Arts Desk

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Mike Daisey

The difference between “I saw it with my own eyes” and “I read it in The New York Times” is not thin, like the six-month-old MacBook Air I’m typing this on. It’s huge, like the six-year-old Apple Cinema Display sitting on my desk in the other room.

The difference between “I read in The New York Times that...” and “I’ve heard that...” is greater still.

So I understand why people whom I never heard express an opinion about theater before last week are mad at Mike Daisey. I’m mad at him, too, but not as a member of his theater audience. (I’ve seen four of his monologues, including The Agony and the Ecstacy of Steve Jobs, since 2007.) I’m mad at him for the only part of the scandal he’s actually expressed contrition for: endangering the reputation of This American Life, by representing his monologue as up to the radio program's standards of accuracy, when he knew that it was not. The retraction of the popular weekly radio show’s Jan. 6 episode, No. 454, “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory,” is the first in the show’s 16-year history.

On Friday, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company issued a press release saying it planned to proceed with a remount of The Agony and the Ecstasy booked for this July. I don’t know whether the show will remain the box office behemoth it has been, but I believe it should continue to exist as a piece of theater.  He’s already stamped on a disclosure, in the form of a preface he added to yesterday’s afternoon performance of Agony & Ecstasy at the Public Theater in New York City. He posted a recording of the two-and-a-half-minute prologue on his website.

Daisey was obliged to explain himself following his admission on Friday’s episode of This American Life (No. 460, “Retraction”) that he had fictionalized his account of his June 2010 visit to Foxconn and other plants in Shenzhen, China, that manufacture iPhones and iPads. Specifically, he exaggerated the number of factories he visited and the number of workers he interviewed. He claimed to have met people he in truth had only read about. The most heart-rending scenes in his monologue, both the stage version and the shorter edit he prepared for This American Life, may have been completely made up.

“I don’t believe you when it comes to the underage worker,” host Ira Glass told Daisey on Friday’s episode. “I don’t believe you when it comes to the guy with the twisted hand.”

Longtime This American Life fans know how rare it is to hear Glass in such a confrontational mode. The show he created in 1995, after nearly 20 years as a reporter for more traditional public radio news shows, specializes in light, not heat. While the show has always identified the different segments of each episode as “acts,” in the manner of a play or a screenplay, its mandate is to portray life in all its bewildering, cliche-defying complexity, and to do it absent any political agenda.

No one could blame the famously calm, good-natured Glass for being angry. Daisey deliberately sabotaged Glass’ attempts to fact-check his Apple piece by lying to Glass and to This American Life producer Brian Reed (a former Washington City Paper staffer). The Jan. 6 episode actually included a 15-minute closing segment detailing which of Daisey’s claims the show’s producers could and could not verify at that time. While they noted seemingly trivial errors, like the number of workers Foxconn’s cafeterias serve, they concluded then that Daisey had for the most part got it right.

Oops. The story unraveled when American Public Media Marketplace reporter Rob Schmitz located and interviewed Li Guifen, Daisey’s English translator during his visit to China.

Listening to Glass grill Daisey about why he lied is some painful, albeit hypnotically compelling, radio. Daisey was under no obligation to come back to This American Life at all, though it’s not surprising he did. Attention, not money, seems to be the currency he craves. He’d already received lots of it for prior monologues—like If You See Something, Say Something, about post 9/11 hysteria—years before he began performing his Apple show, but like the iPhone itself, this latest product dwarfed its brethren in popularity. The radio version was the most-downloaded episode in This American Life's history. We have no way of knowing how many people listened to it the way I did, on an iPod. I bet it was a lot.

“I know that so much of this story is the best work I’ve ever made,” Daisey told Glass on Friday’s show, in the anguished cadence of a philanderer being confronted by an angry spouse.

“Four hours of grilling edited down to fifteen minutes,” wrote Daisey on his website earlier today in response to Friday broadcast. “I thought the dead air was a nice touch.” (Go ahead, take a moment to savor the irony of Daisey taking a shot at This American Life for making its hourlong show about his dramatic excesses as dramatic as possible.)

Now, people are comparing Daisey to notorious whole-cloth tale-weavers like Janet Cooke and Stephen Glass. The New York Times' David Carr (a former editor of Washington City Paper) even quoted Jayson Blair on the subject. (Blair left the Times in disgrace in 2003 after the paper discovered he had fabricated elements of dozens of his news reports.) I don’t think that’s an appropriate comparsion. What Daisey did is closer to what screenwriters Aaron Sorkin, Steven Zallian, and Stan Chervin did when they turned Michael Lewis' nonfiction book Moneyball into a Brad Pitt movie.

Of course, the makers of Moneyball the movie were upfront about taking artistic license. Daisey wasn’t, and that was no small sin. But he didn’t make up the shitty working conditions in Apple plants any more than Sorkin made up Sabermetrics.

Here’s the kernel of Daisey's contrite, albeit measured, on-air apology to Glass and the audience from Friday’s broadcast:

Everything I have done in making this monologue for the theater was bent toward that end: to make people care. I’m not going to say that I didn’t take a few shortcuts in my passion to be heard. But I stand by the work. My mistake, the mistake I truly regret, is that I had it on your show as journalism. And it’s not journalism. It’s theater. I used the tools of theater and memoir to achieve its dramatic arc.

Daisey had presented this same rationale, absent the note of desperation, nine days ago on MSNBC’s Up with Chris Hayes, before the news of his perfidy broke. It’s one of many invitations he’s accepted to appear on TV since he began performing the monologue, always in the role of an activist trying to shame the world’s most profitable technology company into using its muscle to improve conditions for the workers who build its machines.

It’s clear now that Daisey should have declined at least some of these invitations. And certainly he should have said no to This American Life given his understanding that their standards for literal, verifiable accuracy are much higher than his own. He knows this. He has said this.

So let’s forgive him. Everyone who doesn't pay attention to theater can go right back to not paying attention. Thanks for checking in.

Look, iPhones are popular. Theater isn’t, not really. That’s the key to how Daisey’s judgment broke down—not when he wrote his monologue, but when he repeated its most spectacular allegations on a news show, absent the kind of packaging that clues in the audience that, for example, a David Sedaris essay is not to be taken as hand-on-the-Bible factual. Daisey had actually succeeded in making people pay attention to an issue he cares deeply about. And Apple, under pressure that built partially as a result of Daisey’s story, is now releasing supplier lists and making more aggressive audits of its plants. That’s more important than whether Daisey visited 10 plants or three.

Who has suffered here? Apple’s stock has soared in the period since Daisey began his crusade. If some of us have started to think more about where the machines we use every day come from, that hasn’t slowed the pace at which we buy them. Even Daisey still uses Apple equipment.

Meanwhile, any non-quantifiable damage to Apple’s reputation seems deserved. After Glass was finished raking Daisey over the coals on Friday’s show—and let me be clear here, Daisey had it coming—he interviewed Charles Duhigg, one of the three New York Times reporters who published this series about Apple’s labor practices back in January. On page 11 of the interview transcript, which you can download from This American Life's website here, Duhigg says Apple executives he’s spoken with acknowledge that Apple is powerful enough to get more humane practices from its suppliers if they demanded it. Duhigg described how Apple allows its suppliers to earn only what he called a “razor-thin” profit margin.

Apple, by contrast, earns a profit upwards of $100 on every iPhone they sell. They have $97 billion on hand in cash.

An irony in all this is that Glass himself is uncommonly attuned to the necessities of storytelling. I’ve attended his lecture on this topic three times. When I interviewed him four years ago, he told me that finding stories that are appropriate for his show is the toughest thing about it.

Daisey, meanwhile, clearly believed he needed to invent scenes to make his show get through to people in a way that news reports often do not.

“You’re saying that the only way you can get through emotionally to people is to mess around with the facts,” Glass said to him on Friday’s show. “But that isn’t so.” When Glass suggested that Daisey’s show should be labeled as fiction, Daisey protested, “I don’t think that label captures the totality of my trip.”

It doesn’t capture it. And as pained and dissembling as Daisey’s rationale sounds, I think it’s mostly right. Theater isn’t journalism. Daisey, of course, should’ve had the restraint to say "no" to all those invitations from shows that are.

In other words, he could still have appeared on Real Time with Bill Maher. Maher, you may have heard it reiterated lately, is an entertainer. Daisey, by contrast, has always maintained that he’s an artist. Artists have always been a little bit of a pain in the ass like that.

Illustration by Brooke Hatfield

Mike Daisey will speak at 7:30 this evening at Georgetown University's Lohrfink Auditorium. Non-students and faculty who wish to attend the free talk must RSVP here.

Blog Widget by LinkWithin
  • Jane

    No, theater isn't journalism, but presenting the story as what happened to you rather than some semi-fictional narrator and repeatedly insisting that all of it really did happen to you isn't theater. It's dishonesty. And the argument that because it ultimately increased scrutiny on Apple means it's a good thing is terrible. He could have made a very compelling argument without fabricating anything, but he didn't, and now Apple has that much more room to come back with "see, it's all lies".

  • Pingback: New iPad Teardown: Inside Apple's Tablet - johnscomputerinfo.com

  • http://mvjantzen.com/blog/ Michael

    I think Daisey pulled off a heartfelt apology last night at Georgetown, and, for what it's worth, gave us an understandable (and funny) explanation of how things went awry. (more at http://www.mvjantzen.com/blog/?p=1458 )

  • http://www.beautypill.com Chad

    The man was given multiple outs. He took none of them.

    He deserves to be forgotten.

    I'm gonna go work on that now.

    - c

  • Pingback: 2AMt » Blog Archive » Context is everything.

  • http://jeffgoldbluminterview.blogspot.com/ Jeff Goldblum Interview

    I have been absent for some time, but now I remember why I used to love this site. Thank you, I will try and check back more often. How frequently you update your website?

...