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Mr Daisey, Mr Russell and Mr Clooney: when personalities overshadow noble causes

Mr Daisey, Mr Russell and Mr Clooney: when personalities overshadow noble causes

It was an interesting weekend for personality-driven advocacy work. Anti-Apple campaigner Mike Daisey was found to have made up many of his claims about working conditions in Chinese factories, Invisible Children co-founder Jason Russell was detained for psychiatric observation after a bizarre public display and actor George Clooney was arrested for participating in a demonstration outside the Sudanese embassy in New York. By REBECCA DAVIS.

Exhibit A: Mike Daisey. Daisey is a monologist who for the past two years has been performing his play The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. The play tells the story of the appalling conditions suffered in Chinese factories by workers for Apple’s supplier Foxconn, and is supposedly based on Daisey’s visit to the Shenzhen factories in 2010. The show has won awards: by all accounts Daisey is a compelling performer. So compelling, in fact, that respected radio programme This American Life decided to make an excerpt from Daisey’s show the main feature of an hour-long programme broadcast on 6 January, entitled Mr Daisey Goes To The Apple Factory.

In the programme, Daisey gives his eyewitness accounts of the privations suffered by Foxconn workers. In one particularly moving anecdote, he tells of meeting a worker who had lost his hand in a metal press while making iPads. Daisey hands him an iPad, the first the worker has ever seen, and describes his response: “He’s never actually seen one, this thing that took his hand. I turn it on, unlock the screen, and pass it to him. He takes it. The icons flare into view, and he strokes the screen with his ruined hand, and the icons slide back and forth. And he says something to [the translator] Cathy, and Cathy says: ‘He says it’s a kind of magic’.”

Another of his claims was that upon approaching the factory doors, he instantly saw workers as young as 12 years old. He also alleged that he had a meeting with a number of workers who had been poisoned as a result of their exposure to harmful chemicals on the Foxconn assembly line.

Photo: Mike Daisey made very serious allegations against Apple’s supplier, Foxconn. REUTERS/Bobby Yip.

The radio programme starring Daisey was a smash hit, the most popular show in the history of This American Life – downloaded in podcast form more times than any others. Unfortunately, as the podcast circulated, so too did doubts as to its veracity. Rob Schmitz, another American radio journalist who it’s safe to say will be off Daisey’s Christmas card list, grew particularly suspicious – having lived and worked in China for some years. Schmitz was specifically sceptical about one detail claimed by Daisey: that the guards at Apple factories brandish guns. As far as Schmitz knew, it was illegal in China for anyone outside police or military to carry guns. Schmitz decided to check Daisey’s version of events with that of his Chinese translator, Cathy – something which had not been done before. While This American Life routinely fact-checks their programming content, they had hit a brick wall when it came to checking up on Daisey’s translator. When they asked Daisey for the phone number of the woman in question, he explained that her name was not in fact Cathy – the name he gave on the podcast – but Anna, and that she had changed her cellphone number and was not contactable.

This American Life presenter Ira Glass later conceded that they should have pulled the show after being unable to talk to the translator. But Glass said that so many of Daisey’s details seemed to be verified by other reports on the factories that they decided to take it on trust that he was telling the truth about the translator too. Rob Schmitz resolved to simply track down the translator and ask her. In his retrospective account for This American Life, Schmitz explained that it didn’t take a great deal of sophisticated detective work to find the translator – he simply plugged “Cathy, translator, Shenzhen” into Google, and called the first number that came up. It was the correct woman.

Schmitz flew to Shenzhen to meet with Cathy, and took her through a transcript of Daisey’s account. Did it reflect what had actually happened? No, she said, time and again. That’s not what happened. That’s not what he said. We never saw that. The guards had no guns. There was no hand-less man movingly introduced to an iPad. We didn’t meet any underage workers. Daisey’s story was destroyed, and Schmitz’s was made. He went straight to This American Life to report on his findings.

For the first time in its history, the radio show had to devote its entire hour of programming (the episode which aired last Friday) to an apology and confession that Daisey had duped them. Daisey’s statement on the matter: “I stand by my work. 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 labour rights groups to document conditions in electronics manufacturing would seem to bear this out.”

The tricky thing is the issue that Daisey raises here: while Daisey lied about having seen these things for himself, there is little doubt that conditions for Chinese workers are indeed often brutal. Daisey’s reference to The New York Times is based in the fact that last month the newspaper ran a long front-page article about Foxconn factories, based on the newspaper’s independent research, and arrived at much the same picture as that painted by Daisey. If Daisey’s claims were a total pack of lies, it’s also fair to assume that Apple would have sued his socks off the minute he first performed his stage show (though Forbes suggests that they did not do so because they didn’t want to draw any additional attention to the rumours). So why did Daisey tell his lies? Why not just stick with the truth, since it would have been sufficient to make his case?

One answer must be that he knew it would make for more engaging theatre if he presented the details as if he had witnessed them himself. The fabricated parts of the This American Life podcast were by far the most compelling bits. An alternative reason, though, would certainly be Daisey’s passion for the cause. The Daily Beast spoke to a friend of Daisey’s who suggested that “his messianic zeal took over”: that Daisey was so determined to arouse outrage from the audience about an issue he cared deeply about that he took liberties with the truth in order to arrive at a more convincing piece of, essentially, propaganda. 

In some ways Daisey has achieved what he set out to: on the back of his stage show, the This American Life podcast and The New York Times feature, Apple has announced far more rigorous auditing processes in their suppliers’ factories. But some commentators suggest that the revelation about his dishonesty has done the cause a massive disservice. Writing for The Guardian, Bob Garfield dismissed the idea that “lies in service of the greater truth” could be justified. The Atlantic went further in their criticism, saying that “the story isn’t Chinese labour abuses any more. The story is Daisey’s own dishonesty, which tinges everything he touched – the made-up details as well as the truth behind them – as compromised and untrustworthy.” Will the public now believe anything they are told about conditions for Chinese workers, the newspaper speculated. “How receptive will they be the next time a reporter writes about how Chinese labourers are forced to stand for so long they struggle to walk, or that some workers weren’t even given gloves to handle poisonous chemicals?… Or will they think back to Mike Daisey, and wonder who else might be lying to them?”

On that note of betrayal, let’s turn to Exhibit B: Jason Russell, the 33-year-old co-founder of the charity Invisible Children. The charity was virtually unknown until a fortnight ago, when their Kony 2012 video – publicising their quest to bring Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony to justice – went viral. The merits and failings of the video and wider campaign have been exhaustively aired by journalists – including the Daily Maverick’s own Simon Allison and Greg Marinovich  – so we don’t need to rehash the details here. Suffice it to say that the video has attracted a mixed response.

While receiving endorsement from the likes of US President Barack Obama (who reportedly heard about the clip from his 13-year-old daughter Malia), some of its most heartfelt critiques have come from the very people the video purports to want to save: Ugandans. A screening of the Kony 2012 video in northern Uganda last week ended with an angry crowd throwing rocks at the movie screen. Eyewitnesses reported that they could not understand why a movie supposedly about Uganda featured so much footage of rich white Americans (Jason Russell and his son). The idea of making Joseph Kony famous also attracted criticism: one local woman asked how Americans would feel if, in the aftermath of 9/11, merchandise was sold with Osama bin Laden’s face everywhere. 

Aside from the content of their video, Invisible Children has also come under fire in the last two weeks for an alleged lack of transparency about their finances, and for spending too much on branding and movie-making and not enough on issues in the ground in Uganda. Jason Russell has made countless TV appearances in the last fortnight to defend the organisation against these claims, and a second video was released in which CEO Ben Keesey addressed some of the criticisms.

It’s fair to say that it must have been an exceptionally stressful time for Russell, who has become the face of the project due to the starring role he plays in his own movie. We don’t know very much about Russell, other than that he is a fresh-faced Californian who bleaches his hair. He is reportedly an evangelical Christian. In a profile published last year by PMC Magazine, he was asked “Where are you from and where are you going?” In a response which reads like pure satire but is apparently deadly earnest, Russell said: “I am from San Diego, California, with an upbringing in musical theatre. I am going to help end the longest running war in Africa, get Joseph Kony arrested and redefine international justice. Then I am going to direct a Hollywood musical. Then I am going to study theology and literature in Oxford, England, and then move to New York to start ‘The Academy’, which will be a school where the best creative young minds in the world attend.”  

Last Thursday it was not Joseph Kony getting arrested, however, but Jason Russell. Police were called out to the Pacific Beach neighbourhood by neighbours of Russell who reported him running naked in the street, pounding his fists on the pavements, shouting incoherently and possibly masturbating. Predictably, someone was on hand to film the episode on a smartphone, with the clip being speedily released by gossip website TMZ. A statement released by the police said that after being taken into custody, Russell “continued to act in a bizarre and irrational manner”, and was taken to a mental health facility for observation.

Following the incident, a statement was put out by Russell’s family insisting that he did not have a drug or alcohol problem (as had been claimed), but was simply under severe stress from the Kony 2012 fallout. “Because of how personal the film is, many of the attacks against it were also very personal and Jason took them very hard,” it read. A statement released by Invisible Children took a similar line. “Jason Russell was unfortunately hospitalized yesterday suffering from exhaustion, dehydration and malnutrition,” it said. (Social media users later criticised the term “malnutrition” as being inaccurate, particularly in the face of African hunger.) “The past two weeks have taken a severe emotional toll on all of us, Jason especially, and that toll manifested itself in an unfortunate incident yesterday”.

When news of his arrest emerged on Friday, one online commentator predicted: “this news could break Twitter”. And so it was: the hashtag Horny2012, spoofing Kony2012 and referencing Russell’s alleged masturbation, trended instantly. Social media was the conduit on which Invisible Children’s video originally spread, and now it was the vehicle to rapidly transfer this negative information about Russell. Twitter users were mainly split between derision and disgust at the news, with many dwelling on the irony of Russell’s mission to save kids in Uganda while potentially having exposed himself sexually to kids in the USA. A minority urged compassion for Russell’s clearly fragile mental health and expressed ongoing support for the Kony2012 project.

On the surface, it would seem rational to say that Russell’s behaviour has absolutely nothing to do with the merits or failings of the Kony2012 campaign. But humans aren’t always rational, and it is quite likely that Russell’s incident will impact negatively on the campaign and the charity. This is because Invisible Children has explicitly framed the campaign (by means of the movie) as revolving around Russell: we meet his son, we see his home, we hear his story, etc.

Jason Russell is a good guy, the film tells us. It does this implicitly (Jason Russell wants to save Ugandan kids, so he must be good) and explicitly (his son is shown saying “I want to be like you when I grow up”). The movie’s impact is largely premised on us making a personal connection with Russell, believing what he is saying and trusting that he is advising us well. Invisible Children is not a well-established charity with a proven track record, like the Red Cross or Amnesty International. They are virtually unknown, and as such the personal credibility of their figurehead, fairly or unfairly, becomes important. Jason Russell is pretty much all we know about the organisation. When we hear that he has been taken in for psychiatric evaluation, it does not inspire confidence. 

Let’s leave Russell for a minute and bring out Exhibit C: George Clooney. The actor, recently described by You Magazine as a “lonely insomniac looking for love”, was arrested in Washington on Friday after participating in a demonstration outside the Sudanese embassy. Clooney earlier addressed the crowd, denouncing the Sudanese regime’s human rights abuses and restrictions on humanitarian access. The actor and his father were arrested for crossing a police line, but released a few hours later.

Sudan has become Clooney’s pet issue. He funds an initiative called the Sudan Sentinel project, which uses satellite surveillance to track crimes against civilians. To accomplish this he teamed up with a man called John Prendergast, former director for African Affairs at the National Security Council, who also features in the Kony2012 video expressing his support for the campaign.

Clooney serves as a counterpoint to the cases of Daisey and Russell cited above. His arrest achieved what it was presumably intended to do: to draw attention to a country in Africa that many readers of gossip websites (all of whom faithfully reported Clooney’s arrest) would not normally spare a thought for. While it is a painful indictment of both media and popular culture that this should be the case, Clooney’s arrest while protesting probably did more to raise Sudan’s profile in the West than anything else in recent memory.

This is the positive side of associating issues with a particular face or personality: that when that individual is well-liked and respected, the PR for the cause at hand can be very valuable. But the pitfalls of personality-driven advocacy are also exemplified by the scandals surrounding Mike Daisey and Jason Russell. Because both these men have become singularly associated with a particular cause, when their reputation takes a hit, so too does the cause. DM

Read more:

  • Mike Daisey’s betrayal of This American Life’s truth – and my trust, in The Guardian.
  • Why Clooney was arrested, in the Huffington Post.
  • Kony creator Jason Russell under stress but not on drugs, family say, in the Los Angeles Times.

Photo: Actor George Clooney is arrested for civil disobedience after protesting at the Sudan Embassy in Washington 16 March 2012. Clooney was protesting the escalating humanitarian crisis in Sudan. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque.


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