When I was in grad school in Scotland, I used to tell my classmates that if they wanted to understand the culture of the United States, they should listen to the podcasts from two radio shows: A Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keillor; and This American Life with Ira Glass. The former is an old-fashioned radio variety show that captures the essence of that quirky, somewhat innocent, but deeply hospitable, traditional culture of the heartland. The latter captures the stories of everyday Americans who are struggling through disenchantment to find a new source of meaning, goodness, beauty, and truth. By listening to the two, one can get a sense of the dual nature of American culture, and the tensions that currently animate it.
I still listen to both programs, and this week’s show on This American Life was electrifying. It was a little unusual, in that the whole show was devoted to a retraction of a story they had previously aired about the working conditions at the Chinese factories that build Apple’s most beloved gadgets. The original story was told by Mike Daisey, an actor and activist who wrote the monologue The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, in which Daisey purportedly describes his own experiences of visiting these factories and talking with the workers.
The monologue, as well as the story he told on This American Life, lays out a number of shocking accusations: at the gates of the infamous Foxconn factory, he talked with a group of underaged workers who were 12-14 years old; he met with workers who had been poisoned by n-hexane, a powerful neurotoxin that is used to clean iPhone screens; he showed an iPad to a man who’s hand had been destroyed by the machine used to make the case; he saw the inside of worker dormitories that had bunk beds stacked to the ceiling and cameras that observed their every move; and he saw the guards at the factory gates brandishing guns to keep prying eyes away. All of this was capped off with the chilling rhetorical question: “do you really think that Apple doesn’t know?”
Unfortunately for Mr Daisey, the Chinese correspondent for the popular business and finance show Marketplace, Rob Schmitz, heard this story and had a hard time reconciling these claims with what he had observed and reported on over the last few years. Yes, Apple’s Chinese suppliers had routinely violated Apple’s own labor practice standards, the working conditions are notoriously harsh, and there had been a few terrible accidents, including the n-hexane poisoning. But several of the details in Daisey’s story just didn’t seem probable. Only the police and military are allowed to have guns in China, so corporate security guards brandishing firearms would be highly unlikely, and Schmitz had never seen such a thing before. There have been problems with underage workers in Chinese factories, but Apple in particular had been fairly aggressive in stopping that practice at their suppliers, and it would highly unlikely for an underage worker to openly admit to being so to a strange American with a Chinese interpreter.
After some quick searching, Schmitz found the interpreter that Daisey used while in China. Schmitz sent her Daisey’s monologue and asked her if she could corroborate the details. She replied that most of the details were at least exaggerated, if not completely fabricated. They had gone to the gates of Foxconn, but didn’t encounter any underage workers. They had met some disgruntled employees who were trying to form an illegal union, but there were only a couple of workers there, and none of them had the injuries he described. The guards at the gates did not have guns, and Daisey was never allowed in the dormitories, so he couldn’t have known what they looked like.
Schmitz and Ira Glass confronted Daisey about all of this, and to their dismay, Daisey admitted to representing various stories he had heard only second-hand as if he had seen or heard them himself. His reasoning was that it was all “true” and that he represented these events that way for theatrical purposes. He thought that relaying his experiences accurately would “unpack the complexities” in such a way that it would make the narrative arc more confusing and less effective.
The confrontation between Schmitz, Glass, and Daisey was certainly worth listening to, but the part of the show that I found most interesting was how Glass tried to grapple with Daisey’s claims that his story could be considered “true” in a theatrical context, but not in a journalistic one. Daisey admitted that he took “a few shortcuts in my pasion to be heard” but that he was proud of his use of “the tools of the theater and memoir to achieve [the story's] dramatic arc…because it made you care, Ira.”
In other words, Daisey is claiming that a “true” story in the theater is one that makes you care, not one that is accurate in a literal sense. Daisey then expressed regret because he brought that story into a journalistic context, a context where what counts as a “true” story is significantly different. Exasperated by this, Glass chided Daisey that he was kidding himself if he thought that his audience understood this distinction. Glass himself attended the show and concluded “I thought it was true because you were on stage saying ‘this happened to me.’ I took you at your word.”
All of this raises an interesting question: how, if at all, does a medium affect what is considered a “true” story? (The term ‘medium’ is notoriously slippery, but I’m using it here in the same sense that Daisey was using the term ‘context’.) Can a story be true in the medium of theater, and then become less or untrue when it is moved to the medium of journalism? Does what counts as a true story differ between journalism and history? Do you assay the truth of a story differently when you hear it in the theater, on film, in journalistic print, or in academic discourse?