Sunday, March 18, 2012

Mike Daisey, This American Life, and The Public Theater: The Show Must Go On, At Least For One More Day

As part of a meditation on plagiarism in a link to the intrepid journalists at Retraction Watch, I opened with a brief quip about an episode of the radio program This American Life that aired in January and became the most downloaded podcast ever for TAL. That episode was essentially an adapted version of a one-man stage show called "The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs" featuring the work of one Mike Daisey. In both the stage piece and in TAL, Daisey describes horrific working conditions in the Chinese factories that produce the Apple products that so many American consumers love.

"Dickensian" would be the adjective of choice to describe the monologue, and Daisey walks you through a landscape where beautiful iPads emerge pristine from a landscape littered with mangled hands destroyed by the machines used during the manufacture of products, 12 year-old girls working at the plant, workers gone mad from neurotoxic chemicals used on the production lines, and armed guards posted outside the plant to ensure the workers don't get any strange ideas. "These guys looked pissssed", Daisey hisses in an audio clip from his play. It is very hard not to form a picture from this, and have a very unflattering view of Apple by the end.

But the touch about the armed guards didn't seem to jive with business reporters covering the Apple beat in China. Rob Schmitz, working for American Public Media's radio show Marketplace, started discussing the Daisey TAL piece with a colleague, who in turn didn't buy the story, due to the armed guards (only the military and police in China are allowed to carry weapons) and details like this:

Daisey [claiming to speak with members of an illegal union]: "I say, 'how do you guys organize?' And they look at each other bashfully, and they say, "Well...we talk a lot, we have lots of meetings, and...we meet at different coffee houses and we meet at Starbucks in Guangzho..."

Schmitz said this of such meetings: "Wait, hold on. Rewind. Factory workers making fifteen, twenty dollars a day, are sipping coffee at Starbucks?! Starbucks is even pricier in China than in the US."

After checking out many more details, Schmitz came to TAL highlighting the problems, which led to host Ira Glass auditing the entire story and discussing the discrepancies with Daisey. Over the past few days Schmitz published his piece on the Marketplace website here, and TAL spent an hour explaining and discussing its retraction of Daisey's work here. If "Agony and Ecstasy" made for gripping drama, the episode watching him squirm under the weight of people confronting him with his lies easily tops that. Listening to his very slippery replies to direct questions reminds us of another pathological liar, Stephen Glass (no relation to Ira that I know of), who is dramatically--i.e. not factually--portrayed in the movie Shattered Glass by Hayden Christensen, a good clip of which can be found here.

It bears mentioning that at least some of the details of Daisey's description are, in fact, real. The neurotoxin n-hexane really did poison some people at an Apple-associated factory 1000 miles away from where Daisey went on his trip, while a few underage workers have been found in Apple audits and workers often put in substantial overtime and live in crowded dorms, as documented here in the New York Times. Because of Daisey's overwhelming disregard for the truth, much of that will now get lost in the wake of the right-wing attacks which are sure to come in torrents against National Public Radio and any other media organizations that the followers of Newt Gingrich would just as happily label as "traitors".

The epilogue to this unfortunate episode is that Daisey's one-man monologue continued its run in New York at The Public Theater, although it now appears that its final date of today, March 18, will not be extended. The theater released the following statement that expresses its regret that Daisey had not been more forthcoming: understatement of the week, surely.

An elegant summary of Daisey's transgressions can be found in the comments section of the Retraction Watch piece, where "DefendSmallScience" says this:

As I listened to the NPR piece last night, it occurred to me that the similarities between Daisey’s fabrication and several well-publicized cases of scientific fraud are readily apparent. Ultimately, Daisey is guilty of both fraud and extreme laziness. Journalistic laziness is not dissimilar from scientific laziness. Reading the NYTimes piece by David Barboza on Apple manufacturing practices (also reviewed on ATC last night), it’s clear that there is more than a kernel of truth to the notion that severe working conditions are intrinsic to the manufacturing of iPhones, iPads, etc. However, rather than taking the more costly and time-consuming steps to properly research and expose these conditions for what they really were, Daisey decided to create his own evidence for the sake of his own convenience and the snappiest presentation. This reminds me of the stories of exposed scientific fraudsters, who massage their data (by dropping contradictory results or outright fabrication) to create the easiest or sexiest story possible, rather than spending additional time and effort to get closer to the truth. I have no doubt that transcriptional profiles of tumors can be used to predict their responsiveness, to a degree, to different therapies. Anil Potti surely knew he was on to something, but he chose the easy way to quick, high profile publications – fabricate data to fit the conclusions you want to make rather than reveal the limits of the existing evidence.

Well said.

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