Defending Mike Daisey (not that he needs it)

US monologuist Mike Daisey has gotten into a spot of bother over his current show’s syndication on This American Life, and they’ve retracted the episode they did with him – incidentally their most popular ever show.

As you now can’t listen to it, the show centred on Mike’s trip to China, to investigate working conditions at Foxconn, the electronics megacorp that makes iPhones, Nokias, Dells, you name it… Mike had worked up his experiences in China into one of his monologue performances, a short one-man theatre/comedy routine, exploring the connections between how we feel about our shiny tech gewgaws, and the company ethos and practical manufacture details behind them.

It turns out Mike embellished a number of the details of his trip. He didn’t actually meet a number of the people he wrote about (some were based on case studies of people in a totally different city), and invented more dramatic dialogue from poetic licence. Prior to his This American Life airing, most people probably wouldn’t have been surprised by this, unless they were the type who was rather late finding out about Santa.

He’s a dramatist, producing a story to make a compelling theatrical experience. Reading Mike’s fantastic 21 Dog Years, a geek humour chronicle of his time as a customer services early hire at Amazon.com, I didn’t really expect a lot of that stuff to have happened exactly as it did, or that Mike hadn’t woven in anecdotes from others, or general Amazon folklore.

Journalism can’t be “truthy” (and it’s right for TAL to clarify), but drama certainly can, and needs to if it’s to work. You can argue that polemical drama like Mike’s latest sits uncomfortably somewhere in between the two. But even so, I don’t think Mike now deserves to be presented as a cross between Jayson Blair and Kony2012, and used by Foxconn and Apple to try to duck responsibility on a technicality.

As he explains on his site, his mistake was in mixing up his dramatic work with This American Life’s high integrity journalism, and not thinking about where this was taking him, ultimately compromising both sides.

So Mike made a mistake on this occasion, but I for one am willing to cut him some slack. What he reports didn’t all happen to him, but look at the genuine academic research and journalism coming out of the issue, and you’ll find this stuff is happening, and happening in spades, just that it’s generally being talked about by people with less of a gift and opportunity for presentation than Mike.

I think as campaigners, we have a lot to thank Mike Daisey for, and unceremoniously dumping on him as a problem best publicly jettisoned, without giving his side of the story a link, doesn’t really do him his deserts. He’s been the previously missing link that over the last year has moved the academic research on to connect more widely, and enable some great investigative journalism. And of course, he’s done this by using his considerable talents as a comedian and playwright, rather than by retraining as a journalist.

I like the fact he’s now weaving the latest twists in the story into his show. It might be strange to say that it’s my impression he’s a very honest guy, given the current furore, but on the one occasion I’ve met him, whilst helping with publicity for a 21 Dog Years gig he was doing in London, that’s exactly how he came across to me.

Sure, we can be annoyed at his mistake in muddying the water, but as Mike says himself, this really isn’t the story – There’s a story there that Mike’s helped bring out to the world, and that’s more than big enough already.

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