Nine days after monologist Mike Daisey was exposed as a fabulist, a man who manufactured personal stories about Apple’s supply chain in China out of thin air in hopes of selling a message and theater tickets, he finally apologized for his actions. In doing so, he once again left out a key detail.
Daisey’s infamy has grown following the decision of This American Life on March 16th to retract an earlier report after discovering that Daisey could not account for key facts in both his monologue (The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs) and in his statements to This American Life for a report on Apple and manufacturing that got widespread attention. Among other things, Daisey completely made up an anecdote in which he had supposedly invoked a sense of child-like wonder in a former Foxconn worker with a hand mangled on the iPad production line by showing the man a working iPad for the very first time.
After his uncomfortable performance on “Retraction,” Daisey defended his work, writing on his personal blog that “my show is a theatrical piece whose goal is to create a human connection between our gorgeous devices and the brutal circumstances from which they emerge. It uses a combination of fact, memoir, and dramatic license to tell its story, and I believe it does so with integrity.” Given more time to think about it, he actually doubled down, attacking his critics: “Given the tenor of the condemnation, you would think I had concocted an elaborate, fanciful universe filled with furnaces in which babies are burned to make iPhone components, or that I never went to China, never stood outside the gates of Foxconn, never pretended to be a businessman to get inside of factories, never spoke to any workers.“
However, it later emerged that Daisey had insisted on printing “this is a work of non-fiction” on playbills for his monologue, making it clear that he wanted audiences to walk away from the performance seeing Daisey as a courageous muckraker unafraid to tell the stories others wouldn’t touch.
Daisey’s conscience finally caught up with him over the weekend. On Sunday, he wrote the following:
When I said onstage that I had personally experienced things I in fact did not, I failed to honor the contract I’d established with my audiences over many years and many shows. In doing so, I not only violated their trust, I also made worse art. This is not the place for me to try and explain my good intentions. We all know where the road paved with good intentions leads. In fact, I think it might lead to where I’m sitting right now. I had an acting teacher, years ago, who always taught that the calling of an artist is to be humble before the work. He knew, I think, how easy it can be to lose one’s way.
He went on to apologize to his other theater performers, human-rights advocates, and journalists that had interviewed him for stories in which he repeated all his falsehoods. “Things came out of my mouth that just weren’t true, and over time, I couldn’t even hear the difference myself,” he wrote.
But Mike Daisey forgot to apologize to the entity that was the direct target of his lies: Apple.
Daisey’s selection of Apple and Jobs as the centerpieces of his monologue was not a coincidence. A self-confessed Apple fanboy, he held great admiration for the work that Apple contributed to the world under Jobs’ second term as CEO as well as immense disgust for the conditions under which modern consumer electronics devices are produced. Given that Apple is the largest producer of modern mobile devices made in factories such as Foxconn’s, and given the intense scrutiny that is paid to all things Apple both inside and outside the tech industry, it’s not hard to see why Daisey chose Apple and Jobs as protagonists in his work.
But in reality, Daisey exposed nothing about Apple’s manufacturing issues that wasn’t already known. It’s not that his whole account was fabricated: workers manufacturing products for Apple have been poisoned by dangerous chemicals, killed in explosions that were preventable, and have committed suicide in groups over the last few years.
What Daisey did do, however, was present made-up emotional and personal stories about those issues as if they were new. He spent months on a media blitz linking Apple as the main contributor to the widespread labor and safety issues at companies like Foxconn (which builds products for an entire industry) based on fabricated accounts of his travels in China.
He implied that the company was covering up even worse violations, such as the widespread use of child labor, in one of the most dramatic scenes of his monologue. He wrote an op-ed in the New York Daily News the day before the latest iPad was released, saying “I traveled to the factories in China, spoke to dozens of workers, heard their stories firsthand and went undercover into factories and dormitories. … The company has been choosing profit over workers’ lives.”
And perhaps worst of all, on the day after Jobs died Daisey repeated the story about the Foxconn worker with the mangled hand in The New York Times, linking Jobs’ legacy to a horrific anecdote that never happened. After This American Life published its retraction earlier this month, the Times removed that paragraph from its archived copy of the article.
The Daisey And The Damage Done
There is no doubt that the consumer electronics industry needs to do more to improve the working conditions under which its products are made, and that Apple, as the leading consumer electronics company of our time, is in a position to make an outsized impact. But Daisey’s contribution to this issue was not just to raise attention to the problem at large (which he definitely did), it was also to generate publicity for his Apple-themed show. He did that with lies that declared not only was Apple not doing as much as it could to solve the problem, but that it was actually a worse actor than its peers.
On a petition circulated by Change.org following the airing of the first episode of This American Life, over 255,000 people affixed their names to a call for Apple to do more to protect workers. They said things like “I can still make the decision to buy PC instead for the sake of my conscience and the wellbeing of other people” and “As a Mac user for 17 years, this is the first issue that could make me stop buying from Apple.” A petition to retract that petition following the exposure of Daisey’s lies has just 373 signatures.
Mike Daisey built the key parts of his monologue–and much of his current fame–on lies he told about Apple. He has one more apology to make.