were supported on was that they were real — real factories, real products, real people.

At the end of the day, Daisey’s actions are condescending. Like a movie studio that churns out CGI-infested films that are supposedly what audiences want, Daisey believed the truth could not stand alone; that he needed these crazy stories for his show to have an impact.

We as listeners, however, were not necessarily enticed by the segment because it featured his embellished details. We listened because we believed it to be completely true. Daisey fed into this vicious cycle that we would only consume that which is heightened and sensationalized.

But the fervor surrounding the retraction and backlash against Daisey is a rejection of that notion. The irony is that in fabricating these wild facts and attempting to bring awareness, Daisey instead has brought attention onto himself rather than on factory conditions. He undermined the very issue he supposedly wanted to help.

However, from the “This American Life” retraction episode to the flurry of articles and blog posts, the discussion over this issue is important because it focuses on what we want and need as readers and listeners: to be told the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Published on Wednesday, March 21, 2012 as:Radio segment retracted after falsehoods revealed