Tuesday, April 3, 2012

What Mike Daisey Did Wasn't Fair - It Was Right.

Moses crossing either the Red Sea or the Reed Sea (one make a better story); Mike Daisey opening up an enormous can of worms

So when I found out that one of my favorite episodes of This American Life turned out not to be true I didn't care. Not at all, not one iota. I understood that the author had presented the story as fact, had urged his listeners to check his facts, but that he had lied. It was a great story, while it cast doubt on the practices of an well regarded company, and cast doubt on the enterprise of journalism itself, it in no way made me think less of the author, TAL, or The Washington Post. I still love Malcolm Gladwell even though I now know he lied throughout the story TAL broadcast. My lack of outrage is because when I listen to TAL I don't expect "All The News That's Fit to Print," I expect something closer to the way TAL describes itself: “It's mostly true stories of everyday people, though not always.” So while I was surprised and disappointed to learn that Mike Daisey had lied about the narrative TAL had broadcast - I was just as surprised, that by doing so, he had somehow besmirched TAL's journalistic credibility. When did Ira Glass graduate from being a talk radio Casey Kasem to NPR's Dan Rather?

Although I started defending Daisey publicly on twitter on the 19th March, a week or so before he apologized and accepted full responsibility for what he did, I am much more comfortable saying now what I said then: I am looking forward to Daisey's next monologue. I cannot, nor am I want to, defend Mike Daisey's lies. He lied. Lying is bad. But at least some of my sympathy for Mr. Daisey (and my impatience with Ira Glass) comes from the fact that my father is an ordained priest and not a lawyer. This is not a difference between compassion and justice, it's a difference between what is the Truth and what is true. I found this out when I was an undergrad and I spent a week at the beach with one of my classmates and her family. She and I were attracted to each other but hadn't step over the line because she had, until very recently, been dating one of my good friends. The invitation to Cape Cod was a chance to see if we should cross the line - if it would be worth the blowback - it wasn't, we didn't. The reason being (from my side of the equation) a culture clash; a profound misunderstanding about the nature of truth. The source of the clash: her dad was a lawyer. 
Northern Elephant Seal; iPhone Girl

One afternoon the girl, who we'll call Megan (because that is in fact her actual name), and I went for a long walk down to the end of the Cape. On our walk we saw a pod of elephant seals. For those who have never seen an elephant seal in real life (picture Ridley Scott's Space Jockeys with Jabba the Hutt's hind quarters) they do not look silly. They are terrifying, because they are gigantic (as big as a VW bus), yet somehow still as fast as wet hens. If memory serves there were three of these things and they were intimidating. I remember making eye contact with one and instantly regretting it, the thing looked like it was going to charge. 

It didn't and we walked back to our towels unmolested. Megan told me that her mom walked the beach everyday hoping to see elephant seals and would be really jealous, so she told me we shouldn't tell her. I agreed and went back to the house by myself to make myself a sandwich and get us Cokes. The trouble started when Megan's mom found me in the kitchen: "How's it going," she asked. "We saw elephant seals" Unlike either priest or lawyer, artists have no seal of confession or client confidentiality - which is probably just as well. Megan's mom looked genuinely excited to hear the news: "Really?" Again I heard myself blurting out: "Yeah, they were really close - like fifteen feet from us and as big as VW buses." Megan was right, the excitement only lasted a second. Her mom looked a little bummed and jealous. I grabbed my treats and headed back to the beach.
Atticus Finch; VW Microbus

I felt a little crummy about what had happened and decided not to tell Megan that I had told her mom. I knew that that was a mistake - but I also knew it was a minor one. So that evening when we had all sat down for dinner, and Megan looked across the table as said: "Mom says you told her about the elephant seals?" I knew I was busted. I remember looking up from my plate and realizing the whole family was looking at me expectantly. "Yeah" I said, tucking back into my mash potatoes. "She said you told her they were as big as a VW bus." I looked up again and this time looked around at the rest of the family. Her mother, her father and her older brother were all looking at me waiting to hear my answer. "They were really big" I explained. "They weren't that big." Magan said, her eyes narrowing. I appealed to the rest of the table, "They were under water." I could tell they were unmoved.

"She said you told her they were fifteen feet away." Now I know I shouldn't have told Megan's mom, and that I should have told Megan that I did, but seriously, these are small trespasses as these things go. "They were really close," I told her dad. "They were thirty feet away," Megan told him. I looked around the table, it was clear that while I was cleaning up from the beach that this is what the family had been talking about. I realized I wasn't being busted for telling Megan's mom, or not telling Megan that I had. I was being busted for lying; for being a liar. "Yeah, maybe they were farther out" I stumbled, "but they were scary." In retrospect, I am sure that Megan was factually correct. In the interest of telling a good story I had departed from the facts, and told the story as it felt. I remember looking around at that family, they were kind and generous people, but they thought I was a liar and I couldn't figure out why. I remember being struck by the disconnect.
Foghorn Leghorn; Ira Glass

Here is what I decided the problem was: that Megan's father and brother were lawyers. I was on trial and found guilty by a family moot court. As I've said, my father is a priest. In my family it was customary to paper over the difference between the Reed Sea and the Red Sea or between 7 days 14 billion years. (That's an exaggeration. My father went to Yale Divinity School. He is a very sophisticated person and doesn't--as far as I have ever been able to discern--believe that the Old Testament is literally true. That is not to say he doesn't believe it's true. He clearly does.) The truth that mattered in my family was the truth the story being told was trying to communicate, not the facts being listed. And in both my father's family (Irish) and my Mother's (Greeks) telling a good story at the dinner table sometimes involved fact checking, but never a cross examination (much less a finding of guilt).

So until Ira Glass threw Mike Daisey under the bus (think of all the ways TAL could have handled that situation, while Glass said he felt pity for Daisey, he showed absolutely no mercy) I had no idea that TAL might have any editorial standards. I was not terribly surprised to find out that Daisey the performance artist had a theologian's grasp on truth, but I stunned to find out that, in his soul, Glass was 100% lawyerly. Until that retraction I had no way of knowing that Glass imagined himself, and his guests, as "journalists." Neither did most of the people I asked about it. (Turns out TAL won a Polk Award. But still, since when does fixing a pipe make you a plumber?) I wondered if Glass had "fact checked" Danny Lobell's story of how he and his immigrant neighbor Blanco bought a rooster (a personal TAL favorite). Probably not. I really don't care if he did. Like Gladwell, I enjoyed Lobell's story and didn't care which side of the “mostly true" line it fell on. But admittedly there was a lot more at stake with Daisey's story, the thespian/theologian had cast himself as David to America's Goliath. (Because really, the bad guy here isn't China, or Apple, it's America.)
William Hurt playing a journalist in Broadcast News(1987); Judith Miller playing a journalist on broadcast news (2010).

In the film Broadcast New there is a scandal when we learn that William Hurt's character fabricated a tear for a news story. The revelation of the deceit is a powerful moment in the film. It illustrates exactly how fine-grained and genuinely laudable the ethical standards of today's journalists are. When I read the New York Times I want to believe that the reporting there reflects those high, fine grained standards. That doesn't mean I believe everything I read. I found the NYT suspiciously pro-war in the lead up to the invasion of Iraq. Turns out I was right to be suspicious. Ethical standards do not compensate for ideological bias. 

As fine grained and high as those standards are, even when hewed to with absolute fidelity, they cannot protect us from what goes unsaid or unquestioned. Al Bradbury wrote a fantastic post taking issue with the ideological bias of a recent TAL episode called "What Kind of Country." Bradbury's entire post is fantastic, and digs into the questioned that weren't asked by Ira Glass on TAL, but should have been. I want to quote a bit of her conclusion:
Too often, the initiative of workers themselves is erased from stories about foreign sweatshops, and solutions are reduced to paternalistic outside monitoring and the exporting of U.S. legal standards, our own union history ignored. Had Daisey left the unionists out of his show, he would have painted an inaccurately passive picture of how Chinese workers are dealing with manufacturing industry standards. The show would have been, in an important way, less true. It’s great to have a public conversation about truth and responsible journalism, but the uproar over Daisey’s piece and the silence over “What Kind of Country” reflects, I think, a failure to see the forest for the trees. Small errors of fact can be dangerous, but misleading narratives and covert ideological frames are far more widespread and stand to do much greater damage.
Edward Burtynsky, Manufactured Landscape (2006); Rupert Murdoch manufacturing testimony (2011)

I want the news staff at NPR and the NYTs to hold themselves to the very highest possible standards of truth, but I don't want the rest of the world to. The truth of Lobell's rooster story isn't whether of not a stand-up comedian fabricated the story of Blanco's tears, the truth was that he found a novel and effective way to tell me about the ways immigrants are socially isolated. I have spoken with a lot of my friends about Daisey, exchanged some heated tweets, and read everybody from The Atlantic and The Nation to Daring Fireball and Woz on the subject of what he did. Here is what I think he did: Daisey lied about the particulars of his trip to China. He lied about his place within the narrative and doing so lied about what he "saw."

Here is what he also did, he told the truth about abuses in China that we as American consumers are directly responsible for. He did so as no one else I have read or heard from has. He did so without ever sounding like an anti-corporate idealist (because he is clearly not). He did so with out even sounding anti-Apple (because he clearly isn't that either). As it turns out Daisey's "reporting" does not rise to even the lowest standards of journalism, but it sails above the journalistic status quo of "fair" reporting that rules every corner of today's newsrooms. I say that because nothing Daisey said was even remotely "fair."
Photo Opportunity: Tim Cook; Foxonn workers.

Anyone who follows the news will know that "fair" is code for telling both sides of the story, no mater how obviously mismatched those sides may be. If one side is backed by hard science and wide spread consensus, and the other side is a religious crank backed by moneyed interests, the two will be presented as equally valid. So if on one side, there is the wealthiest corporation in the world, making record profits on its cell phones and the other side are teenage Chinese workers with no domestic unions or government agency to take their side, the "fair" thing to do is to treat the two are as equal players on a morally level playing field. The presumption is that to maintain objectivity everyone's point of view deserves to be treated as equivalents, each with valid perspectives.

In a promo for a Nightline report on Foxconn's labor practices, the reporter and his counter parts back at the anchor's desk are careful to repeatedly point out that their reporting is "fair." What this means, is that while reporting the spate of suicides at Foxconn factories the journalist is quick to be fair; to tell the whole truth: that despite the "suicide nets" that surround the dorms at Foxconn, it is important to remember that the overall suicide rate in China is higher than the rate at Foxconn. This is the morally hollow reasoning. The same promo reports that most workers at Foxconn are under thirty and that many are in their teens and early twenties. The promo explains how grinding and boring the 12 hour days and 6 week days are. They quote one worker who complains that she doesn't make enough to be able to live with her children. Equating young workers throwing themselves from the balconies of their workplace with a national annual rate isn't "intellectually dishonest," it is entirely corrupt. The question to ask is what is the national rate of workplace protest suicide is in China, what it is in the US? Or, how many workplace suicides have been reported at Apple corporate headquarters in Cupertino?
Memento Mori: Foxconn campus; Apple campus

He presented his story as literal truth and it turned out that he had not seen many of the things he said he saw. I hope he stops lying now, because his lies did indeed throw some of he said on TAL into doubt - but not everything he said. Here is what Ira Glass said in his Retraction episode:
We did fact check the story before we put it on the radio. But in fact checking, our main concern was whether the things Mike says about Apple and about its supplier Foxconn. which makes this stuff, were true. That stuff is true. It’s been corroborated by independent investigations by other journalists, studies by advocacy groups, and much of it has been corroborated by Apple itself in its own audit reports.
Daisey's story built on the highly ethical reporting done by tech journalists at Wired and elsewhere, and corroborated by the highly ethical reporting done by journalists at the New York Times. Like every one else I was disappointed, but unlike many commentators I was not enraged, nor did I feel the pity Glass reported feeling. Daisey fucked up, he fucked up on a whole different scale than me saying 15 feet when maybe I should have said 30. But lots of storytellers fuck up, their work remains important. I read Upton Sinclair's The Jungle in high school. Our teacher told us that despite what Sinclair claimed, the book was not based entirely of true stories, parts of it were known to be fabricated. But The Jungle was still great literature and (however imperfectly) served its original muckraking function: it alerted and engaged Americans with one of the most terrible workplace abuses of the age.
Almost all the Robots; not even a fraction of the Foxconn workers

Here is what is confusing to me and most of the people I've spoken with (journalist, tech geeks, actors; anyone wiling to get past a knee jerk "all lying is bad, Daisey is bad") about Mike Daisey: he didn't need to lie. But neither did Sinclair. Neither did I. The truth was on his side and he is a great story teller (just like me an Upton). A lot has been made of the man with the disfigure hand, the armed guards, the 12 and 13 year old girls. None of those were the elements that captivated me, that occupied my imagination. I don't think I am naive, but like Daisey himself, I assumed high tech gadgets were stamped out by high tech robots. Here is the portion of Daisey's monologue on TAL that shocked me and, despite his lies, I can't shake. This seems to be a factually correct description of the actual conditions that produced my iPhone:
They take me up and down the aisles. And the first thing I notice is the silence. It's so quiet. At Foxconn you're demerited if you ever speak on the line. At no factory I went to did anyone ever speak on the line, but this is deeper than that. As a creature of the First World, I expect a factory making complex electronics will have the sound of machinery, but in a place where the cost of labor is effectively zero, anything that can be made by hand is made by hand. No matter how complex your electronics are, they are assembled by thousands and thousands of tiny little fingers working in concert. And in those vast spaces, the only sound is the sound of bodies in constant, unending motion. And it is constant. 

Gerty; Workers at Foxconn

That image gripped me - still grips me. I can't shake the sound industrialization, on such a massive scale, as the "sound of bodies." As someone who makes things that require meticulous focus to repetitive details, I know exactly how psychically grueling it is to work long quiet days. Never mind the physical hardship of workers on their feet so much their "legs swelled so much they waddled" (we know that is true because that quote is from the NYT) or that I am an artists and find my work deeply rewarding. Aside from that, hardship working in silence on repetitive tasks all day is crazy making, no matter how meaningful it is. I distract myself any way I can. I listen to talk radio and audio books (Malcolm), I talk to friends on the phone, I hire entertaining assistants, I take a lot of breaks. When people see my work they call me obsessive, patient. I've stopped correcting them. If what Daisey says about the work done in those factories is true (and again, I haven't heard anyone contest this part of the monologue) then I have nothing on the teenage girls working at Foxconn:
They work a Chinese hour, and a Chinese hour has 60 Chinese minutes, and a Chinese minute has 60 Chinese seconds. It's not like our hour. What's our hour now, 46 minutes? You know, you have a bathroom break, and you have a smoke break. If you don't smoke, there's a yoga break. This doesn't look anything like that. This looks like nothing we've seen in a century.
They work on the line, and the lines only move as fast as its slowest member, so each person learns how to move perfectly as quickly as possible. If they can't do it, there are people behind them watching them. And there are cameras watching both sets of people, and people watching the cameras. They lock it down. They sharpen it to a fine, sharp edge every hour, and those hours are long.
The official work day in China is eight hours long, and that's a joke. I never met anyone who had even heard of an eight-hour shift. Everyone I talked to worked 12-hour shifts standard, and often much longer than that, 14 hours a day, 15 hours a day. Sometimes when there's a hot new gadget coming out-- you know what the [BLEEP] I'm talking about-- sometimes it pegs up to 16 hours a day. And it just sits there for weeks and months at a time, month after month after month, straight 16's, sometimes longer than that.
It is not about your conscience: Wired's illustration for Joel Johnson's piece on Foxconn; me driving myself crazy in the studio.

All of this agrees with what others have reported. Daisey goes onto say that while he was "in-country", a worker at Foxconn dies after working a 34-hour shift." I haven't heard anyone discount that, since we know when he took his trip that shouldn't be hard to fact check, but lets not give him the benefit of the doubt, lets assume that that is not just hyperbole, but that it is a lie. But remember: even though the NYT reporters didn't mention how old the waddling workers were, Nightline's Bill Weir did, he comments on how young the Foxconn work force looked - most in their teens, and twenties, none that looked over thirty. Again, we can assume the Nightline journalist was telling the truth. So we are not talking about old men's swollen legs, we are talking about young people. Daisey continues:
And I go to the dormitories. I'm a valuable potential future customer. They will show me anything I ask to see. The dormitories are cement cubes, 12-foot by 12-foot. And in that space there are 13 beds, 14 beds. I count 15 beds. They're stacked up like Jenga puzzle pieces all the way up to the ceiling. The space between them is so narrow, none of us would actually fit in them. They have to slide into them like coffins.
There are cameras in the rooms. There are cameras in the hallways. There are cameras everywhere. And why wouldn't there be? You know, when we dream of a future where the regulations are washed away and the corporations are finally free to sail above us, you don't have to dream about some sci-fi dystopian Blade Runner/1984 bull [BLEEP]. You can go to Shenzhen tomorrow. They're making your crap that way today. 
The contested bit of information there is that no one but Daisey has reported cameras in the dorm rooms. Otherwise Daisey's account fits the facts as other journalists have reported them. Wired's Joel Johnson describes these dorms as "good ones, designed to be better than what workers could afford on their own." He is also quite glowing about the company store at Foxconn, Johnson seems like a decent person, but he is too "fair." Although he has already reported on credible allegations of forced overtime and workers pressed to work 12 hours a day for 13 days in a row, he concludes:
But the work itself isn’t inhumane—unless you consider a repetitive, exhausting, and alienating workplace over which you have no influence or authority to be inhumane. And that would pretty much describe every single manufacturing or burger-flipping job ever.
Cupertino's McDonalds; Foxconn's Ten Thousand Horses Galloping

No one flipping burgers in this country is forced a 12-hour day 13 days in a row (much less two consecutive shifts in a row as The NYT s part report alleges). And as Daisey points out, burger-flippers are working "American hours" - with breaks, chats, and other down time. I am betting that there are no banners at the Cupertino McDonalds that read “Work hard on the job today or work hard to find a job tomorrow” (as the Times reports there were at Foxconn) much less employees forced to do pushups as punishment. Finally, burger-flippers aren't crammed in to dormitory rooms with half a dozen strangers or more; they are living at home with their families. Johnson's piece never mentions that the experiment of the company town was tried by repeatedly by 19th century industrialists in this country. Workers rebelled, and so have Foxconn workers.
When I leave the factory, as I can feel myself being rewritten from the inside out, the way I see everything is starting to change. I keep thinking, how often do we wish more things were handmade? Oh, we talk about that all the time, don't we? "I wish it was like the old days. I wish things had that human touch." But that's not true. There are more handmade things now than there have ever been in the history of the world.
Everything is handmade. I know. I have been there. I have seen the workers laying in parts thinner than human hair. One after another after another. Everything is handmade.
Young contract workers at Foxcon modern assembly line; old worker rending e-waste in the open (presumably an independent contractor)

So because the particulars of Daisey's trip to China have all been thrown into doubt, I no longer know that he saw "workers laying in parts thinner than human hair." But what I do know now is that everything is hand made. I'm not a dope but I didn't know that until I heard Daisey say it. I suspect the same is true for most of the other people (including tech journalists) who heard the TAL story. Here is what I know now: there are no magic robots in Foxconn. There are young people, who's eyes are still sharp and hands are nimble. I know they are being worked too hard by any standard: "150 years of research proves that long hours at work kill profits, productivity and employees."
Lets assume Daisey lied about people working until they dropped dead or until the "joints in their hands have disintegrated." American work rules may seem onerous and even silly at times, but they have a very important function. Very few people retire in their thirties. The trick is not to get everything you can out of a young worker because there are dozens of younger workers desperate to replace them. The trick is to make work conditions so workers are productive their entire work lives. The abuses that Daisey illuminated are bad for Foxconn and bad China. The villains here isn't Apple and its customers it is Americans. We have abandon workers. Here at least there are laws still in place, but we - all of us, not just Apple employees and customers - export the work to places where there are no such laws. Here is the last bit of Daisey's monologue that I will quote, it is the most damning:
Because there are unions in China. There are the ones that are fronts for the Communist Party, and then there are actual unions interested in labor reform. They're called secret unions, because in China, if you're caught being a member of or affiliating with a union like that, you go to prison. You go to prison for many years. And that's why I've had to take these precautions.
Arrest of a Falun Gong protestor (2000); a Starbucks in Guangzhou

I was not surprised to hear that unions in China are fronts. I was shocked to hear actual trade unionist risk imprisonment, not because that is unbelievable - you can go to prison for doing T'ai chi in China - I was just surprised to hear someone discussing the tech business mention trade unions. To be fair Joel Johnson mentions them at the end of his piece for Wired. Once. But he doesn't mention illegal unions. He mentions workers complaints, but not their attempt to improve those conditions for themselves. The New York Times, in its big 2 parter and subsequent reporting has not mentioned unions, illegal or otherwise, at all.
The illegal unions are covered in the TAL "Retraction" episode - sort of. They point out that Daisey claims to have met those secret trade unionists in a Starbucks. Although Daisey's translator confirmed that he did meet with the secret unionist, evidently that it was at a Starbucks is patently absurd. More damningly he knocked the number of unionists he met from maybe 5 up to 30. That's fucked up. Again: it's wrong to lie. Mike and I both know that; but what about the secret trade unionists he did meet? Why is the scandal Starbucks? Why is that the outrage? Why isn't the outage the fact that Wired, and the Times are mum on the subject of Chinese suppressing trade unions? That omission is characteristic of "fair" reporting by professional tech journalists. It seems that workers complaints, especially if they are petty - "the trees block the light" - are fair, worker's efforts to organize are not. The fair thing seems to be to report that the dispute had been "resolved."
Cathy Lee, Mike Daisey's Translator; Nightline Co-Anchor Bill Weir shows Foxconn employee Zhou Xiaoying photos a working iPad for the first time.

I have never been to Guangzhou. I will accept that Daisey lied about Starbucks. That it was equally absurd the infamous worker with the mangled hand had never seen a working iPad. (Never mind that the Nightline promo features footage of a Foxconn worker seeing a working iPad for the first time.) For the sake of argument lets say that that is a lie as well. But I can't accept that these lies are the scandal.

The burden of proof should be on those who claim that “the real scandal” is Mike Daisey's lies. I don't buy it. When the other side of the scandal, is even the possibility of child labor abuses, the real scandal is not Mike Daisey. The fair thing to do is to report that, as of 2006, Apple and Foxconn "resolved" the charges of child labor violations. Even so no one is claiming there isn't child labor in Chinese factories, it's just not at Apple suppliers. (Unless you consider 16 year olds children, then there is still plenty of child labor contributing to the production of your iPad and iPhone.) The burden of proof should be on Max Fisher when he claims,“By lying, Daisey undermined the cause he purported to advance." As of this posting, I'm not seeing signs of that. I'm seeing just the opposite. Here is the timeline Bill Wier lays out of the Nightline story:
Daisey's show was featured on NPR's "This American Life" in January and a listener named Mark Shields was so moved, he launched a petition drive online. Over 250,000 Apple users called on the company to build the first "ethical" iPhone, and protests were planned at Apple stores around the world. It was around this time when Apple called me.
Foxconn's Louis Woo; The FLA's Auret van Heerden

The FLA released its report on the audit it did for Apple of work conditions ar Foxconn. The NYTs concludes: "Foxconn violated Chinese law and industry codes of conduct by having employees work more than 60 hours a week, sometimes for 11 or more days in a row." Chinese labor law is a low bar to fail to reach. Picture your 16 year old son, daughter, brother, sister, niece, or nephew working in those conditions. Picture them not making enough money to live at home with their family as one worker in the Nightline promo complains. Apple's CEO Tim Cook was probably afraid you might, since he visited Foxconn and pledged to make dramatic changes in working conditions including limiting workweeks to 49 hours (without lowering weekly pay from what workers now earn for 70 hrs). A 40 hour week would have been better, but still this is an amazing turn of events.

As David Carr bragged, the NYT's excellent 2 part report on Apple and Foxconn "landed hard" - I'll give him that. The Times almost certainly deserves the lion's share of credit for the audit, Cook's visit, and the new pledge to improve working conditions. But would the NYTs piece have "landed hard" without Daisey softening us up first? I'm not convinced it would have. Just as I am totally sure that Nightline and the Huffington Post wouldn't front ended "Handmade Gadgets" in their slide show about Tim Cook's visit to China if it weren't for Daisey's brilliant observation that "There are more handmade things now than there have ever been in the history of the world."
Weirdly unconvincing: Huffington Post; Foxconn

For now the NYT feels it is necessary to conclude their article on Cook's visit with this reminder, "In March, the radio program 'This American Life' retracted a report based on a visit to a Foxconn factory by Mike Daisey, a monologist. The radio program found evidence that Mr. Daisey had invented several damaging details about his visit." Scandal. It's worth noting however the entire Nightline segment seems to follow Daisey's lead, repeatedly echoing his observations, and building on those observations - including the threat by 200 Foxconn workers to commit mass suicide.

I still love to listen to Malcolm Gladwell's books in the studio (he has the best audio book reading voice ever), I don't care that he misrepresented himself and doing so hilariously cast aspersions on the editorial standards of the New York Post. I continued to buy his books and believe the things he told me; no big deal. I can differentiate between him telling an entertaining story on stage that turned out to be untrue and the work he does for his books and the New Yorker. Gladwell is guilty of nothing. Daisey is guilty of something - he is guilty of something more like the Historian Joseph Ellis. 
Historian Joseph Ellis; raconteur Malcolm Gladwell

Ellis claimed, on numerous occasions, to be a decorated combat veteran who both fought in Vietnam and protested against the war. That is off the scales despicable, but I forgive him. I read his last book and believed every word of it - perhaps because I knew it was receiving an unprecedented amount of scrutiny. But I forgive him for the same reason I forgive Daisey, in my mind I can imagine the slippery slope that lead to the despicable lie. I can imagine the way Ellis' lie started as an off-handed attempt to impress a pretty coed, or manly grad student, and that over time the story spread and therefore grew. I don't want to try and imagine what steps lead Daisey into his own personal hell. It doesn't matter, because nothing excuses what Daisey did, and I don't want my intentions to be mistaken for making excuses. Like Ellis' lies, Daisey's lies just make it clear that he is a flawed person, but not an irredeemable one.

I am looking forward to Mike Daisey's next monologue. I do not have any illusion that Daisey now has the soul of a lawyer (that would be a tragic end to the story), or even a journalist. But I am ready to trust him again. For one, like Ellis, Daisey's every word will be scrutinized for even a shade of untruth. Secondly Daisey is still the only one I have heard being unfair. I hope Daisey doesn't learn the wrong lesson: I honestly hope never he never stoops to being fair.
This GIF apropos of nothing and fake, but still somehow nicely communicate why I love America. (via keptsimple)

I also still love Apple. I never stopped. Corporations are not persons, but they are human institutions, and like every person I know, human institutions have flaws. I forgive Apple, which is easier to do now that, like Daisey, they have made important course corrections. I am glad that Apple is changing. I am sure I will forgive Ira Glass and TAL, although it will be easier to do if they change tack. I also still love America, but to be honest we, Americans, are the one who seem farthest from seeing the errors of our ways. It is hard to forgive America, not because we buy things imported from China, but because our number one export is to value profits above human rights. That's the real scandal.

And while I am grateful to Mike Daisey for shaking things up, I am also grateful to Charles Duhigg and David Barboza at the Times, as well as Joel Johnson at Wired and all the other tech and business journalists who wrote about Foxconn the right way; who held themselves to the highest ethical standards. I hope they learn the right lesson about what Daisey did and in the future they will be no less truthful but a lot less fair.
The Future Still Looks Like this: Apple; Mike Daisey

Quick epilogue: Like journalists I value lawyers and I am very happy we have them. I am even happy we have so many of them. My Uncle Tommy, who I loved very much, was a union lawyer and believed in the law as deeply as his older brother believes in God. For those who jokingly praise China for being a country run by engineers rather than lawyers I have this to say: It's a funny punch line, but it isn't true. Engineers spend their lives concerned with the ways things go together, lawyers, like theologians, spend their lives thinking about how people go together.

Tommy was also a fierce believer in the union movement as an international movement. He believed American workers had nothing to fear from competition abroad - as long as those workers had the right to unionize. Something Tommy told me years ago was that he felt the Unions had made a terrible mistake when they adopted the "Made in USA" motto. If I remember correctly he was in the room when that decision was made, he had argued that it should have been "Union Made." As Joel Johnson concluded: "We’ve exported our manufacturing; let’s be sure to export trade unions, too."
Falling Down (1993): Made in the USA

One more thing: According to the internets a VW microbus is about 14 feet long and 3200 lbs. An adult elephant seal is anywhere from 10-16 long and 2000 - 5000 lbs. Even if I saw some small ones, they're fucking big animals. Image a wild animal nearly the size of a VW bus. In those conditions 15 feet most truthfully expresses how 30 feet feels.


  1. I am reminded about the pseudofictional biography of jazz great Buddy Bolden, "Coming Through Slaughter." The author Michael Ondaajte writes that "some facts that have been expanded or polished to suit the truth of fiction."

    Or Tim O'Brien in "The Things They Carried," writing "A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth."

    Well said.

  2. I honestly hope never he never stoops to being fair.

    Yes. A thousand times, yes.

    I also like JeffReeves' cite of O'Brien.

  3. This is a well thought out response to the events surrounding the Daisey "scandal." I was the Editor in Chief of my school newspaper when the story broke. The Executive Editor and Director (we ran the paper as a triumvirate) thought it was great what TAL did. I vehemently disagreed with them. I felt that the law was being followed at the expense of the spirit of journalism. Why write if not to inform, persuade, and improve? Daisey's story did all of those things, I felt that TAL's retraction episode was kicking a man while he was already down. As you already and most delightfully put it, no one was laughing at TAL or expecting more from the Casey Kasem of talk radio; they did not have to do what they did. By staking out their own journalistic integrity at his expense I felt they lost some of their identity - a show about American stories. All true stories, just in various shades of Truth.

    The subtle underlying story is how serious journalist take themselves. A good sense of humor goes a long way in life, and an ability to step back and see the big picture. TAL's retraction episode did little to improve conditions in China or curb uninformed American consumerism.

    Thanks for a great read. I just discovered the blog and am really enjoying it.