The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, a monologue by the great American storyteller Mike Daisey about labor abuses in Chinese factories where Apple products are made, was hugely successful. It seemed to move mountains—in its wake, This American Life aired an excerpt that became its number-one podcast episode, the NYT did an investigative feature, and even Apple seemed to care, saying it'd let a third party audit its worker conditions.

Which all sounds good—except Mike Daisey wasn't telling the truth. Or, worse, he was telling partial truths. (I say "worse," because damaging the credibility of a serious human-rights story can be extremely counterproductive to helping real people who are suffering real abuses.) This American Life has retracted the story and is airing an episode this weekend to "detail the errors" in Daisey's story. Their press release is here. Daisey's response—that he took "dramatic license" and "what I do is not journalism," which refutes a major thesis of his show (at least the version I saw)—is here. I emailed Daisey for a comment. He pointed me towards that link.

I hate to write this: I really, really hate to write this, because I admire what Daisey does, because labor abuses in China are serious business, because I want to believe that theater can be a world-changing force for good... but I kind of saw this coming. And it disturbed me at the time, because when journalists and activists (and activist-journalists) play fast and loose with the facts, they not only hurt themselves, but the people they're supposed to be advocating for.

From a review of Daisey's show I wrote in May of 2011, when it came to Seattle:

... he's not telling us the truth. After getting home from the show, opening up my MacBook, and wiping the blood off the keyboard, I did a little Googling. In under a minute, I learned some things: The New York Times that Daisey derides as being nothing more than a mouthpiece for Shenzhen corporate interests? It's been writing about labor abuses in the city—child labor, days-long shifts, etc.—for at least five years. The BBC has written several stories about Shenzhen, including the suicides that Daisey talks about. Looks like there's journalism about Shenzhen after all.

That wouldn't be damning—every good storyteller builds on the foundation of forebears—except that Daisey is extremely disingenuous about the story, his relationship to it, and what his forebears have said about it. And if he's disingenuous with the most basic, verifiable facts, why should we trust him with the complicated, unverifiable facts—like those of his trip to Shenzhen, for instance?

... when a storyteller moves from memoir to reporting, he incurs a new set of responsibilities: the responsibilities of verifiable fact. And as a reporter as well as a theater critic, I'll admit that facts are a bitch. They're messy, they screw up your well-calibrated plotlines, and they'll leave you in a ditch without a second thought. But facts matter.

Full quotes below the jump.

He is horrified by what he finds in Shenzhen—specifically the Foxconn factory, which produces the iPod, iPhone, and iPad. (Foxconn is the biggest exporter in China.) There's child labor, suicides, days-long shifts, no health care, repetitive and hideous work conditions, brutal crackdowns on unions. He interviews workers who have been maimed and union organizers who run the risk of jail time for just talking to him. All Americans are complicit in this situation, Daisey rails at us in a 20-¬≠minute sermon at the end of The Agony and the Ecstasy. The next time we open our MacBooks, he tells us—really—we will see the blood of Chinese children welling up from our keyboards.

And Daisey alone knows this truth; Daisey alone has emerged from the heart of darkness of Asian industrialization to bring us the horror. In Shenzhen, he says several times, "there's no journalism." The "BBC fixer" who was supposed to help him out? Useless. The New York Times? It merely reprints press releases from Shenzhen boardrooms. Thank god Mike Daisey has crawled from the maw of capitalism to tell us the truth.

Except that he's not telling us the truth. After getting home from the show, opening up my MacBook, and wiping the blood off the keyboard, I did a little Googling. In under a minute, I learned some things: The New York Times that Daisey derides as being nothing more than a mouthpiece for Shenzhen corporate interests? It's been writing about labor abuses in the city—child labor, days-long shifts, etc.—for at least five years. The BBC has written several stories about Shenzhen, including the suicides that Daisey talks about. Looks like there's journalism about Shenzhen after all.

That wouldn't be damning—every good storyteller builds on the foundation of forebears—except that Daisey is extremely disingenuous about the story, his relationship to it, and what his forebears have said about it. And if he's disingenuous with the most basic, verifiable facts, why should we trust him with the complicated, unverifiable facts—like those of his trip to Shenzhen, for instance?

When a storyteller moves from memoir to reporting, he incurs a new set of responsibilities: the responsibilities of verifiable fact. And as a reporter as well as a theater critic, I'll admit that facts are a bitch. They're messy, they screw up your well-calibrated plotlines, and they'll leave you in a ditch without a second thought. But facts matter. And if you start faking some of them, you put everything you say in peril. The real casualties of Daisey's fibbing aren't him or the audience—screw him and screw us. The real casualties of his fibbing are the Chinese people (probably real, but who knows?) on the production lines whom Daisey says he interviewed. The man whose hand was ruined, the child worker, the people whose backbones were fused together by standing for hours at a time: They deserve an advocate who will be scrupulously honest.

The full review, with its praise for Daisey's storytelling skills and doubt about his story's veracity, is here.