"THIS AMERICAN LIFE" BROADCAST:
"We've discovered that one of our most popular episodes contained numerous fabrications. This week, we detail the errors in Mike Daisey's story about visiting Foxconn, which makes iPads and other products for Apple in China. Marketplace's China correspondent Rob Schmitz discovered the fabrications."
I just listened to the story described above which happens to be aired just as the Greg Mortenson trial is in the news. Truth is a hot topic. My newspaper has stopped running a feature in which they analyzed “what is the truth” in the Republican candidates’ claims. I suspect they were overwhelmed. Or maybe they discovered that people want to believe what they want to believe and facts ARE whatever you want to believe. We don’t want to hear differently. We all know how statistics can be made to lie.
Ira Glass and his crew pretty much screwed “Mr. Daisey” to the wall in terms of him exaggerating numbers, displacing events, and embroidering realities. Then they turned to another reporter from the New York Times to give them the “real” facts about Apple in China. (Thus, getting two programs out of one.) This reporter said there were two kinds of accusations. He called them two “buckets,” one of them life-threatening events like dust explosions, and the other one harsh conditions, like long hours, crowded dorms, and repetition injuries. Then he said, “We would not tolerate these conditions in America.” Which throws his credibility into doubt. Hasn’t he ever read stories about underground sweatshops in the US? (I won’t ask whether he’s ever worked under “harsh conditions.”) What about conditions in mines? And about the dust -- how much does he know about grain elevator explosions? Does he think protective laws are actually enforced?
A lot of my experience in life has been in two shifting contexts: an “Indian” reservation and JudeoChristian religion. Weeks ago a New York Times reporter called me to talk about reservation violence. I soon discovered that he knew nothing at all about reservations, not even the fact that they are entirely different from each other both because they are in different ecologies and because they were organized in different time periods with different politics, paradigms and populations. He could only assimilate what I told him through a filter of what he thought he already knew. To him -- self-evidently -- a reservation was a reservation, and an Indian was an Indian. All Indians are helpless downtrodden virtuous victims. All violence happens because the whites let it happen, maybe want it to happen. These were the categories he had in his head because was young, raised in the city, and anxious to be a revelatory hero so his story would be popular. It strikes me that Mike Daisey’s point of view was not so different. And what about Ira Glass? Isn’t he always looking for the piquant, the surprising, the revealing detail that will show how discerning he is?
As for fact-checking, what IS that anyway? Someone’s word? Glass’s New York Times reporter says that the Chinese can bring 87,000 “engineers” into a factory on short notice. Who says so? Who counted them? When I was doing temp work, I was placed with an electrical company that had “engineers.” Turned out they had no degrees -- but they were “as good as” engineers. Is a Chinese “engineer” the same thing as an American “engineer?”
The trouble with trying to determine the truth is not with the teller but with the hearer. NOT WITH THE TELLER BUT THE HEARER. Ira says to Daisey, “I don’t think this is credible.” “I have trouble believing this really happened.” What makes him the great lie detector? Has he been to China? Questioned factory workers there? What makes anyone think that young Chinese workers from the provinces trying to make as much money as they can are going to stop to explain life to a white male journalist pretending to be a businessman? Risk offending the bosses? Risk standing out from the others? Getting behind on quotas and deadlines? The person who disproves Daisey’s story is his interpreter, a young woman. What are the pressures on her? Daisey disguised her by giving her a wrong name and said she couldn’t be contacted -- what if he was trying to protect her from people who might be displeased by what he wrote and hold her responsible. If so, maybe she did a smooth job of reversing herself. She IS a translater.
The above was radio. See what your eyes tell you about Daisey. Do you believe the man in this vid could go into a Chinese iPod factory, interview people, and be told the truth?
In case your crap-detector is broken, let me tell you that this vid is satire -- NOT truth. My opinion. Could this man tell what is truth and what is not? Why would Ira mistake him for a serious investigative reporter? He says he’s theatre and he is.
After you watch this vid below see whether you believe that James Frey would have a hot affair with Mike Daisey. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FEWL8GjPQho
Now listen carefully to what Ira Glass is saying in this vid and factor that into this situation. Does he sound as though his values are that different than those of Daisey or Frey? Are they any different from American values? Or just plain human values? Hyping a story is a great American pastime.
I think this is a stupid issue. We have journalists who lie, we have novelists who tell the truth, and -- as Ira says -- we value a good story above all else. Why else would we hang onto our Bibles so tightly? Expectations, affiliations, intimidation, definitions, marketing and simple wariness affect the facts of stories all the time. That’s why we have crap detectors, a heritage from our ape ancestors so we can figure out who’s the top banana.
Someone from Greg Mortenson’s home town said to me, “You know, no one cares about his books. We just don’t like his attitude.” If in this American life, adults cannot or will not decide for themselves whether a book, a performance, or a radio show is fiction or fact -- and let their prejudices interfere -- what hope is there for a national election? I don’t like the attitude that we have to be told what to decide. But -- can we?