Mike Daisey Goes to the Pain Factory

A slightly edited version of this article first appeared in The Age

On January 6, award-winning radio show This American Life devoted their hour to the appalling working conditions of a Chinese Apple factory. Much of the episode comprised of performance artist Mike Daisey’s stirring monologue of his time in China. The show went gangbusters.

For a series that’s been running nearly 20 years, and is the most downloaded podcast in America, “Mr. Daisey Goes to the Apple Factory” quickly became one of their most popular episodes ever. Here’s Daisey from the episode in question:

He’s never actually seen one on [an iPad], this thing that took his hand. I turn it on, unlock the screen, and pass it to him. He takes it. The icons flare into view, and he strokes the screen with his ruined hand, and the icons slide back and forth. And he says something to Cathy, and Cathy says, “He says it’s a kind of magic.”

As the episode’s success slingshot Daisey onto the talk show circuit, “Mr Daisey” influenced discussions on the company and the ethics of labour conditions.

In the last week, This American Life made an embarrassing admission: they’d been conned. Daisey had made much of it up, and TAL had made a grave error in accepting too much of the “reportage” on his word. The episode was retracted and a new episode was broadcast detailing the error. It was an engrossing hour: with apologies and explanations from the show’s host, a discomforting interrogation of Daisey and a description of how the tissue of lies was revealed, you have a fascinating anatomy of the ethics and logistics of a journalistic stuff-up.

But why should we care? Well, here is a literary charlatan kicking up the dust of art, journalism and truth’s vulnerability. Like Helen Demidenko, Norma Khouri and James Frey we have either a simple case of literary fraud or a case of the equally valid but eternally clashing values of journalists and novelists. At least, that’s how Mike Daisey pits it. In this case, it’s very simple to prove fraud.

Aristotle once distinguished between poetic and historical truth. “Poetry,” he said, “is something more philosophical and more worthy of serious attention than history; for while poetry is concerned with universal truths, history treats of particular facts.” Today we’d replace “poetry” and “history” with “novel” and “journalism”.

After being confronted about his deceit, Daisey published the following defence: “I stand by my work… What I do is not journalism. The tools of the theater are not the same as the tools of journalism.”

Don’t be fooled here. Daisey’s faint evocation of Aristotle’s distinction is a pretentious fig-leaf. It’s disingenuous because he presented it as journalism and then wilfully perverted This American Life’s attempts at verification. He sold artistic license as reporting, and lied about his lies. Of course, Aristotle’s is the argument Daisey would like to have—an ancient one about truth. Having waded in the mud, Daisey now wants to argue on the stars.

To listen to Daisey’s polished, elegant monologue now is not to marvel at the artifice of a gifted and compassionate storyteller, but to be shocked by the pathologies and ego of a mountebank. His gifts have now become tricks; the storytelling more important than the story.

This could have been avoided with some honest labelling, which seems a terribly prosaic and limiting burden to place on art, but it’s really not. Frederick Exley described his story about drug and alcohol abuse as a “fictional memoir.” Hunter S Thompson called his hallucinogenic reportage “gonzo journalism”. There’s many ways to skin a cat, and Aristotle’s distinction still stands, but readers are right to demand a separation of experiment and exploitation. In fact, Daisey himself is labelling his own work as “theatre” and he’s right: it’s just that it’s come way too late.

I don’t know why anyone would accept the cynical miscategorising of a novel as memoir simply because, in an age of confession, it will sell more. This was the simple case of James Frey’s Million Little Pieces—it wasn’t a clever collapsing of artificial categories of art, it was commercial deceit.

There’s no way to formally regulate artistic truth—and it would be absurd, impractical and distasteful to do so. I recall idiotic suggestions for “truth meters” or the like when the Million Little Pieces scandal broke—a stickered graph on the front of memoirs that scores a work’s veracity.

But our expectations of journalism—as evidenced by the recent Finkelstein report—are justifiably more demanding. And we broadly extend these expectations to memoirs. We must gracefully accept the limitations and distortions of memory, as we must gracefully accept death and Jeffrey Archer novels, but we’re right not to accept lies and exaggerations if they are earnestly sold as truth in order to service profit, profile and ego.

Such fabrications erode trust in journalism, publishers and the issues they purport to compassionately champion. The host of This American Life was gentler, if no less interrogative, on Mike Daisey than Oprah was on James Frey, when she famously confronted him and his fraud on her show in 2006. But both interlocutors knew the damage these frauds would cause to their own brand, and our own important, if complex, expectations of journalism, memoir and truth.

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