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.