Daisey chain of events: The core of the China Apple factory tale

An actor and playwright named Mike Daisey went to China to find out what goes on inside the factories where Apple products are made. The results of his trip make up much of a monologue called, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, a work Daisey calls his best to date.

Mike Daisey - This American Life
Mike Daisey - This American Life (Photo credit: Photo Giddy)

In January, my hands-down favorite public radio show, This American Life, built a program around Daisey and his play. I listened to it. Riveting stuff. It left me wondering how an artist could dig up details that no investigative journalist had managed to find.

Turns out, an artist did not dig up those details; he did what novelists, playwrights and screenwriters do every day. To wit: he wove facts, observations, a lot of second hand information, and some outright falsehoods into an artistic opus.

Irony alert!

Mr. Daisey once wrote a monologue about this whole truthiness thing. Salon sums it up thusly:

“Daisey’s genius has been bringing an investigative zeal to his monologues, which often have an edge of social criticism. They are about monopolies, or homeland security, or, in the case of his monologue “Truth,” about the responsibilities that art owes to life. “Truth,” from 2006, was about the cases of James Frey, J.T. LeRoy and Fernando Pessoa — which prior to Daisey himself were among the most famous recent cases of writers who were not what they said they were, and the prices they paid, or did not pay, with audiences. Daisey’s project has involved bringing journalism to raconteurship: going out and finding the stories, traveling for them, rather than just recounting what life has strewn in his path.”

Here’s what Daisey says on his own website about The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.
“I stand by my work. My show is a theatrical piece whose goal is to create a human connection between our gorgeous devices and the brutal circumstances from which they emerge. It uses a combination of fact, memoir, and dramatic license to tell its story, and I believe it does so with integrity.”

When will we learn?

“Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory,” (alternatively titled “Mr. Daisey goes to the Apple Factory”) aired on Jan. 6. As usual, it was the lies after the original fiction that caused a ruckus. Daisey did not to stop stretching the truth.

Before it aired, Daisey could have told host and producer Ira Glass that his play was a combination of truth, hearsay, and–in Glass’s assessment–outright lies.

We might have been able to accept that; after all, in the interest of good theater, a playwright has certain license.  However, and this is clear when you listen to the This American Life episode titled “Retraction,” (air date March 16), Glass and his producers closely questioned Daisey about “the truth” before airing the original show.

There is even an email exchange in which Daisey says he understands that what he has told Glass must pass journalistic muster; in other words, it must be true.

At the beginning of “Retraction,” Glass takes the blame for not pressing Daisey further on how to reach the interpreter, Cathy. Daisey said he no longer had a way to reach her, and the show’s producers and fact-checkers let the matter rest. Glass says they blew it.

Meet Cathy, the interpreter

An intrepid Marketplace reporter named Mike Schmitz found Daisey’s interpreter, Cathy Lee, with a simple Google search. She had not heard from Daisey since 2010 and had no idea what he had produced after this trip, or the drama that has attended the The American Life episode.

What is interesting to me is her assessment. She agrees with Daisey to a degree: he is a writer, not a journalist.

“As a Chinese,” Cathy Lee tells Schmitz. “I think it’s better if he can tell American people the truth. I hope people know the real China. But he is a writer and he exaggerate (sic) something. So, I think it’s not so good.”

Once you start lying, how do you stop?

The “Retraction” episode of This American Life is gripping. There are times when Mike Daisey pauses so long before answering Ira Glass’s questions that you will think your radio, computer or mobile device has died on you. There is real emotion here on all sides; real drama if you will.

A telling part of the January episode, replayed in “Retraction,” comes in Daisey’s own words from the monologue.

“And she (Cathy) says, but you are not a businessman.

And I say, that’s true, I am not a businessman.

And she says, and you aren’t going to buy their products.

I say, that’s true, I’m not going to buy their products.

And she says, you will lie to them.

And I say, yes Cathy, I’m going to lie to lots of people.”

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