The Agony and Ecstasy of Mike Daisey

The story of Mike Daisey and Foxconn’s labor practices is a story of our times: what is truth and what is fiction, how workers at a Chinese factory that supplies many tech products are treated, and how we as Americans should feel about the people who make our iThings and other tech toys.

Daisey is the monologist of the widely popular stage play, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” that just finished a second run at New York’s Public Theater, one of my favorite venues. In the show, he describes the state of the Foxconn factory that he visited several years ago: the employment of underage workers, their long hours, a worker who is maimed, guards at the gates and other details. Turns out he didn’t really observe much of this, and took liberties with the facts.

This all came undone when Ira Glass, the producer of “This American Life” radio program put Daisey on one of his shows in January, at about the same time that various news reports appeared in the New York Times and elsewhere about Chinese tech labor abuses.

Glass is one of my heroes: I have seen him live do a stage version of how he puts together his show, and I am an avid listener too. He was uncomfortable with Daisey’s portrayal and when one of radio colleagues who covers China raised red flags, he dug deeper. So deep that he ended up retracting much of what Daisey stated as “fact” in a radio show broadcast last week. I believe this is the first such time that Glass has done this in many years on the air and with producing hundreds of broadcasts. It is an extraordinary piece of radio.

The hour-long broadcast is at times painful to listen to but shows the efforts that Glass and his staff had to go through to get at exactly what happened, and what is happening at Foxconn. Daisey squirms and evades direct questions. He posits that there are two levels of factual accuracy: one for journalists and one for the theater. He apologizes to Glass, but only for allowing his work to be aired on a news show, not for lying to his listeners. Daisey, on his blog, states in his defense about his monologue: “It uses a combination of fact, memoir, and dramatic license to tell its story, and I believe it does so with integrity‚Ķ.What I do is not journalism. The tools of the theater are not the same as the tools of journalism.”

Well, let’s just say that I have a different definition of integrity than Daisey does. When I write my stories that you read, I try to make sure that I have accurate information ALL THE TIME. To me, my veracity is a non-renewable resource: once it is gone, you the reader aren’t coming back.

The whole Daisey dust-up is doubly ironic, since one of his earlier monologues was called Truth. It follows the fictional and nonfictional stories of James Frey. Frey, you might remember, was outed on Oprah as making up many of the elements in his own memoirs (and from which our lead icon was taken).

But no matter whether what is and isn’t true, there is a bigger issue, and one that Glass gets to in the waning moments of his broadcast last week. How do we, as consumers of tech, feel about using products that are produced from less than humane working conditions? A hundred years ago or so, American factories employed underage workers (you can see the fine documentary photos of Lewis Hine here and one sample above that brought this practice to an end), long hours, and unsafe working conditions. It is as if, as Glass says, that we have exported this time capsule to China.

Daisey’s efforts and other actual news reports have shed some light on these practices, that much is true. And eventually Foxconn was motivated to raise their workers’ salaries, as the Times reported here last month. But that could be because of increased competition, not increased compassion.

In the meantime, if you have the time, listen to Glass’ program. And think about these issues the next time you buy your tech gear.

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