I. The Rise & Fall of Mike Daisey
Like a lot of other people, I’ve been thinking a lot about the recent revelation that Mike Daisey’s January piece Apple’s suppliers’ factories in China on This American Life contained some serious lies and fabrications. I listened to the original broadcast in January and was horrified by the descriptions of working conditions at technology factories in China. It definitely moved me as a story of greed and our culture’s obsession with consumption. And it made me think quite a lot about my own role in this (as well as the responsibility of companies like Apple to monitor working conditions and wages of their suppliers’ employees.)
This Monday, I listened to the podcast of the most recent TAL episode, in which Ira Glass confronts Mike Daisey about the lies he told. It’s painful to listen to. Daisey comes up with rationalization after rationalization for why he did what he did. At times he seems in physical pain as he tries to navigate the conversational waters and survive the interrogation.
The one rationalization that Daisey seems most drawn to is that the lies he told were justified because of the ends they served: his story was meant to inspire audiences to Think Different about their consumption of the latest gadget or technology gizmo. It was supposed to awaken our consciences, forcing us to confront (as I did) our own roles in this system. It was supposed to haunt us, and, hopefully inspire change. It’s worth mentioning that if this was the main purpose of Daisey’s piece (and the monologue from which it is derived), he was terribly successful. MANY people were effected by the TAL episode (it is the most-downloaded episode episode of the most popular podcast in the iTunes store). In inspired additional press coverage, some with Daisey (during which appearances he repeated the lies he told). It seems to have prompted Apple to release even more information about their auditing of factory conditions. The primary factory that Daisey dealt with in the piece, Foxconn, hired a heavy-hitting PR agent to handle the press coverage and backlash after the show aired. and over 200K people have signed a petition on change.org.
During the retraction show, Daisey mentions how the ends of his story justify the means several times:
I think I was terrified that if I untied these things, that the work,
that I know is really good, and tells a story, that does these really great things for 15
making people care, that it would come apart in a way where, where it would ruin
…everything I have done in making this monologue for the
theater has been toward that end – to make people care. I’m not going to say that I
didn’t take a few shortcuts in my passion to be heard. But I stand behind the work.
I stand by it as a theatrical work. I stand by how it makes people see and care about the situation that’s happening there
And from his blog:
Especially galling is how many are gleefully eager to dance on my grave expressly so they can return to ignoring everything about the circumstances under which their devices are made. Given the tone, you would think I had fabulated an elaborate hoax, filled with astonishing horrors that no one had ever seen before.
Except that we all know that isn’t true.
There is nothing in this controversy that contests the facts in my work about the nature of Chinese manufacturing. Nothing. I think we all know if there was, Ira would have brought it up.
You certainly don’t need to listen to me. Read the New York Times reporting. Listen to the NPR piece that ran just last week in which workers at an iPad plant go on record saying the plant was inspected by Apple just hours before it exploded, and that the inspection lasted all of ten minutes.
If you think this story is bigger than that story, something is wrong with your priorities.
Daisey has dug deep into the rationalization that the larger story of corruption and abuse at these factories far outweighs the lies he told in that story.
What’s deeply sad and ironic is that there IS a lot of truth in Daisey’s story. It is NOT a complete fabrication. He had a great story before he added the lies. His message, because it IS based in a terrible truth, is in-and-of-itself terribly compelling. But, in the name of a BETTER story, he devalued and undermined the real story he had.
I had never heard of Joseph Kony before a few weeks ago. His name first appeared in my Facebook feed, when one or two friends shared the KONY2012 video. I had also seen mention of it on Twitter that morning, and so I took 30 minutes out of my morning and watched the video.
My reaction to the video felt schizophrenic. On a deep emotional level, I was moved by the stories and voices of Kony’s victims. The stories are horrific; the voices are deeply compelling. This reaction was obviously shaped by the incredible production values and the slick storytelling that the video employs. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth watching just to reflect upon the use of rhetoric, media, and storytelling for advocacy. It is hard to watch and NOT feel moved.
But, at the same time, that slickness also felt deeply manipulative. I knew I was being “shaped” by the video. I knew that the reactions I was having were programmed to happen. I wasn’t used to advocacy making me feel quite this way. I wasn’t sure if my feeling manipulated was actually a sign of my own cynicism. Was I too jaded to sympathize? Was I letting this reaction intervene in the deep empathy that I was also feeling?
It was uncomfortable, because what I WANTED was to just feel for these people and, as a result, DO something. And I’m sure that’s the reaction that the creators of the video were going for. But the production was getting in the way.
There’s a human story behind KONY2012 (and in the larger work of Invisible Children), that should need no slick video in order to be told. As people, the horror of that story should be enough. Period. But, the makers of the video emphasize that the story wasn’t getting out enough.
It wasn’t enough.
They needed to employ the tools of Hollywood in order to get our attention. And, did I mention, I’d never heard of Kony until I saw this video?
I did further reading about Invisible Children and Joseph Kony. And it didn’t take long to find the critiques. (And, to their credit, IC responded thoughtfully to many of those critiques.) The criticism doesn’t accuse the video of telling lies, per say, or fabricating the stories. Instead, it’s rooted, in part, in a belief that IC drastically over-simplifies the story that is being told. And that they shape that story tremendously with Hollywood-style storytelling techniques. Others, apparently, felt manipulated, too.
III. Storytelling for Good
Both the Daisey and the Kony episodes seem to me to be rooted in similar practices: shaping and molding, and even fabricating, stories in order to serve a higher purpose.
The context of these stories matters tremendously. Others have noted that Daisey’s real sin was not in lying or fabricating or “shaping” a story, but when he allowed that story to be retold on a show that is, for the most part, a journalistic endeavor. (It’s worth also noting, as others have, that TAL regularly airs works of fiction–which are generally labeled as such–and works of “loose” memoir, such as David Sedaris’ Santaland Diaries–which are not.) Daisey, himself, admits that letting his work air on TAL was the biggest mistake he made.
KONY2012 doesn’t pretend to be journalism. It is blatant advocacy, and it relies on the passion of the crowd and the value of word-of-mouth recommendations to spread.
But, both pieces, serve to tell a story in order to raise awareness and spark action. They seek to inspire us, and not just the way any good story might inspire. Rather, they seek to inspire us so that we want to become witnesses to change.
I can’t decide if telling a story for this purpose should drive you to a higher standard — or if it buys you a space of grace in which you can tell small lies, shape narratives, and beg your audience’s forgiveness because you believe that what matters is not the telling of the story itself, but what the story creates in our hearts and minds when it is told.
IV. A disclaimer
Lest it’s not obvious, I do understand that there are differences between what Daisey did and what KONY2012 does. I don’t believe that anyone has accused the makers of the latter of telling any outright lies in the video. But I still feel like there is a deep connection here about our expectations with regards to narrative and advocacy.
One thought on “Advocacy and Stories, in 3 (sort of 4) Parts”
I’ve been so tempted to write about Daisey on my blog but still don’t feel my perspective is any different from many who are writing much better pieces exposing all the problematic positions he has taken. I loved John Warner’s take on Inside Higher Ed where he repeatedly comes back to “well-intentioned” lies. I also think it is important for us to continue to push back on Daisey’s claim that theater was somehow different from a TAL episode and not held to the same standards. It can be, but as Alli Houseworth points out Daisey insisted his piece be labeled as a work of non-fiction and their own dramaturgs failed to fact-check the claims he was making.
It’s not that what Daisey claimed has never occurred, it’s that we already knew about it to some extent, Apple was already doing something about it, but that wasn’t enough. Daisey had to inject himself into the story by claiming he was seeing these things firsthand, which implied that no matter what Apple said about it, these tragedies were currently taking place on a scale so blatant that an overweight guy in a Hawaiian shirt could simply walk up to gates of the factory and see it. John Gruber wrote about this and I fully agree with his take on it. Yes we should be concerned about the working conditions overseas. Yes we all play a part in that when we vote with our wallet. But it’s not as easy as saying Apple is the enemy. It’s not black and white as Daisey wanted us to believe it should be. And I think you’re right that ultimately he has really hurt the conversation so much more than he helped it by muddying the water with his lies.