The NYT’s David Barboza on Mike Daisey and This American Life

On Friday, I posted a few thoughts on This American Life’s [TAL] retraction of its episode devoted to Mike Daisey’s The Agony & The Ecstasy of State Jobs. The full post is available here. In it, I point out that Daisey and his partisans have, in part, built a defense based upon citing The New York Times’ recent, high-lauded ieconomy series that includes extensive reporting on Foxconn. The series was co-authored by Charles Duhigg and David Barboza, and that led me to wonder why neither the NYT itself, or Duhigg or Barboza, had objected to this frequent citation:

I can understand that the NYT doesn’t want to send out an official release telling Mike Daisey and his delusional supporters to stop citing its ieconomy series as factual backup for Daisey’s lies. But it sure would have been nice if Ira Glass, during his interview of ieconomy co-author Charles Duhigg during the retraction episode, had asked him even one question about Daisey. Did that material hit the cutting room floor? No idea. Does Duhigg think that his work supports Daisey? Surely, he could say something. And so could, for that matter, Duhigg’s co-author, David Barboza in Shanghai.

Over the weekend, David Barboza sent me an email in which he responded to these observations and questions. With his permission, I’m publishing it, below.

I read your column about Mike Daisey today and thought you’d like to know my own impression. I was supposed to be interviewed by Ira Glass. But after they talked with my colleague Charles Duhigg, they cancelled my session saying they had plenty of material. What I would have said is that Daisey’s fabrications were utterly ridiculous. He should never have been treated as a journalist.

I heard large parts his performance on This American Life. He’s a talented story-teller, but I was a bit surprised they used his segment as a piece of journalism. I did not hear the entire show, but what I heard sounded far-fetched. He mentioned, for instance, meeting a 12 and 13-year-old at Foxconn’s gates. That just seemed highly unlikely to me. I’ve been to Foxconn gates in Shenzhen (and also got an official tour of the facility and its dormitory complex) many times and you can’t easily meet 12 or 13 year old there. And if you did, it’s unlikely they’d admit to being an underaged worker. I mentioned some of this in a Facebook chat I did shortly after our Apple i-Economy piece was published.

Rob Schmitz of Marketplace certainly produced a piece of first-rate journalism. I wish I had done that work myself, since I too had suspected that Daisey fabricated large parts of his story.

Anyway, you posed good questions in your essay. Ira Glass and the producers of This American Life should have asked Daisey whether he had photographs of his visit? How exactly did he find a translator? Were there any emails with his translator? What factories did he visit? What about hotel receipts? I don’t know what questions they asked, but I would have pushed him on those details and others. Editors don’t generally ask such questions of journalists they trust, but when the person is not a journalist, and the story just sounds a bit too good to be true, it would seem natural to ask.

My Take on Mike Daisey and Ira Glass.

In the week since Rob Schmitz’s outstanding debunking of Mike Daisey’s fabricated tales of Foxconn, I’ve been contemplating what – if anything I should write about this matter. Back in February, regular readers of this blog may recall, I appeared with Daisey (and two other guests) on To The Point with Warren Olney (downloadable here). Afterward, I was so bothered by, and suspicious of, Daisey’s blustery rage that I took the time to blog about it, here.

Since then, I’ve been tempted to write again. But in the aftermath of Rob’s report, so much good (here and here, to start) has been written about the Daisey affair that I decided that there really wasn’t any need for anyone else to say anything about it. Then, earlier this week, Sam Gaskin of Time Out Shanghai asked me if I’d do an email interview on the subject, and that got me thinking about it, again. You can find that interview, here. I’m not often in the habit of quoting myself, but I’m going to indulge the temptation just this once, if only to highlight, for the record, on my own blog, what I feel about this matter.

So, here goes. In my opinion, Mike Daisey has been rightly pilloried for his fabrications. But, for all intents and purposes, Ira Glass hasn’t. Glass has made it clear that he saw Daisey’s story as a means of humanizing what he characterizes as a story that needed humanizing. To me, that’s the source of why this debacle happened. Or, as I told Time Out:

Ira Glass made it clear in interviews that he was interested in Mike Daisey’s monologue as a means of humanizing what he already believed to be a problem. So, rather than commissioning journalism for the purpose of getting at facts, he in effect paid for a monologue that confirmed what he already believed to be facts. That’s the only way that I can explain why he didn’t drop the story after Daisey claimed he could not provide TAL with the contact information for his translator in Shenzhen. At any other fact-checked news organization, that’d be enough to kill the story. But TAL wanted this story badly, and so drifted away from the normal standards of a fact check.

A common response to all of this is, “Well, nothing that Daisey said is untrue. It’s all supported by the New York Times.” Think I’m exaggerating? Take, for example, this statement from the Wooly Mammoth Theater Company, which supported Daisey’s fabulist work from the beginning. :  “… The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs … opened people’s eyes to some of the real working conditions in Chinese factories where high-tech products are manufactured—conditions which have been documented by subsequent journalistic accounts in The New York Times and other sources.”

Or, as Daisey himself wrote on his own blog: “You certainly don’t need to listen to me. Read the New York Times reporting.” This is only kind of sort of true. The New York Times, in its series on Foxconn, didn’t claim to find 12 and 13-year-olds outside of Foxconn’s gates. Nor did it come across Chinese union organizers sipping lattes at Starbucks. I can understand that the NYT doesn’t want to send out an official release telling Mike Daisey and his delusional supporters to stop citing its ieconomy series as factual backup for Daisey’s lies. But it sure would have been nice if Ira Glass, during his interview of ieconomy co-author Charles Duhigg during the retraction episode, had asked him even one question about Daisey. Did that material hit the cutting room floor? No idea. Does Duhigg think that his work supports Daisey? Surely, he could say something. And so could, for that matter, Duhigg’s co-author, David Barboza in Shanghai.

In any event, there seems to be an evolved consensus that the New York Times has written the definitive account of Foxconn and its labor practices. To be sure, they wrote a long account. But if you’re interested in a deeper and more complex account of what life is like in and around Foxconn, then I strongly encourage you to click over to “Now Can We Start Talking About the Real Foxconn?” by Bloomberg’s Tim Culpan.

Culp’s piece is based on years of reporting, and offers a far more nuanced view of life in a Chinese high-tech manufacturing facility that what Ira Glass and his producers wanted to believe. It’s the kind of story that This American Life should have done, if only because China – the real, truly complex China – is something that American readers, listeners, and viewers are going to need to understand, and the sooner the better. Idiotic, agenda-driven broadcasts like the one featuring Mike Daisey don’t advance that cause. Not one bit.

My Time Out interview is here.

 

 

Other China correspondents write about politics; I write about carp.

It is not lost upon me that this week saw perhaps the biggest political story to emerge from China in two decades. Thus, it only seemed right that my Bloomberg World View column this week would focus on how Chinese netizens feel about the Asian Carp that are rampaging up the Mississippi, into the Great Lakes. I know, I know – how can you write about Asian carp when Bo Xilai is being relieved of his duties in Chongqing? And the answer, dear readers, is two-fold: a) sometimes these columns are turned in before breaking news, and b) I believe that most readers outside of China are more interested in rampaging Asian carp than Bo Xilai. I realize that’s a debatable, somewhat hard to swallow point for many of my China readers, but I stand by it. In any case,  I invite you to debate this and more in the comments to Chinese Fish for Meaning in US Carp Rampage.

Appearing with Mara Hvistendahl at Shanghai Lit Festival – SUNDAY the 18th

On Sunday I’m going to have the distinct honor of moderating my friend Mara Hvistendahl‘s appearance at the Shanghai International Literary Festival. The hour-long session will start at 15:00 at M on the Bund. My understanding is that it’s been sold out, but apparently mypiao has a few tickets available for those who show up in person. So by all means, show up in person!

The occasion of the appearance is Mara’s critically acclaimed 2011 book, Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls and the Consequences of a World Full of Men. It’s an extraordinary piece of reporting that’s had a profound influence on the public debate over the ethics of sex-selective abortion, and, well, the consequences of a world full of men. Back in May, I interviewed Mara for Shanghai Scrap, and I strongly recommend it, still. We’ll touch on some of those topics, and more. We’ll also contemplate how two graduates of the same suburban Minneapolis high school (albeit several years apart) manage to find themselves appearing together at the Shanghai Lit Fest. Hope to see you there.