Mike Daisy lies about Foxconn, receives spanking

In late January, I wrote a riff on Foxconn, the Chinese parts supplier and assembler of iPhones, iPads, and other consumer technology. Everywhere, it seemed, tempers were flaring over Foxconn’s alleged mistreatment of factory workers. There is little doubt that working conditions at the Foxconn plant can be improved, and I hope that they will be. Apple is working on it pretty diligently, it seems.

Two things in the controversy stood out to me: Western workers’ advocates’ two-faced condemnation of Apple (all the while vigorously clinging to their beloved iPhones and other Apple baubles, instead of putting their money where their mouth is); and those same folks showing their bad faith by neglecting to mention that hundreds of millions of lowly factory workers are provably clawing their way to a better existence, thanks to Foxconn-type jobs.

Here’s the latest headscratcher in the Foxconn debate. If your opinions about this issue stem in part from This American Life, the popular, weekly public-radio program by Ira Glass, you might want to note the fact that Glass and his crew have now retracted their story about Foxconn, and issued a wholehearted apology.

Unbeknownst to Glass, This American Life‘s hour-long episode about Foxconn was riddled with half-facts and fabrications, thanks to a less than scrupulous closet activist named Mike Daisy. Daisy visited China in 2010 and later wove a highly critical tale about Foxconn and Apple that he’s been sharing in the form of a traveling-theater monologue. The monologue, entitled AGONY/ECSTACY, has reportedly been downloaded tens of thousands of times from Daisy’s website by other theater makers and storytellers. Daisy has become a demi-celibrity, having been featured as an expert on labor exploitation on many news shows. Recently, his monologue made it onto This American Life, masquerading as journalism — after Daisy, when asked, repeatedly assured Glass that everything in the piece was factual.

It has since emerged that Mike Daisy made up an entire group of sources he claimed to have met and interviewed, but didn’t — including:

• underage workers as young as 13;
• a man whose hand had gotten mangled in a steel press, after which Foxconn supposedly refused him proper medical care and eventually fired him for being too slow;
• people poisoned and neurologically damaged by the release of n-hexane, an industrial toxin.

Daisy also lied about a slew of details, such as

• Foxconn having surveillance cameras in workers’ dorm rooms (there are only cameras in hallways and in factory areas);
• Foxconn guards carrying guns (the untruth of which has been corroborated by local witnesses including western journalists);
• factory workers supposedly commiserating over coffee at Starbucks (Starbucks drinks, in real dollars, are even more expensive in China than in the U.S.);
• having seen a union-busting government blacklist (the translator with him at the time says he made it up). Et cetera.

 

While Daisy maintains that he mostly told the truth, albeit not a “literal” one, he acknowledges that his monologue is “not up to the standards of journalism, that’s why it was completely wrong for me to have it on your [Glass's] show.”

 

It’s worth contemplating that Daisy’s account would probably have stood unchallenged if it wasn’t for the fact that he had a witness with him everywhere he went — his Chinese translator, Cathy. When called upon, she helped Glass and his people uncover Mike Daisy’s deceit.

 

Now think about how much of what you read requires you to assume its veracity purely on the reporter’s say-so, as there are often no witnesses à la Cathy to turn to for a quick fact-check.

 

Having been a journalist for a couple of decades, it greatly chaps my ass to see pitiful frauds like Mike Daisy, James Frey, Stephen Glass, Judith Miller, Greg Mortensen, and Jayson Blair have their way with the truth, further eroding our already shaky trust in the mainstream media.

 

On the other hand, Ira Glass and This American Life are a class act for leaving no stone unturned in investigating Daisy’s claims, and apologizing for their error in trusting a habitual liar.

 

Bottom line: Keep those bullshit meters finely tuned!

 

About Rogier:
Rogier is a Dutch-born, New-England-dwelling multi-media maven (OK, a writer and photographer) whose dead-tree publishing credits include the New York Times, Wired, Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Reason.
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