It was powerful stuff. Moving. It not only became the most popular broadcast in the history of “This American Life,” but it spurred the technology industry and journalists to action. At around the same time the radio segment aired, the New York Times separately ran a lengthy and scathing piece on Apple’s labor practices that seemed to corroborate Daisey’s story.
It turns out there was just one problem: Mike Daisey was lying.
No, he didn’t lie about all of it. He did go to southern China and meet with workers from Foxconn. He was there, all right, but he wasn’t honest about what he’d seen. There were no underage workers he’d spoken with, there was no man with a maimed hand. In one passage of his show, Daisey talks about workers who had been poisoned by a gas called n-hexane. That part was true — there had been workers poisoned by this gas at an Apple contractor somewhere in China. But Daisey never spoke to them. Like many of the most upsetting moments in his show, Daisey simply fabricated the encounter.
The lies were so clear and so egregious that after learning the truth, “This American Life” issued a retraction of its report by way of a new show — a show in which host Ira Glass confronted Daisey over the deception.
It’s an uncomfortable listen. As Daisey is called out by Glass, you can hear the hesitation, the panic, and the fear in his voice. He doesn’t offer much in the way of excuses. The main point he drives home is that he felt it was necessary to embellish his story in order to retain the “truth” of the message of his show. He lied to tell the truth, basically.
In some immediate way, this defense rings true. There are many documented cases of worker mistreatment and injuries in Foxconn factories. There have been reports of underage workers. There have been suicides. Some of the most important and honest revelations of these issues have come from Apple itself, which issues a supplier responsibilty statement every year detailing both the improvements and problems it’s having with international partners.
But until the radio broadcast Daisey took part in — and many of the follow-up interviews he gave — this problem was never discussed in a such a big, public way. Daisey’s lies inspired honest questions about the gadgets in our pockets. Did he betray the trust of the public and journalists by lying? The answer to this question is easy: Yes. But were the lies necessary?
We have a tendency to tune out the things we don’t like hearing. That is doubly true when money is involved. I’m not suggesting that we didn’t listen when Apple issued its report, and that we didn’t pay attention when the Times published its findings. What I’m saying is that sad songs have a way of sticking with us long after we’ve heard them — and Daisey found a way to tell the sad, human part of this story. To make it catchy enough to stick, even if it was a lie.
There’s a flip side to this, however. A hitch. It’s now almost impossible to know if this one-man show was an altruistic act on the part of Daisey, or a desperate gambit to grab fame and fortune. The cynical among us will think the worst, and that’s a shame.
Mike Daisey is not a hero, but I’m not sure he’s a villain either.
He leaned into his lies to sell tickets to a show, to get on network TV, to make money and get famous. But along the way — either on purpose or by accident — he opened a lot of eyes.
And that’s the truth.
Joshua Topolsky is the founding editor in chief of the Verge (theverge.com), a technology news Web site. To read previous columns, go to PostBusiness.com.