Stuck in Mike Daisey's Apple Tree of Lies

By Susan Nunziata  |  Posted Tuesday, March 27, 2012 21:03 PM

By Tony Kontzer

Can someone please tell me where the "Mike Daisey lied to me" queue starts? I'm expecting it to be a long one, filled with duped theatergoers and journalists.

For those of you who monitor CIO Insight's blogs closely, you may recall that a little over a year ago, I wrote about Daisey's engrossing one-man show, The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, and the ominous implications it held for Apple.

The show is a monologue based largely on Daisey's experiences visiting the Shenzhen,China, factory complex operated by Foxconn, one of the world's biggest manufacturers of electronic devices, including Apple's iconic iPhones and iPads. But it had become more than just your garden variety one-man show in that the word-of-mouth about Daisey's tales of worker oppression had resulted in Apple facing increasing public scrutiny regarding its ongoing relationship with Foxconn.

The problem was, Daisey hadn't actually experienced many of the things he describes in his performance. Instead, he'd stitched together a litany of experiences he'd had and stories he'd heard, presenting them as if they all occurred during his visit to Shenzhen, which lasted but a few days.

As most of you are no doubt aware by now, revelations about Daisey's truth-stretching have exploded in recent weeks. The weekly public radio program This American Life discovered that many things Daisey had told host Ira Glass during the monologist's now-infamous January 2012 appearance on the show were fabricated. The episode in question, Mr. Daisey Goes to the Apple Factory, was the most downloaded in the history of This American Life. It then became the subject of a precedent-setting, one-hour retraction show that aired earlier this month and makes for some of the most deliciously uncomfortable radio ever.

Consider this post my own personal retraction show. After seeing Daisey's stage show, I slavishly reported about his having encountered armed guards (alas, Chinese law only permits police, military personnel, and armored car drivers to carry guns), conducted interviews with hundreds of factory workers (actually more like 50, he ultimately admitted), and met workers as young as 12 (an unfounded assumption apparently based on workers' appearances). Thankfully, I didn't mention his tale of having met a group of workers poisoned by n-hexane, a toxic chemical sometimes used to polish iPhone and iPad screens during production. (While stories of such incidents have been reported to have occurred in other factories, Daisey admitted that he'd merely heard so much talk of those incidents that he decided to add that hearsay into his story.)

The truth is that Daisey's artfully concocted collection of often unrelated facts hit right on one of my sweet spots, namely holding Apple to task. And, like many other journalists who attended the show and happen to feel strongly about our nation's use of low-cost overseas labor, I took the bait and reported Daisey's "findings" dutifully. Daisey had made me his unwitting accomplice in misleading you, the reader.

None of this is to say that Apple isn't culpable in its continued use of Foxconn to produce its devices. Most of the offenses Daisey cites have been well documented, often by Apple itself. But presenting them as his own experiences represented a violation of his audience's trust, and doing so has called into question not only Daisey's veracity, but also his motivations.

As Anthony Breznican noted in a wonderful post on the topic for Entertainment Weekly, what Daisey did was akin to a cop planting evidence on a suspect he believes is guilty. Why did he feel the need to misrepresent his experiences? Did he believe his show wouldn't have carried the same power if he'd openly shared that it was a combination of personal experiences and related revelations? (Interesting that in 2004, according to his Wikipedia entry, Daisey conceived and performed an extemporaneous play entitled "All Stories are Fiction.")

Ultimately, Daisey finally realized that keeping his hand firmly stuffed in the cookie jar after being caught in the act wasn't a tenable strategy, posting a heartfelt -- and no doubt incredibly difficult to write -- apology on his blog.

There are many takeaways in this tale for all of us -- lessons about fact vs. fiction, the nature of truth, and the narrowing gap between entertainment and journalism come to mind. But if we focus on those and let the clamor about how Apple's (and others') products are built die down, we'll have thrown out the baby with the bathwater. As buyers of many of the devices being produced under questionable circumstances, IT executives can lend considerable power to the effort to hold manufacturers to task.

In doing so, they'll help to ensure that Daisey's important message isn't lost in the shuffle, because that would be the greatest tragedy of all.