Journalism’s Agony and Ecstasy

One of the most under-reported stories in 21st Century America is the daily grind of so many workplaces, courtesy of our high-tech supremacists.

Monologist Mike Daisey, who likes to say he served three years at, wants more stories about labor. He brought one of them to Portland, a monologue called JOURNALISM.

Daisey billed his work as a love letter to journalism, but it was more a letter of condolence.

Performing his other shows around the country has allowed him to “witness the disintegration of journalism.” He can see it in the physical diminishment of newspapers.

“The Web version of news is not robust enough,” he said.

Daisey loves journalists – the way they burrow into a subject, their tension,  their cynicism and world weariness and their preference for blunt realism over phony optimism: “Well, we’re getting fucked now.”

Speaking on their behalf he adds, “We didn’t sign up for this much fucking.”

Layoffs and cutbacks mean that one person does one-and-a-half person’s job, and then one person does two persons’ jobs. With each layoff, the work piles up, salaries go down. There is still a demand for journalism, but people no longer think they should pay for it. Just click on a headline, and there’s the news. For free.

As a former newspaper reporter and editor, I’m grateful that Daisey understands this.

But last year after an excerpt of his monologue, “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” was broadcast on public radio’s “This American Life,” Daisey had to apologize for fabricating part of the story that was purportedly factual.

“The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” was based on a trip that Daisey took to the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen, China, where Apple products are made. Daisey described inhumane conditions, including employees working long hours under armed guards.

When a reporter for American Public Media’s “Marketplace” was unable to confirm some of the details, Daisey acknowledged that he had created elements to better serve the story he wanted to tell.

I was never outraged about Daisey’s dabbling in fiction because I don’t consider “This American Life” to be pure journalism. It’s entertainment. It’s performance. It wouldn’t surprise me if many of the show’s writers tweak their stories for dramatic effect or to make them funnier, much the same way that they inflect their voices for embellishment.

Even pure journalism plays with the facts. Reporters and editors can disagree on how a story should be told. Important facts can be left out of a story for any number of reasons – to pick up the pace of a story, to appease one group or another, to avoid controversy, to make a subject more sympathetic or less sympathetic, to placate an advertiser.  Just as bad: Reporters may approach a story with a template (sometimes forced on them by editors). The result is fill-in-the-blanks journalism.  (Ever notice how disaster coverage always sounds the same?)

Another reason I didn’t get too worked up about Daisey’s fiction was that I suspected that it was probably true. What do you think it’s like to work in one of those factories? How many of us really want to know the backstory of our electronic gadgets?

A year before his controversy, Daisey wrote this in an op-ed in the New York Times:

“As recently as 10 years ago Apple’s computers were assembled in the United States, but today they are built in southern China under appalling labor conditions. Apple, like the vast majority of the electronics industry, skirts labor laws by subcontracting all its manufacturing to companies like Foxconn…  . Mr. Jobs’s magic has its costs. We can admire the design perfection and business acumen while acknowledging the truth: with Apple’s immense resources at his command he could have revolutionized the industry to make devices more humanely and more openly, and chose not to. …”

The following year – and the same month that Daisey’s fabrication ran on “This American Life” – the New York Times ran its own investigation into these Chinese factories:

“The workers assembling iPhones, iPads and other devices often labor in harsh conditions, according to employees inside those plants, worker advocates and documents published by companies themselves. Problems are as varied as onerous work environments and serious — sometimes deadly — safety problems.”

Daisey didn’t need to resort to fiction; he needed to keep digging. But as he told his Portland audience, he was fired up and wanted something to happen.

“If I had used the tools I had at my disposal, I didn’t believe it would change anything,” he said.

If Daisey had never written “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” which enjoyed a long run at the Public Theater in New York, would the New York Times have looked into conditions at the Foxconn factory? Would the Foxconn factory have ever agreed to make improvements?

Daisey has been unfairly compared to Jayson Blair.  A better comparison might be to a former Cincinnati Enquirer reporter who uncovered troubling business practices by Chiquita banana and was attacked for his methods.

Mike Gallagher spent a year researching Chiquita’s operations in Latin America and produced a series of stories in 1998 accusing Chiquita of – among other things – using harmful pesticides on workers, covering up a bribery scheme in Colombia, allowing cocaine to be carried on its fruit-transport ships and illegally controlling independent plantations.

Chiquita threatened a lawsuit – initially not for libel – but for theft and fraud because Gallagher had accessed company e-mails that were used in a portion of his story.

Gannett, the largest newspaper chain in America and owner of the Cincinnati Enquirer, groveled in a craven apology. They gave Chiquita a 72-point headline, “Apology to Chiquita,” that ran front page, above the fold for three straight days and renounced Gallagher’s story.

The apology and Gallagher’s methods became the story – not Chiquita’s business practices.

For all that Daisey understands about journalists, he underestimated one of their weaknesses: They are quick to tear each other apart, including anyone who ventures onto their turf. They will even smell blood in a misquote or a misbegotten exclusive. Look at the glee that Jay Rosen recently took in drawing-and-quartering Jonathan Karl.

Journalists will gorge on a transgression like Daisey’s but immediately forgive an adjudicated liar like Al Sharpton. (How many journalists, who slavishly seek Sharpton’s comments, remind readers of Tawana Brawley?)

Yet for the rest of his life, Daisey will likely be asked about his segment on “This American Life.”

A couple of days after seeing Daisey’s performance, my May 27th New Yorker arrived. Inside was a reminder of just how small Daisey’s sin was: a story by George Packer called “Change the World” describing how Silicon Valley’s billionaires are venturing into politics — not to improve conditions in factories. They want to do things like make it easier for foreign engineers to work legally in the U.S.

Packer grew up in Silicon Valley, back when it had a middle class. He describes the insulated tech world, with its private buses to transport employees to the self-contained campus-like communities of Apple, Google and other companies where employees are busy thinking up the next new app that will make them richer.

“One question for technology boosters – maybe the crucial one – is why, during the decades of the personal computer and the Internet, the American economy has grown so slowly, average wages have stagnated, the middle class has been hallowed out, and inequality has surged. Why has a revolution that is supposed to be as historically important as the industrial revolution coincided with a period of broader economic decline?”

Packer put that question to all of the Bay Area techies he talked to. Few of them had given it much thought.

At the front of the magazine is a two-page ad for Bre Pettis, founder of the MakerBot Revolution, including the Replicator 2 printer that takes virtual 3D models downloaded on a computer and prints them “by putting down layer after layer of renewable bio-plastic to build a finished product.”

What the ad doesn’t say is that there are concerns that this technology will be used to create plastic guns that can fire real ammunition. Just what we need.

“Our mission is to unleash creativity, to empower people to make a better world,” says Pettis.

Yes, Daisey stretched the truth in his one-man monologue in hopes of effecting change. But corporations have attorneys and accountants and PR staffs to stretch their truths and they, too, want to change the world.

– Pamela Fitzsimmons


  • Mr. V. wrote:

    Please tell me you did not spend good money to see this guy. If you did, you’re a fool.
    His “Dog Years” was funny. It doesn’t excuse what he did to Ira Glass.

  • Pamela wrote:

    I guess I’m a fool, then. I paid $35 to see Mike Daisey, however, I paid cash so I avoided a $4 “unit” fee that PICA (Portland Institute for Contemporary Arts) charges on credit cards. I settled on a $35 ticket (instead of $25 or $45) because that’s the exact amount the city is trying to shake down from each resident on its “Arts Tax.” I’m not opposed to art. I’m opposed to an Arts Tax.

    As for Ira Glass, I thought his one-hour interview with Daisey was over-wrought. Daisey didn’t hurt “This American Life.” If anything, he gave Glass an opportunity to show how righteous he is.

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