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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

"Facts or Truth?" -- Mike Daisey, Apple, Foxconn


Mike Daisey doesn't trust you to make your own moral judgments. So he's going to make them for you. And for his trouble he gets to feel very self-righteous. Not to mention cash some very nice checks.

That's what I'd say if I wanted to tell "brutal truths--brutally." Oh, that's Daisey's own description of his brand of entertainment. Turns out, his "brutal truths" aren't so much "truth" as they are "what Mike Daisey wants you to believe so he can manipulate you."

Mike Daisey, in case you haven't heard, is the New York actor or "monologuist" who convinced the world of the bona fide mwhahaha wickedness of Apple and its manufacturing partner, Foxconn.  Then was caught lying about many of the material details of his presentation.

After eeking out a scrawny underfed apology "to anyone who felt betrayed," Daisey is now painting himself the victim. Public Radio was mean to him. Journalists are mean to him. Nobody's paying attention to the big bad Apple/Foxconn story anymore!  

Hey, Mike! Ya think?!

Mike Daisey press kit photo
Most of us learn the story of the boy who cried wolf somewhere around 3 or 4 years old. By the time we're teenagers, we've internalized its message and learned that NO ONE LIKES TO BE LIED TO.  In Daisey's twisted world, his lies are necessary to get people to hate what he hates (Villain Apple and Villain Foxconn).  He figures we won't hate his favorite Big Baddies unless he makes them out worse than they are.

Guess what, Mike? That's our prerogative. Conditions at Foxconn as truthfully reported by far more reliable sources than Daisey or the sadly discredited THIS AMERICAN LIFE show,* may just be lousy enough to get our attention. Or not. I only have so much moral outrage to expend upon this world and I get to choose where. You, Mike Daisey, do not get to fool me into moving your personal pet project up my priority list because you have "art" on your side. You do NOT have art on your side. You have your own ego and your own bank account on your side.

There's also a book making the rounds lately, THE LIFESPAN OF A FACT, that makes a similar argument that "storytelling" endows the right to ginger up the facts in order to make a better story. I was annoyed in the extreme when I read about this book and I gleefully give a spoiler here--
 Much of the book is taken up with emails written back and forth between a fact checker and the principal author, arguing over an article the one had submitted to a magazine employing the other. Turns out these emails are fiction, too!  But they don't tell you until the end of the book, you're supposed to be believing all along that this discussion happened in real time and the genuine emails have been "re-printed" in the book. They spring a "gotcha" on you at the end. You haven't been reading the philosophical discussion of two professionals as they struggled over Project A. You've been reading the collaborated fiction of two hacks concocting dialogue for Project B.
You're not talking about "storytelling" anymore, fellas. You're just plain telling stories.  Ask any first grade teacher what the difference is. So when the wolf really does come, as may or may not be happening in a Foxconn factory right now, all us irritated villagers turn our backs and go harrumph, we've heard that one before.

This topic is of paramount interest to me as a human being who doesn't want to be lied to, first and foremost. But as a professional journalist and non-fiction writer, I feel I can't leave my position unspoken.  My books are documented within an inch of their lives. There are detailed footnotes on many, many pages in each. Portions are written in first person and if I say I witnessed something, you can bank on it. Usually there are other witnesses to corroborate my observations. And, unlike Mike Daisey who "lost" his interpreter's phone number and called her "Anna" instead of "Cathy" when asked for corroboration by This American Life's Ira Glass, my information can be checked against real names and documents.  Click through to these posts and check them against this photo
Audio recorder plainly visible to Marjorie, Camille
--you'll see I carry a tape recorder to my interviews. If I can't corroborate with witnesses, documents, photos or recordings, I have to act as if it didn't happen when it comes to writing it up. That means there are actually MORE facts I could tell you but won't. That is the opposite of Mike Daisey's philosophy. I give you, the reader, what I absolutely am able to back up and let you decide how interesting or convincing it is. It is NOT my right to recruit you into an opinion you might not have arrived at on your own given the real facts.

It seems that Daisey gave a speech at Georgetown on Monday night to a packed audience. He gave an aggressive defense of his lying. On his own website, he whines away that he's being compared to other notorious liars like Jayson Blair, James Frey and Greg Mortenson. Geez, Mike, what's so bad about being called a liar if lying is, you know, such a great defensible thing?

Washington Post columnist Erik Wemple reports he interviewed a young woman who attended Daisey's Georgetown performance. She had arrived feeling"betrayed" but after listening to the actor's passionate excuses, had swung back to his side because he got her thinking about where the real importance is, with "the facts or the truth?"

My stomach turned when I read the end of Wemple's piece. This is the power of a gifted orator. He can have an otherwise moral and intelligent person so muddled they can make a statement like that.
Dear Young Woman at Georgetown--"Facts" and "truth" are the same thing. The truth is Mike Daisey is a liar, both proven and admitted. The facts are that Mike Daisey made a lucrative career selling information that he knew to be inaccurate for the express purpose of causing harm to Apple.
In some places, such as the occasional (ok, every) lawbook, we also call that libel, even fraud. That's not art. It's a con. I do not believe he did it out of his altruistic soul, I feel it's more likely he was motivated by the smell of the greasepaint, the roar of the crowd.

And the cha-ching of the box office.

That's what I would say if I was to write a "brutal truth--brutally." But as a matter of fact, I have had this conversation before and it involved one of the names that's listed above and causing poor Mike Daisey such chafing right now, James Frey. In 2006, I was gentle and decidedly not brutal.

Because this is an important topic that is so central to my work as a journalist and non-fiction writer, I am going to repost that discussion next.

*Kudos to Ira Glass for his honest and real apology. As an experienced producer, I feel for the position he ended up in. How could he guess a colleague would flat out lie like that? But he manned up to the bar and apologized because his show was wrong. Period. Not just to those who "might" have felt betrayed.

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Camille Kimball's books:
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  1. Great post Camille.

    I've been very disturbed by Daisey's antics. I don't think I'm giving anything away by saying that he's the frontrunner for this week's Whiner of the Week award.

    Daisey's bizarre and continued defense of his approach to truth is very disturbing. I've heard that Foxconn is not pursuing legal action against him. It may be hard to prove in court but I believe that he acted with malicious intent toward the company and Apple.

    Daisey, his fiction, and his rebuttals have eaten up hours of news time, a resource that is limited. I wonder what stories didn't get covered as a result of his time in the spotlight.

  2. Thank you, Ken. I agree with you that he acted with malicious intent. I'm not a lawyer, of course, but when you name your show "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs," and your fingerprints both literal and figurative are all over a petition against Apple, how is it not an intent to cause harm?

    You make an excellent point about other great stories getting lost, spiked and generally trampled because of Daisey's hubris chewing up that fickle and finite resource, newstime. The more I think about it, the more miffed I am.