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Lies in the service of the truth? Or just lies?

Mike Daisey is a liar.

He may not see it that way, but no reasonable person can hear or read the misrepresentations and outright fabrications in his stage act, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” without concluding that he has a problem with the truth. A rather big one.

Daisey’s veil of lies was ripped to tatters when he allowed the NPR program “This American Life” to air an excerpt of his stage play earlier this year. Asked direct questions by the program’s producers about the details of his polemic, Daisey could have easily admitted that he embellished and fabricated certain facts and events and that would have been that.  The show wouldn’t have broadcast and he wouldn’t have come under the journalistic scrutiny that ultimately (albeit somewhat tardily) revealed his falsehoods. Instead, Daisey doubled down and vouched for the authenticity of his “facts,” even going so far as to invent new lies  to make it harder for the program’s producers to independently verify his story.

It all came apart when the China business correspondent for American Public Media’s Marketplace, Rob Schmitz, noticed inconsistencies between Daisey’s alleged experience and what the correspondent himself had seen in the course of his own reporting. So Schmitz decided to do some digging. It quickly became obvious that Daisey simply couldn’t have experienced some of the things he claimed to have seen and heard first-hand. And the details of some of his stories bore a striking resemblance to news reports of incidents that happened thousands of miles from the factories Daisey claimed to have visited. It just didn’t add up.

Because it wasn’t true.  In a startling and painful retraction segment last weekend, This American Life’s host Ira Glass tried to get at the root of why Daisey lied. Daisey hems and haws, offers a half-hearted apology, cops to being afraid of the reaction if people knew he was dissembling, talks about art versus journalism, of a desire to provoke an emotional response in his audience in the service of a greater truth. Ultimately Daisey argues that it’s OK for him to lie because his purpose is noble.

Daisey goes further with this line in a couple of  posts on his own blog. Apparently immune to irony, he even hints that the retraction segment on This American Life was creatively edited to make him look worse.  It’s … infuriating.

That Daisey thinks his lies are excusable because he is attempting to shed light on an often-overlooked problem – the harsh working conditions endured by many Chinese factory workers – is beside the point. That he characterizes his lies as “dramatic license” is convenient and equally irrelevant. What matters is that Daisey lied – and continues to lie – to US, to his audience, to the people whose sympathy he is trying to gain. He lies because he doesn’t trust us with the truth. And because the truth is complex, messy and not at all conducive to simple, black and white storytelling about good vs. evil, wealth vs. poverty, or corporate greed vs. basic human rights.

Then there’s the simple unfairness of his screed. At one point in his monologue, Daisey claims to have met a 13 year old girl and her friends outside of a factory. He quotes her as saying that not just she, but lots of underage workers are employed building Apple products. Then he asks the audience a rhetorical question: “Do you really think Apple doesn’t know?”

The implication, of course, is that Apple does not just callously disregard the deplorable working conditions in the factories that make its products but essentially condones the use of child labor. They are not just tolerating this illegal activity, but complicit in it. It’s a serious charge. If true, it’s a black mark not just on Apple’s brand but on the very integrity of the people who run the company.

And once again, Daisey lies. He met no such underage workers. He channels his inner Stephen Glass and simply makes them up. For the story. For the cause.

He uses fake people to impugn the very real reputations of Apple executives. Never mind that Apple is considered a leader in pushing its foreign suppliers and partners to improve working conditions. Or that, long before Daisey came along,  the company published its own reports on working conditions and child labor violations and its efforts to eliminate them. All that matters is Daisey’s narrative. Facts be damned.

The thing is, despite his protestations to the contrary, Daisey’s lies will hurt his cause. People tend to turn their backs on those who dupe them, to be skeptical when somebody cries wolf. The next person who comes forward with criticisms about Chinese factory working conditions will have to bear the weight of Daisey’s lies. They’ll have to overcome a wariness that we’ve heard it all before. And it wasn’t true.

Lies in the service of the truth are still lies. They don’t serve the truth so much as they obscure it. Ultimately, they diminish us all.

Kevin Pedraja can be reached at kpedraja@sterlingpr.com. Follow him on Twitter @kpedraja.

Leave a Comment (2)

  1. I’d like to blame this and other recent incidents such as the falsified memoirs by James Frey and Greg Mortenson on our society’s lax standards for “truthiness.” However, where would Truman Capote, Hunter Thompson, Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer and the other proponents of the “New Journalism” be without a little embroidery of the facts? Capote claimed that “In Cold Blood” was non-fiction, yet he invented conversations and re-ordered events in the lives of the killers. One could argue that Stewart & Colbert are doing the same thing in their TV reports. We all think of Richard III as lame and hunchbacked, yet that was Shakespeare’s invention (and Olivier’s interpretation), not fact. Where does fact end and fiction begin? It’s not always clear.

    Mind you, I’m not defending Daisey … just irritated that he dragged “This American Life” into his attention-grabbing scheme. This episode is more fuel for the anti-NPR bonfire. (I know, it’s produced by American Public Radio, but APR, PRI and NPR are all tarred with the same brush.)

    Lisa Hawes  |   |  Reply
    • I think Daisey’s fabrications go rather far beyond what Capote, Thompson and Wolfe did. But your point is well-taken. And I agree about Daisey’s disregard for the reputation of TAL. I guess he’d just call that collateral damage.

      Kevin Pedraja  |   |  Reply