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Pushing up the Daiseys: Can a lie tell a greater truth?

I am huge fan of This American Life and I was surprised when I learned that they had produced a 57-minute episode retracting an earlier story from January featuring Mike Daisey describing his visit to Foxconn in South China.  I really admire their courage to face their mistakes and spend an entire episode explaining to their audience what happened. Their attitude and commitment to such a high standard of journalism impressed me. Not only do they set a good example for international media, but the Chinese media could learn from the professional way they handled what is every news organization’s nightmare – what to do when your correspondent turns out to be making things up?

I was disappointed that the original episode was fabricated.  As a former journalist, I have been to the factories in Shenzhen many times and was personally involved in researching and reporting on several stories about migrant workers in Shenzhen, although I haven’t been to Foxconn.   I’ve also followed these stories as covered by my former colleagues, most of whom have done a great job reporting on factory conditions and labor tensions in Chinese factories.  However, the first time I listened to this story I was on my way to work.  The entire way on the subway I was totally fascinated by Daisey’s theatrical, sometimes poignant sometimes humorous way, of presenting the story.  The problems of these workers came alive in a way I hadn’t heard before.  Like many people, I was particularly touched by the stories of disabled workers.  At the time, I thought it was one of the best pieces I had ever heard about migrant workers in China. As soon as I arrived in the office, I recommended the program to my husband and many friends.

Today, listening to Daisey’s confessions and defense, I have to say that I am not angry, and in fact I feel kind of bad for him. No doubt, This American Life is doing the right thing to uphold a higher standard for reporting and emphasize the distinction between a work for the theater and one produced for a show like TAL. However, to be honest, when I listened to the piece in January, I didn’t consider it serious journalism. This American Life frequently uses monologues on their show all the time.  The theatrical way that Daisey presented the show made me feel that it might be one of those shows even though it addresses a real serious issue in China.

While everybody is right that the guards at the factories never wear guns, the issues about migrant workers he addressed in the program are not fiction. Some workers are underage. Migrant workers do suffer from long work hours. Some factory workers get horribly injured and far too few have insurance.  The problems faced by migrant workers in China are real, even if some of the scenes in Daisey’s story were not.

Finally, I know that the popularity of Daisey’s show is quite unfair to many correspondents in China. Many of them have been covering the same issue for years. However, as a Chinese person I am  glad that the migrant workers’ issue finally  received so much attention in the US through a popular radio program, no matter if Daisey interviewed three or three hundred people. As long as he helped these workers to raise the public awareness, I am happy about it.

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