Eleven months ago I walked into the final D.C. production of Mike Daisey’s one-man show, The Agony and the Ecstacy of Steve Jobs. I walked out a fan, and reviewed it/recommended it on this page. On that week’s Political Gabfest, I recommended it. The show was compelling. It exposed – or presumed to expose – the gangrenous underbelly of a beloved company. With no recordings or notes, none of the traditional tools of journalism, Daisey described how Apple products were made in near-sweatshop conditions. An undercurrent of the story: He was doing reporting, and asking questions, that regular reporters would not do. This was how the monologue ended.
You will carry it out these doors, you will be vectors for it. You will carry it to your homes, and when you sit down in front of your laptops, when you open them up, you will see the blood welling up between the keys. You will know that those were made by human hands. You will always know that. When you take your phones out outside to check the time, and the light falls across your face, you will know that it may have been made by children’s hands. You will know that.
This American Life ran a 40-minute chunk of Daisey’s monologue, generating a bigger response than anything in the show’s history. The New York Times and Wired both published long stories about labor conditions at FoxConn. Like I said: Compelling. And overblown. Rob Schmitz, a Shanghai reporter for APM’s Marketplace, re-interviewed Daisey’s translator and blew holes in some of the most heart-tugging parts of the story. Daisey did not try to plaster over the holes. He’s put up a statement on his web site.
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. Certainly, the comprehensive investigations undertaken by The New York Times and a number of labor rights groups to document conditions in electronics manufacturing would seem to bear this out.
That compelling piece of journalism, the one bolder than any paper would publish, the one that inspired you to sign a Change.org petition? Not all true. It’s like the Chinese proverb that starts the monologue: “If you want to enjoy a good steak, don’t visit the slaughterhouse.”
Not being in China, I’m holding out full judgment here, because I want to see what parts of Daisey’s stories bear out. Nobody raised these questions when Daisey wrote a book about his days at the other tech behemoth, Amazon. But he’s now admitting he made parts of the story up. Since I recommended it so fully, I’ll do a couple of rosaries as penance.