This American Life has retracted Mike Daisey’s story about the Foxconn Factory. It’s been a couple of days since the retraction, but I have only now had a chance to sit down and listen to the story. You must listen to this podcast, even if you didn’t hear the original. This retraction salvages This American Life as a respectable journalistic source, and disgraces Mike Daisey. It’s really important to hear why.
This is a head-on collision between journalism and fiction. It demands a close examination in the declaration between journalism and fiction, which happens to be a favorite subject of mine to discuss.
This American Life has done an exquisite job of taking responsibility for the story, and they have meticulously highlighted and corrected the mistakes. The purpose of journalism is to report the facts of an event or situation, unaltered, in such a way that they inform the public as an unbiased source. The staff at This American Life should be applauded for their dedication to responsible journalism.
But Mike Daisey is not a journalist. He is a fiction writer and a performer who was asked to agree to the standards of good journalism. Fiction is the opposite of journalism. By definition fiction is not true. That is why this event is tricky. I would argue that all fiction must contain truth in order for it to resonate with another person, but the events of the piece do not have to have occurred so long as they facilitate the underlying truth of the story.
Daisey’s performance piece operates under a covert implication that his performance is highly fictionalized even though it is presented as journalism.
That is why what Mike Daisey has done is despicable, and why I think his reputation is damaged beyond salvage. This American Life did not have to be forced to correct their story when the facts came to light, whereas Mike Daisey toured the country, lying everywhere he went, in front of millions of people, to untold numbers of journalists. He attracted the attention of large journalism companies, and falsely attacked the reputation of Foxconn and Apple.
Though conditions at the factory are terrible, and even though Apple and Foxconn should be held responsible for those conditions, Apple and Foxconn cannot be expected to account for Mike Daisey’s fiction. Just like every scientist has to separate themselves from those who falsify scientific reports to prove global warming, from now on, every journalist who reports on working conditions will have to shake free of Mike Daisey’s mendacity. He has damaged journalism. He’s not even a journalist. Worse than that, he has damaged the crusade against working conditions at Foxconn, which was why he wrote his piece in the first place.
He has also damaged his reputation as a fiction writer. Plenty of people will still go to see his show, but it will no longer facilitate the underlying truth of his story because there is no way to know which parts are true and which have been fabricated. He is only slightly more trustworthy than a tabloid newspaper.
Mike Daisey has also compromised the integrity of This American Life. This American Life has retracted this story quickly, meticulously, and, as far as I can tell, accurately. That is why This American Life should continue to be a respectable journalistic source, but they had to dedicate an entire episode worth of effort to compensate for the damage that Mike Daisey has done, and they will forever have to account for that.
Here’s an amazing RadioLab episode titled Deception where a fellow named Paul Eckman defines a lie as “a deliberate choice to mislead a target without any notification.”