[David Strom's Web Informant] March 19, 2012: The Agony and Ecstasy of Mike Daisey

David Strom david at strom.com
Mon Mar 19 05:42:45 EDT 2012

Web Informant, March 19, 2012: The Agony and Ecstasy of Mike Daisey

The story of Mike Daisey and Foxconn's labor practices is a story of
our times: what is truth and what is fiction, how workers at a Chinese
factory that supplies many tech products are treated, and how we as
Americans should feel about the people who make our iThings and other
tech toys.

Daisey is the monologist of the widely popular stage play, "The Agony
and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs" that just finished a second run at New
York's Public Theater, one of my favorite venues. In the show, he
describes the state of the Foxconn factory that he visited several
years ago: the employment of underage workers, their long hours, a
worker who is maimed, guards at the gates and other details. Turns out
he didn't really observe much of this, and took liberties with the

This all came undone when Ira Glass, the producer of "This American
Life" radio program put Daisey on one of his shows in January, at
about the same time that various news reports appeared in the New York
Times and elsewhere about Chinese tech labor abuses.

Glass is one of my heroes: I have seen him live do a stage version of
how he puts together his show, and I am an avid listener too. He was
uncomfortable with Daisey's portrayal and when one of radio colleagues
who covers China raised red flags, he dug deeper. So deep that he
ended up retracting much of what Daisey stated as "fact" in a radio
show broadcast last week. I believe this is the first such time that
Glass has done this in many years on the air and with producing
hundreds of broadcasts. It is an extraordinary piece of radio.

The hour-long broadcast is at times painful to listen to but shows the
efforts that Glass and his staff had to go through to get at exactly
what happened, and what is happening at Foxconn. Daisey squirms and
evades direct questions. He posits that there are two levels of
factual accuracy: one for journalists and one for the theater. He
apologizes to Glass, but only for allowing his work to be aired on a
news show, not for lying to his listeners. Daisey, on his <a
href="http://mikedaisey.blogspot.com/ ">blog, states in his defense
about his monologue</a>: "It uses a combination of fact, memoir, and
dramatic license to tell its story, and I believe it does so with
integrity….What I do is not journalism. The tools of the theater are
not the same as the tools of journalism."

Well, let's just say that I have a different definition of integrity
than Daisey does.  When I write my stories that you read, I try to
make sure that I have accurate information ALL THE TIME. To me, my
veracity is a non-renewable resource: once it is gone, you the reader
aren't coming back.

The whole Daisey dust-up is doubly ironic, since one of his earlier
monologues was called Truth. It follows the fictional and nonfictional
stories of James Frey. Frey, you might remember, was outed on Oprah as
making up many of the elements in his own memoirs.

But no matter whether what is and isn't true, there is a bigger issue,
and one that Glass gets to in the waning moments of his broadcast last
week. How do we, as consumers of tech, feel about using products that
are produced from less than humane working conditions? A hundred years
ago or so, American factories employed underage workers, long hours,
and unsafe working conditions. It is as if, as Glass says, that we
have exported this time capsule to China.

Daisey's efforts and other actual news reports have shed some light on
these practices, that much is true. And eventually Foxconn was
motivated to raise their workers' salaries, as the Times reported last
month. But that could be because of increased competition, not
increased compassion.

In the meantime, if you have the time, listen to Glass' program. And
think about these issues the next time you buy your tech gear.

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