China, journalism

The Mike Daisey Almosts

This American Life's retraction notice.One of the interesting results of the retraction of This American Life’s Mike Daisey monologue on the Foxconn factory in China is the shoulda/coulda/woulda-ing of the press corps, particularly those who have some experience covering tech, China, and/or Mike Daisey. After hearing the original broadcast, Marketplace’s China correspondent thought some of the details were odd, and he followed up on his suspicions. Many others, it seems, did not, or were persuaded not to.

A few examples:

    • James Fallows calls it “The Sad and Infuriating Mike Daisey Case” and makes good points on how this will hurt Western press in China, and, especially, how the criticisms made by Daisey and others about Foxconn sucks up attention from more egregious labor problems. Fallows also describes having felt a sense of unease about the monologue’s veracity after first hearing it—a point that seems common to these posts.
    • Adrian Chen at Gawker details a sit-down with Daisey last fall to ask him about possible factual inconsistencies. And Daisey completely pulls the wool over his eyes:

      Throughout our interview, he’d been so convincing; his lies were so detailed and full of compassion and humor. And now I wondered why I was wasting my time trying to poke holes in his facts when I should be writing about the awful things he saw. We talked for a bit more and he invited me to his show. I went, and dropped the story.

    • Evan Osnos, for The New Yorker, details all the warning signs that China hands picked up on, and then makes this great point:

But when I heard it, a part of me was embarrassed by the prospect that maybe Daisey had found stuff that we in China had not. Lots of people had reported over the years on underage workers and harsh conditions, but very often the stories require complicated qualifications, debates about the efforts that factories take to guard against hiring underage workers (and—more qualifications—about the ones who slip through anyway). But, I concluded, weird things happen in China all the time. Even driving down the highway exit was sort of plausible. And, more seriously, I feared that maybe Daisey had approached the subject with such fresh outrage and investigative vigor that he had been able to find what so many over here had not.

In my (extremely limited) experience in China, I’d have to agree that weird things do happen all the time. Within three days of arriving in China for the first time, I was standing on the edge of a new shaft at an illegal coal mine as migrant workers hauled freshly excavated rocks from it. Are illegal coal mines hard to get to? My guess is yes, probably, but my experience was, no, not exactly. At least, not that time.* I can definitely understand Osnos’s semi-suspended skepticism when he heard Daisey’s story.

In these posts, I sense a sort of wistful “one that got away” element. But maybe I’m just projecting how I’d feel were I in their position. Any other examples of Daisey Monday-morning quarterbacking? If so, let me know and I’ll include here.

[Update] Jeff Yang writes for the Journal’s Speakeasy blog about the case, and how he received links to the TAL show from dozens of people, but he was reluctant to share it because he “felt like something was…off.”

[Update #2] Time Out Shanghai interviewed Adam Minter on his skepticism about Daisey’s story. Minter was on the radio show To The Point in February (worth a listen), along with Daisey, and essentially says that the concepts underlying Daisey’s criticisms are a misunderstanding of the situation (at best). He goes on to point out some of Daisey’s inconsistency on his blog. This is the most public rebuke of Daisey’s overaching theme (if not necessarily all the details) that I’ve seen in the wake of that initial TAL broadcast.

Interesting to note that, in a post a few days ago on Minter’s blog, he quotes an email from the NYT’s David Barboza. Barboza described the inconsistencies in his story, and questions This American Life’s factchecking. He also writes, “Rob Schmitz of Marketplace certainly produced a piece of first-rate journalism. I wish I had done that work myself, since I too had suspected that Daisey fabricated large parts of his story.”



*It’s important to note that credit for something like this must go to the incredibly skilled Chinese journalists, and sometimes non-journalists, who often work with foreigners in China.