Tuesday, March 20, 2012

This American Lie

Last week, NPR's Marketplace broke the news that Mike Daisey lied. Daisey, you may remember, is the monologist who offered "first hand" testimony of abuse at the FoxConn plant in China where Apple products (among others) are fabricated. iPods, however, are not the only things fabricated and assembled in Shenzhen, China. That city is also where Daisey created his moving and largely fictional account of abuse.

Daisey's fictional account had been a hit on stage as a one man play (called The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs) for about a year and a half -- even though it purported to be nonfiction. The current problem arose when This American Life (TAL) dedicated an entire hour to the monologue without any basic fact checking. Some of the most poignant and damning details from Daisey's story -- underage workers, a man with a withered hand, exposure to toxic nerve gas, armed guards, etc. -- turn out to exist only in the storyteller's imagination. He grossly exaggerated some details and imported other details from other news stories in order make his story more compelling. Sadly, Daisey's piece now casts a shadow of doubt on the real stories of abuse documented by journalists.

TAL's critical mistake was taking Daisey at his word with no corroboration of his "findings". This is the first time in 15 years of broadcasting that TAL has had to retract a story. And while it is not really a news show, TAL ran a follow-up interview with Daisey as part of an hour long "Retraction" episode. Daisey somehow maintains he did not lie even though he readily admits -- now that contradictory evidence has surfaced! -- that he knowingly exaggerated many of the claims he made about Apple and the treatment of its workers at the FoxConn plant. What's the difference, you might wonder? Daisey -- like an earlier liar, James Frey -- tries to distinguish between theatrical or emotional truth and verifiable, empirical truth. (Remember our Truth vs. truth distinction from first semester?).

While fiction certainly can lay claim to truth (there are, for example, truths about human nature to be found within the fiction world of White Noise), nonfiction announces itself as interested in verifiable truths, to the best ability of the writer. You can't have it both ways.

A fascinating moment in the "Retraction" episode occurs when Daisey says he deliberately tried to avoid corroborative fact-checking because it would "unpack the complexities of how the story gets told." In other words, he cared more about storytelling than truth

Daisey says he was "terrified that if [he] untied these [complexities], that the work that [he] know[s] is really good and tells a story, that does these really great things for making people care, that it would come apart in a way where it would ruin everything." 

Is "making people care" ever justification enough for lying? At what point does "oversimplification" become a lie? What connections can you make between this episode and White Noise? Between this episode and our class this year? 


Kathleen F. said...

Art is all about proposing questions of the audience. For the sake of art and awareness, I think what Daisey did is completely okay and successful because of the attention that he brought to the issue of labor conditions. However, when an artist categorizes their message as truth when it's not - then we have a problem.

We've read several fiction pieces in our class and we use those 'artifacts', if you will, as context through which to understand reality (White Noise, Crucible). We, by no means, take those fictional works as truth but rather as perspective and commentary.

The mistake with Daisey's case was taking his piece of mostly fiction for reality rather than as something to challenge our understanding of the issue. But the fault is not only in TAL but also of the artist himself for not being clear as to the content of his message.

Hayley B said...

I disagree strongly with Kathleen. What Daisey did was not acceptable. He presented his art as non-fiction and an account of what he saw. One may be able to exaggerate emotional details in service of art (and I'm skeptical even about this), but Daisey completely made up accounts. The man with the withered hand wasn't an exaggerated version of another man with an injured hand, he flat out did not exist.

As for the claim that his story was worth it because it brought attention to labor conditions, I just don't think that's the case. Not only do I think that lying in journalism (even pseudo-journalism) is never justified, but also this lies will probably be found out. And when these claims are discovered, they only hurt the movement. His lies will give many Americans the convenient excuse they needed to go back to not feeling guilty about their iPad. And it only makes us more skeptical about any further exposes.

Mike Daisy presented his story as nonfiction, and in doing so he lied. This is unacceptable.

Chrisanthy S. said...

How can one believe that Daisey was trying to make people care when he told such radical lies? He called out one of America's favorite companies and and played human emotions with precision, it was the perfect concoction for a whole lot of attention. People would feel guilty if they didn't support what he was saying. Personally, I think Daisey told these lies to gain fame, and he succeeded. A successful one man show, a spotlight on NPR, and an American studies lesson based on him? Man, this guy got lucky.

The thirst for fame is something that can be seen many times throughout White Noise, most recently with Orest Mercaror. Orest is (somewhat) willing to risk life and limb to earn a place in the Guinness Book of Records, reflecting the lengths we humans are willing to go to achieve fame.

Ross W. said...

What worries me about the story coming out about Daisey lying is that people may start to believe again that there are no issues at all with how our products are being manufactured because the guy who claimed there was is now deemed a liar.

Don DeLillo brings up the idea in White Noise that people are only remembered for one thing. For example, when discovering the news of a coworkers death, the narrator Jack says "Poor Cotsakis, lost in the surf…That enormous man" (161). The only thing he can remember is that the dead person was enormous, and I fear that now the only thing people will begin to think of Daisey as "that lying man" and nothing else.

If Daisey becomes remembered only as a liar, people will discredit everything he says and the good cause he lied for, which was to bring attention to the lives of workers in manufacturing plants, will be lost. Therefore, while I believe he was wrong to oversimplify his story, I believe the media is now oversimplifying by calling him just a liar, when although his facts were constructed and not corroborated, his overall message is not completely false (we still should not overlook the way manufacturing plants are run). In other words, we call him a liar for oversimplifying, but in doing so aren't we (or the media) also oversimplifying?

Alexi S. said...

I don't think that Daisey was "oversimplifying" the issues he was discussing. He was exaggerating and adding events that didn't occur, which is very different.

The Kony 2012 campaign video is said to oversimplify the problems in Uganda by omitting information. However, I think that the Kony video is trying to tell a story, and is therefore allowed to omit information if it is not relevant to the story being told. The story about Uganda was a construction. Someone went through and chose what information they were going to talk about, emphasize, and omit. As long as the construction doesn't misrepresent the facts completely, it isn't a lie.

Daisey's story was a construction as well, but the difference is that his was a fictitious one that he claimed to be a work of nonfiction. He didn't simply omit information, he fabricated and created new information that never existed. You can't talk about, emphasize, and omit things that never happened. You can't make a construction without an actual event or history that occurred. It's not a construction anymore, it's just a lie.

I also responded to this post in more detail on my blog if you'd like to check it out the link is here:

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