In January, the public radio show This American Life devoted an entire episode to the issue of working conditions inside the Chinese factories that make Apple products. On Friday, the show was forced to retract that entire episode. It turns out the man who reported his alleged experiences in the story made it all up.
It’s a terrible journalistic embarrassment to This American Life, and the show is devoting this week’s entire episode to outlining the errors and untruths in what was broadcast. (You can hear this week’s episode here and you can read the blog post in which the show announced the retraction here.)
To me, this is a complex story with implications for journalism, culture, business, philosophy and even politics. Let’s look briefly at the facts before getting to the potential lessons.
Mike Daisey is a performer, not a journalist. He writes and performs theatrical performances that attempt to present his ideas about life’s truths. The best of theatre, film and literature does exactly this, but it’s clear when we see a play, watch a movie or read a novel that we’re experiencing fiction that’s intended to convey larger truths. We might leave the experience gaining insight, but rarely do we believe we’ve gained facts based on the stories we’ve experienced.
Daisey has admitted in the past to mixing fact and fiction. Almost six years ago, the New York Times said this about him:
He admits that he once fabricated a story because it “connected” with the audience. After telling this lie over and over again, it became so integrated into the architecture of his piece that it became impossible to remove or, perhaps, to distinguish from what really happened. Mr. Daisey seems embarrassed by this confession, but he also pursues the issue further. Is lying acceptable when in service of a greater truth? What does truth mean in the context of art?
But this story wasn’t presented on a stage as artistic truth for a theatre audience. Daisey presented himself to the public — through broadcast news shows — as telling the objective truth of what he saw. (Take a look at what he said on MSNBC.)
When I first heard that Daisey claimed to have gone to China for about a week and come back with unverifiable tales of rampant worker abuses, I was suspicious. I’ve been a reporter, so I know it’s not easy to do what he claims to have done. It’s slow and hard work to get access to places, develop sources who have confidence in you and then find the people you need to talk to. The idea of a rank amateur doing all of that in China — without even speaking the language — in the time he claimed struck me as improbable at best.
When the producers at This American Life were trying to verify his story, he gave them a fake name for the Chinese language interpreter he allegedly used and claimed that her phone number was disconnected, so he couldn’t let them contact her. Unfortunately for him, a reporter for the public radio show Marketplace did find the interpreter and interviewed her. The reporter asked her about each of the things that Daisey had claimed to have seen with her. Pretty much nothing he said checked out. He had lied about everything.
When the people at This American Life confronted Daisey with the facts, he admitted that he had made things up in order to make his point. He wasn’t quite contrite, but he at least grudgingly admitted that he hadn’t been telling the truth about the details. His position is that the basics of the story are true — just because he believes they’re true — so he was justified in making up details to bring the “truth” to people. In other words, he was so committed to what he believed to be true that he made up lies to persuade others to believe his point of view. How can lies be used in the pursuit of truth?
For journalists, this should be a sobering wake-up call to get back to the basics of complete fact-checking, even if the story in question seems important and sensational. For businesses, it’s an indication that facts frequently don’t matter when people decide to make up sensational charges against them. For the culture, it should be another indication that we have to be skeptical of what we hear and wait for verification before we’re sure of the truth of charges. (I was surprised by the number of people online Friday night who were still looking for ways to believe that Daisey’s story must be true — despite the fact that he’s admitted making up the details.)
For his part, Daisey is full of back-peddling and double-talk at this point. On his blog Friday, he defended himself by saying that he wasn’t a journalist but rather a performer. He said that he was entitled to use “dramatic license” in telling his story. He can’t seem to understand that it’s one thing to create a work of fiction for the stage and it’s quite another to tell the world that the fiction he created is the truth.
I realize that people have always lied, but I think they used to be more likely to know the difference between truth and lies. Daisey seems confused. He doesn’t seem to believe there’s any real difference. He honestly seems to believe that it’s OK to falsify whatever he needs to falsify in order to sell what he believes is true.
I think this comes back to the direction that modern philosophy has followed for decades now. I’m not really qualified to get into the question deeply and discuss which philosophers have led us down this road in which ways. But there’s been a decreasing respect for the idea of truth — or even the idea that objective truth can exist. We’ve been told by the intelligentsia for so long that truth is relative and subjective that lots of people believe it. They believe that truth is what they want to believe it is — and that whatever they say or do in the pursuit of “their truth” is legitimate.
I don’t claim to know all objective truth. I certainly don’t claim that it’s easy to know truth. I can make what I consider to be a good case that we can’t ultimately know anything without basing it on some faith at some level. (For all you know, all of the physical reality you believe is around you is simply a figment of your imagination. You might be the only being in the universe. But you assume you can believe your senses. That’s an act of of faith. Remember that when you think it’s odd that a Christian has faith in something he can’t see or prove, either.)
As hard as it is to know truth, though, it’s very easy at times to know which things are objectively false. It’s easy to know that if you tell someone that you observed people who told you specific things — but you really made those things up — that you are being dishonest in what you say. It’s very easy to know you’re being dishonest — and it’s easy to understand why this is wrong — if you have any respect for honesty.
Our society — the culture, our politics, everything — assume that lying is acceptable if you can get away with it. There was a time when people understood that lying was wrong and that it was shameful to be caught doing it. They did it anyway, but they had shame about it. They didn’t try to pretend they were doing right.
The ability to trust each other is a core part of what makes human societies function. The more we can trust each other, the better — for many reasons. I believe we need to return to a day when we taught that objective reality exists, even if it’s hard to alway know it. And I think we need to return to the day when we understood that lying was wrong, even if we sometimes did it anyway.
Mike Daisey owes an apology to Apple for his lies. He owes an apology to the people at This American Life for lying to them about his lies. He owes an apology to his listeners for leading many of them to believe things that just aren’t true. But none of those apologies will happen, because Daisey is one of those hip and modern artists who believe that the truth is relative — and that it’s ultimately whatever he decides it is.
The lack of belief in objective truth will destroy a society in the long run. Ours is already a long way down the road toward ruin. Daisey is just one more tiny indication of the rot at the core of our culture.