Tuesday, March 20, 2012

"It's not journalism. It's theater."

(Mike Daisey in The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. Photo by Sara Krulwich.)

As a theatergoer, a journalist, a regular "This American Life" listener, and a resident of the nonstop Mac party that is the Bay Area, I've been interested in the Mike Daisey debacle from a variety of standpoints. The monologist, whose show The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs just concluded a run at the Public, has come under fire for lying -- not just in theater, where by and large we embrace the practice, but also in a journalism, which tends not to look so kindly on artistic license.

The one-man show chronicles Daisey's transformation from a Mac fanatic to a Mac boycotter, as effected by his trip to the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen, China, which manufactures parts of Apple products (and which in 2010 saw a series of worker suicides -- the impetus for Daisey's trip). In his monologue, Daisey describes meeting victims of atrocious labor practices: workers as young as twelve, a worker whose hand gets destroyed as a result of bad factory conditions and then gets fired as a result.

It's a moving piece, so much so that the NPR program "This American Life" wanted to broadcast it. As journalism. And Daisey did not alter it. He assured the radio station that the script met the standards of journalistic integrity, and while the radio show did some fact-checking, the team let certain questions slide based on Daisey's word.  

The show went on to become one of the most popular in the program's history, and it catapulted Daisey to greater fame. He was brought onto other news shows newly minted as an expert on factory labor in China.

But after the show came on the air, people who know about working conditions in China  -- notably Rob Schmitz, a China correspondent for the NPR program "Marketplace," immediately became suspicious. Many of Daisey's details -- like that the factory guards carried guns, which is illegal in China -- seemed dubious to him and other experts.

Last week, "This American Life" brought Daisey back to the studio for further questioning.  Though Daisey defended much of his story -- including the parts the only witness, his translator Cathy Lee, denied -- he did admit to fabricating parts of his tale. For instance, he now says he did not actually meet a factory worker who said she was twelve, as his show recounts. He does stand by the fact that he met one who was thirteen, but Lee denies even that.  

Daisey says that any dramatizing he did was part of a nobler effort: to make us care about the people who make the Apple products we love. And aside from the armed guards, most of his tales seem to be inspired by real events. If Foxconn didn't expose its workers to a toxic chemical, other factories certainly did; Daisey just didn't go to those other factories, so it's unlikely that he met people who'd been affected, as he claims he did in his show.

These conversations among Daisey, Schmitz, and "This American Life" host Ira Glass are captured in a special episode of the radio program that aired on Friday.  The episode's title is "Retraction," and the show did just that: it retracted its previous Mike Daisey story -- the first time the program has done that.  

The episode is excruciating. Not only is Ira Glass uncharacteristically confrontational in his righteous anger, saying flat-out things like, "I don't believe you"; he also does not afford Daisey any customary editing courtesies. Daisey often takes a long time to reply after Glass asks a question, and the producers left unaltered much of that dead air: You can't help but picture Daisey squirming and sweating as, for an impossibly long time, your radio or computer remains silent.  

But amidst all Daisey's hemming and hawing, there emerged for me one especially important statement:

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. It used the tools of theater and memoir to achieve its dramatic arc, and of that arc and that work I am very proud because I think it made you care, Ira.

In a further development, just today the Times reported that, in the wake of "Retraction," Daisey altered The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs for its last performances at the Public:

Daisey had decided on his own to change language, and to add a new prologue in which he acknowledged the controversy and said that he stood behind the content of the newly altered show.

The Public didn't have to react as strongly as "This American Life" did. In a statement, the theater said only, "Mike is an artist, not a journalist. Nevertheless, we wish he had been more precise with us and our audiences about what was and wasn’t his personal experience in the piece." 

And Berkeley Rep, where the show had previously run, has to my knowledge issued no statement at all. I did not see the show when it ran there last year. Its advertisements suggested unapologetic liberal guilt-mongering, which is not what I go to theater for -- it's what I listen to NPR for!  (My knowledge of the show comes only from the excerpts that were broadcast on the original "This American Life" episode, not from any live theatrical event.)

In fact, this new controversy, with all its additional layers,  seems like it would make a much better show than Daisey's. That play would raise lots of important questions: When does theater have to be nonfiction? Can a storyteller ever bend his facts to further a humanitarian aim--if not in journalism, then in theater? When do we know a story is made up, and when do we take an artist at his word? By what mechanisms does the theater create those two different contexts? More broadly, to what degree is an artist responsible for the interpretation of his or her work?

Charles Isherwood writes some well-reasoned answers to these questions:

The problem is Mr. Daisey’s particular brand of theater is experienced by the audience as direct and honest testimony to events that he witnessed. (His previous monologues include “The Last Cargo Cult,” about the financial system, and “How Theater Failed America.”) This is also known as reporting, which is journalism. The weight, authority, emotional power and — like it or not, theatricality — of “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” derive precisely from the assumption that Mr. Daisey is telling the truth about the events he describes. 
I certainly believed that the stories Mr. Daisey told — of seeing guards with guns at the Foxconn factory, of interviewing a 13-year-old girl who worked at the factory, of talking to an elderly former Foxconn worker whose hand had been destroyed — were true. According to Ms. Lee and the producers of “This American Life,” they were not. 
...[T]heater that aims to shape public opinion by exposing the world’s inequities has no less an obligation than journalism to construct its larger truths only from an accumulation of smaller ones.

I tend to agree with Isherwood, that Daisey's show is a special case. But the idea of an artist having to make a pre-show curtain speech explicating the context of his piece is anathema to me. If journalistically it feels right, theatrically it feels deeply wrong. It's not my aim to bar an artist from any subject matter, and indeed, Daisey's tale is a compelling one: It certainly made me rethink my relationship to Apple products. But to me this controversy illustrates why The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs in either of its incarnations might not be a story for either the newspaper or the theater. The only conventions it follows are those of its own shadowy, in-between genre. It's time for Daisey to make a decision about the kind of story he wants to tell, and then live fully within the constraints of that form.


  1. !!! Thanks for reading, A, and so great to see you this weekend! Can't wait for our next rendezvous!

  2. Only TAL would turn a correction into a full (and fascinating) episode. And of course Ira would immediately see the storytelling opportunity in Daisey's deceit.

    For what it's worth, I think what separates Daisey's performance from other politically conscious drama is that it's a first-person narrative. Daisey doesn't assume a character when he walks on stage (or into the studio). He presents himself as a real person telling a real story of his own experience. Monologues routinely editorialize while recounting historical "facts", but we generally understand their narrators to be constructed characters--though perhaps realistic and well-informed ones. We all know there's a difference between Henry Drummond and Clarence Darrow--or even David Sedaris the person and David Sedaris the entertainer--but we didn't know there was a difference between Mike Daisey the person and Mike Daisey the actor.

  3. That's a really good point, Ben. We were talking about this controversy in my dramaturgy class today, and I was trying to figure out a solution that was not a context-explicating preface. If you're doing a one-man show, it would be hard to give up the first person and call the show theater (and not storytelling). So I'm with you on the persona/character idea, but as a theater geek, I wonder what specific persona-creating mechanisms the problem requires. Is it as simple as giving yourself another name? Or including a note in the program/marketing that says "based on a true story"? Alternatively, what subtle script adjustments or actor decisions might effect the change?

  4. As a non-theater geek, I'm not exactly sure what mechanisms might work--though the ones you've suggested all seem plausible to me. There might be some lessons from stand-up comedy, where the line between performer and character is often blurry. Or from mockudramas like "Best in Show" which never have to say "this is fiction" for us to know it's fiction. Or from Sasha Baron Cohen, who makes a career of confusing people about whether he's a parody.