Arts Desk

Mike Daisey Apologizes! Again. Kind of. Consciously or Unconsciously.

Oh, Mike Daisey, why can’t I ever stay mad at you?

No, really, I can’t. That’s fine; there’s more than enough bile coming from everyone else to pick up the slack of my outrage deficit.

“This is my first scandal,” the embattled monologist told the audience at Georgetown University’s Lohrfink Auditorium last night. After introductions by two Georgetown professors, Daisey spoke for a full hour, detailing the origins of his monologue The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, his working methods (no notes? At all? Really?), and his attempt to explain why his memory of key moments during his visit to China in 2010 differs so significantly from what his translator, Li “Cathy Lee” Guifen remembers. He then took about 45 minutes of questions. None of them was heated or confrontational. (I attended the talk as a civilian, without press credentials. DCist's Benjamin R. Freed says that credentialed reporters were not allowed to ask questions.) The auditorium was near-full when Daisey took the stage, but there were seats available. No one shouted him down. There was only one spontaneous eruption of applause, right after this part of the talk, where Daisey reiterated that he’d lied to This American Life producers because he just felt that strongly about the need to get his story on the air.

What does it mean to tell the truth? Because my facts are clearly fucked. You know? My facts are all fucked up. My chronology is all fucked up, I can’t survive a fact-check. I think we all heard my horrifying, uncomfortable silence. But the truth of that story is very real. No one contests what is happening in Chinese manufacturing. Nobody. And that was fact-checked.

I don’t know if the evening changed anyone’s mind about anything. It seemed to reinforce what I already believed about Daisey: He’s a master talker. Even in a mostly extemporaneous speech (he had a notepad in front of him, but he didn’t look down at it much), he knows instinctively which syllable of which word to land on, where to permit a dramatic silence, when to let his voice thicken with humility or fury. He’s as good an actor as he is a writer.

For many people, that’s as good as saying he’s full of shit. But I don’t feel that way about him. As I’ve explained at eye-watering length, I think he was absolutely wrong to let This American Life build a show around his monologue. I think it’s also wrong for him to insist that the program of his stage show say it's a work of nonfiction. (I don’t remember that detail, but it’s been a year since I saw the show.) But having seen him perform on four different occasions; and having watched him, two years ago, freestyle into my voice recorder in a Woolly Mammoth rehearsal room during his run of The Last Cargo Cult there; and hell, having watched him perform off-the-cuff for nearly two hours last night, I've always felt like I should take whatever he says with a grain of salt. Performers crave an audience more than they crave food or water. Life-of-the-party types, those who know how to make you crane forward when they’re speaking—well, I’ve just always felt like performing is different from testifying under oath.

Which brings me to the other masterful public speaker I kept thinking of while Daisey was speaking last night: President Bill Clinton. Maybe it's because I have so much footage of the President expressing contrition floating around in my brain. But the way Clinton could tell a lie and believe it—I think there’s some of that in Daisey, maybe a lot more than in most actors, who typically need scripts to help them lie convincingly.

The script point bears some unpacking. Daisey, who’s been performing monologues since 1997, has always said he never types a script, that he speaks from handwritten notes, and that his shows evolve from night to night. (Here’s what counted as a Mike Daisey scandal five years ago: When a Christian group got up and left en masse from one of his shows, and their leader poured water on Daisey’s notes on his way out.)

Daisey spoke of how the unprecedented media interest in this monologue had him doing interviews all the time, and how an interview is a kind of performance, too. How did the part of the story where he claimed to have met workers who’d been poisoned by the toxic screen-cleaner Hexane get into the show, when he’d only read about those workers (quite possibly in reports written by Rob Schmitz, the Marketplace journalist who uncovered Daisey’s fabrications)?

It slipped in gradually, Daisey said last night.

It happened in an interview. I remember I had a feeling, and then I don’t know if I said it more than once in an interview. And then my partner, my director—who, to retain her sanity does not read all the interviews—was reading one, and she said, "You met people with hexane poisoning?" You met them at that meeting?" It would’ve been so much wiser to be open and say "No, I’m a moron. People ask me things sometimes and I just fucking tell them." That’s what I should’ve said. Instead I said, "Yeah, yeah." I said something stupid like that. And the next thing you know, my director, who is very good at picking out dramatic details, saw it as a theater problem. She was saying, "How can that not be in the show? We’ve been doing the show forever, and it’s not in the show. It should be in show!" And the artistic director of the theater said, "Yes, that should be in the show." And I thought, "okaaaaaay." It was me, though. I did it. I was very wrong.

(Note: Daisey’s partner and his director are the same person, Jean-Michele Gregory.)

He did, of course, post a transcript of The Agony and the Ecstacy of Steve Jobs on his website earlier this year, offering it royalty-free to anyone who wanted to perform or adapt.

Last night, he stuck by his claim that two of the monologue’s most emotional moments—when the factory worker with the ruined hand gets to handle Daisey’s own iPad, describing it as “a kind of magic,” and his conversation with Cathy about whether the workers they were interviewing together might’ve been mentally ill—really happened, albeit in less dramatic fashion than the way he tells them.

Well.

Moderator Jennifer Luff called an end to the Q&A period just before I got to the microphone. I was going to ask Daisey if he would amend his upcoming performances of The Agony and the Ecstacy with a preface like the one he gave to its Sunday matinee performance in New York, or if would at least offer some kind of disclaimer letting the audience know not to take everything he says as fact. I think he should. Even though he probably doesn’t need to, now.

The title of the talk Daisey had been originally booked to give at Georgetown that night, “A Hammer With Which to Shape It,” is from Bertolt Brecht, by the way.

In full: “Art is not a mirror to reflect reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.” Journalism is something else. Didn't we all already know that?

Update: I forgot—yes, forgot, I'm sorry—to mention before posting this a few minutes ago that Daisey said last night that he would be compiling some kind of supporting document for his claims in The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs and posting that document on his website.

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Comments

  1. #1

    Daisey is a sad, self-promoting blowhard.

    It's rather ironic: He seems to be the ethically challenged party exploiting Chinese workers for gain.

  2. #2

    Daisey deserves the condemnation he's getting for this, but I think ultimately the buck stops with Glass and his producers. (As Glass admits in his retraction, saying: "That doesn't excuse the fact that we never should've put this on the air. In the end, this was our mistake.")
    What I want to know is, how did the This American Life team let this happen? Daisey is the theater performer, and they are the journalists. They've done so many stories over the years, and this is their first retraction. They must have had a fact-checking process in place. What made them take Daisey at his word without checking the facts? Was it the rush to get the story on the air? Was it just the fact that Daisey had a great story? (this last, I guess, is what made Stephen Glass's editors trust him - he produced great stories) Not to take the focus completely off Daisey, but TAL needs to be taking a hard look at themselves, too.

  3. #3

    Ben, you clearly haven't listened to the TAL episode based on the retraction. All that is explained.

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