I get the sense that one reply to the Mike Daisey scandal is that “well, he may not have seen what he says he saw, but those things are happening and well documented”. But Daisey did not just take the reality conveyed in other accurate reporting and pretend that he saw it with his own eyes. No, because the stories he tells aren’t just made up, they also fail to characterize the situation correctly. You can see this importantly in how widespread and obvious he makes underage workers at Foxconn look. Here is how Daisey reported it in the monologue portion used in This American Life:
And I say to her, you seem kind of young. How old are you? And she says, I’m 13. And I say, 13? That’s young. Is it hard to get work at Foxconn when you’re– and she says oh no. And her friends all agree, they don’t really check ages. I’m telling you … in my first two hours of my first day at that gate, I met workers who were 14 years old, 13 years old, 12. Do you really think Apple doesn’t know?
This is not just a story about Daisey meeting underaged workers, but a claim about how easy it is to find them. And as you can see in the transcript from the retraction episode of TAL, Daisey’s claims are in contrast to what his translator says:
Rob Schmitz: Do you remember meeting 12 year-old, 13 year-old, and 14 year-old workers here?
Cathy Lee: No, I don’t think so. Maybe we met a girl who looked like she was 13 years old, like that one, she looks really young.
Rob Schmitz: Is that something that you would remember?
Cathy Lee: I think that if she said she was 13 or 12, then I would be surprised. I would be very surprised. And I would remember for sure. But there is no such thing.
Ira (narrarating): She’d be surprised, because she says in the ten years she’s visited factories in Shenzhen, she’s hardly ever seen underage workers.
As TAL reports, Apple has been aggressive about underage workers and they are rare:
In fact, underage workers are sometimes caught working at Apple suppliers. Apple’s own audit says in 2010 when Daisey was in China, Apple found ten facilities where 91 underage workers were hired … but it’s widely acknowledged that Apple has been aggressive about underage workers, and they’re rare. That’s 91 workers out of hundred of thousands. Ira asked Mike about this on the This American Life broadcast, and he admitted it might be rare, but he stuck by his story
This is not consistent with anyone being able to walk up to Foxconn and within two hours be talking to underage workers. The story Daisey tells is one where Apple is negligent to an obvious and easily solved problem, whereas the facts TAL reports are of a company trying to stop underage workers and failing on relatively rare occasions. This kind of lie is not telling the story of the truth through a fictional narrative, but creating a fictional narrative that contradicts the bigger truth.
There are opposing narratives about the Apple, and Chinese labor and manufacturing. One sees the issue as black and white, simple, and easily solveable. Another sees it as a complex issue with no easy solutions, and that requires real tradeoffs. The former is how Mike Daisey tried to portray things, and the latter is how people like Adam Minter see it. In fact on an episode of On Point with Warren Olney, Adam Minter argues:
“….you’ve got a far more, far more complicated story than what is being presented in just the new york times and especially the This American Life Story”
In contrast, Mike Daisey appears on that same show and says “Lets stick a knife in this whole complicated thing for starters, because this isn’t actually that complicated”. That is the biggest fiction Mike Daisey was selling.