Saturday, March 17, 2012

Lying In the Pursuit of Truth, or The Daisey Dismantling

So A Thing happened recently.  A couple months back, This American Life did an episode about Mike Daisey's 2010 trip to China that inspired his one-man show The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, wherein Daisey claimed to have visited a number of factories to speak with workers who worked on the iPad.  The monologue is an account of various worker violations at the Foxconn factory that manufactures iPad parts; Daisey claims to have met significant numbers of underage workers (and implies that their existence at the factory is an open secret with management, who turn a blind eye), spoken with a sizable contingent of workers who are part of an illegal union, seen guards with guns at the gate of the factory, met with workers who have suffered neurological damage from a cleaning agent called n-hexane, and met with a man whose hand was crushed in an industrial accident who had never seen an iPad before being shown one by Daisey.

If you go to the link above, you'll see that they've since aired an episode retracting the story.  The plot began to unravel when Rob Schmitz, a reporter for Marketplace stationed in Shanghai, noticed discrepancies in Daisey's story and decided to track down the translator Daisey worked with (with little difficulty, as he tells it).  Daisey had previously said that he had given his translator, who he calls Cathy in the play, that name as an alias, when her real name was Anna, and that he no longer had up-to-date contact information for her (this is the point, says TAL host Ira Glass, that they should have immediately killed the story).  The reason he did this, as Schmitz lays out, is that Daisey's account of events and the translator's differ wildly.  Daisey, in other words, fabricated many of the factual details of his journey.

Daisey has done a monologue called "Truth" about fabricators such as James Frey (who made up his purportedly autobiographical novel A Million Little Pieces) and Stephen Glass (a former journalist who fabricated news stories for the magazine The New Republic), which lends the whole affair a tinge of either dramatic irony or schadenfreude, depending on whether you are looking for a hacky phrase about a dramatist or being honest.  I'm familiar with the idea of fabricators, stemming from watching season 5 of The Wire and reading subsequent David Simon interviews where he talks about fabricators he or others have known, and one of the things that comes up with fabricators are stories that are a little too good to be true, where it's just a little too coincidental that the reporter was in that particular place in that particular time.  According to Schmitz in his the first act of the TAL retraction he addresses the ones he saw in Daisey's piece, the threads that eventually unraveled the whole story when they were tugged at (his written article about it is here).

A lot of smart people have already written about this, but I still feel the need to express my personal reaction to it (because I am a relentless egotist), which is basically this: dude, do you not know about Spider-Man?

how did this get here i am not good with superheroes
Schmitz quotes the TAL retraction in the story linked above, wherein Daisey says, '“Look. I’m not going to say that I didn’t take a few shortcuts in my passion to be heard. But I stand behind the work,” Daisey said. “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.”'  The problem is that he wasn't presenting it as 'theater' in the sense of something like Death of a Salesman.  No one attends DoaS expecting a journalistic, factual experience.  What we expect is an emotional truth.  In fact, this is part of what we expect in any kind of fiction; the notion that, while the details may not be literally true, the characters and situations and reactions will have a resemblance to reality.  Daisey wasn't presenting his piece as Death of a Salesman, he was presenting it as something that literally happened to him.  The language and phrasing and performance elements were heightened; we expect that from a performer and a writer, for them to take facts and figures and turn them into something poetic and beautiful and meaningful.  But when you're telling the story of something that happened to you and presenting it as something that happened to you, you have a responsibility to only tell us things that actually happened to you.

As an artist, your great power is the ability to write a beautiful sentence, to become a character, to create a video or a painting or a song, and these are things that not everyone can do.  Of course, as an artist, you should follow your passion about an issue, as Daisey obviously did.  His story about workers exposed to n-hexane did happen, but he never met those workers; they worked in a different province.  His story of the man with the mangled hand, who he shows the iPad to like Moses bringing the tablets from the mountain (the amount of white man's burden/white male privilege/colonialism in the piece is probably another article entirely), is made up completely, but it contains the line, "He's never actually seen one, this thing that took his hand," which is a wonderfully effective piece of writing and acting.  Unfortunately, because Daisey shirked his responsibility to truth, it's ultimately in service of nothing.  You can easily find a tearjerker story on the Lifetime network if that's what you're in the market for, but that's not what Daisey's selling.

Daisey has a great power, but he forgot his great responsibility.  In seeking to illuminate, he ultimately obfuscated.  Now the story is no longer about what Apple and Foxconn may or may not have done; now the story is about Daisey, and whether we can trust anything he said, or says, from now on, about Apple or anything else.  If you want to criticize Apple or Foxconn, who have actually committed wrongdoing, you now have to sort through a layer of Mike Daisey's bullshit to get at the truth.  There's a certain amount of ego involved in being a monologist, and if Daisey's interest is only in Daisey, he needs to get out of the game and find a different profession.

Just not journalism.

3/19/2012 Edit: Here is an interesting and nuanced take on the subject, which I like because of (but also beyond) the fact that he invokes Jimmy McNulty. 


  1. My pithy response, which I'd be happy to discuss in more detail and not use as a dismissive one-liner if you like, is that everyone freaking out about "the truth" being manipulated needs to read Baudrillard and look in the mirror (both individually and collectively).

    1. Oh, gosh, Charles. If my only choice is to condemn Daisey or embrace one of the most cynical, nihilistic philosophers ever, then I will lapse into silence. Frankly, if you want to see the underlying ideas of the GW Bush administration regarding truth, you'd do a lot worse than looking to Baudrillard. There ARE such things as truth. The question, to my mind, is whether a "journalistic" standard of truth is the right one to apply to a story told in a theatre buy a guy who sells tickets to a play called "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs." Also, the so-called "lies" are trivial compared to the larger truth. Harold Clurman wrote a book called "Lies Like Truth," which was his definition of the theatre.

  2. Jake -- This is a complicated issue, one that I will have to think about once my show opens. I need to think about whether there is a difference between truth and Truth, whether the literal facts are more important than the larger truth. Frankly, I think part of this backlash involves a bunch of relieved Apple enthusiasts who were having their sense of superiority complicated by a sense of moral ickiness, and this resolves them of having to think about it. Something I need to consider is the relationship of Mike Daisey to, say, Spalding Gray. Gray presents his monologues as things that happened to him too, but do we really think they all actually did? Do we believe that the events surrounding the filming of "The Killing Fields" as portrayed by Gray in "Swimming to Cambodia" should be examined for literal truth? Is the use of the first person singular enough to turn a theatre piece from fiction to fact? Should we look at "Long Day's Journey Into Night," which is clearly autobiographical, in terms of whether it actually happened? As you know, I think artists have serious responsibilities to society, whether in fictional work or more experiential work. And on that level, I applaud Daisey's exposition of the exploitative nature of the global economy, and I find the audible sigh of relief from Apple consumers the willful blindness that the rich use to ignore their complicity in the exploitation. That said, once Daisey started appearing on news shows to talk about Apple, a line was probably crossed. As I say, I am torn and will have to think more about it.

    1. What was on my mind, and what didn't really make it into the post itself, was exactly that; it wasn't just the stage show, but the continued interviews not just on TAL but elsewhere, that push this firmly into shady territory. The stage play is problematic for me because of its mix of stuff that happened, but not to Daisey (he never met underage workers, but Schmitz in the retraction piece says something like 91 underage workers were caught in Foxconn factories last year, although he makes the points that a) this is out of tens of thousands of workers and b) Apple is particularly diligent about cracking down on underage workers, which is a far cry from Daisey's, "do you really think Apple didn't know?". Also, as mentioned above, the n-hexane stuff did happen, and is awful, but Daisey presented himself in the piece and in the media as the crusading theatre artist who discovered it) to stuff that just flat out were falsehoods (the guards with guns).

      James Fallows at the Atlantic has an article ( about this wherein he makes the point that "Apple is not the main worker-safety problem in China." I understand that they make a convenient window for the American consumer given the ubiquity of Apple products, but "Chinese factory conditions are bad" is a concern better directed at any number of other companies other than Apple if your concern is actually the working conditions of Chinese laborers and not to score points at a high-profile target and sell some tickets in the process.

      As far as the truth and The Truth, I don't know. I feel like his closing bit with the guy with the mangled hand who gets shown the iPad for the first time is no different than me writing a show called Death Panels about the ACA where the final monologue is me describing my meeting with a tearful old grandfather who just learned that a panel of doctors has decided it's time to put him to death. "He looks at me, with eyes that aren't dulled by his age, that haven't been dull or faded once during our conversation and he tells me, 'I want to live.' That's all he can say. That's all there is to say." But of course death panels don't actually exist and that would be a fabrication, and I think if you have to make stuff up in service of your argument, maybe you need to let someone else argue (such as, in the Apple instance, the New York Times, who has a paywalled article up about Apple's abuses in China that hasn't been retracted).

    2. I need to mea culpa this stuff about the dude with the mangled hand, because I keep painting the whole situation as fiction instead of acknowledging, as I believe the story does, that Daisey did talk with the guy (who did get his hand messed up in a Foxconn industrial accident) but did not show him the iPad. Something else I'd say about that is that for some reason, and this may be the line that was crossed and that I can't properly define, I would be comfortable with a two-man scene (really two-man one-woman scene although obviously for dramatic necessity maybe you have to cut out the translator) scene featuring two non-Daisey actors dramatizing that same event, because the story itself effectively dramatizes what the essential conflict is for a lot of people; this "magic" toy that we love is made in conditions we would find unacceptable, by people who will never see the fruits of their labor.

      There's a theatre in Chicago, called Timeline, that does a lot of historical works (the one I'm thinking of in particular is Winter Miller's "In Darfur", and in each of their programs they have a great amount of dramaturgy related to the subject the play is about, such that you can trace a link from the reality and the dramatization; in other words, the play will make an emotional case to you, and then you can go learn more at your leisure. There was ample room for Daisey to make the same kind of clarifications ("here is the n-hexane story that I adapted for my purposes, here is an article on underground labor unions, here is an article about underage workers at Foxconn plants") but he didn't take that opportunity, instead choosing to represent himself in the show and in the media as the one who had uncovered this stuff himself. (Of course, given that things like the guards with guns couldn't be sourced, he couldn't have gone this route without having to retool the show itself.)

  3. I just listened to the TAL newscast, and I must admit I am really infuriated about it. It is self-righteous and self-indulgent. Jake, your death panel example, as you note, isn't a good one, because death panels don't exist but appalling working conditions DO exist. Exactly what truth is violated by dramatizing the fact that iPads out outlawed in China?

    The monologue is played in a theatre with a theatrical title and people buy tickets to see it PERFORMED. It isn't an NPR report. There is a storytelling frame. Glass' idiotic statement that "normal" people think IF YOU ARE IN A THEATRE ON A STAGE and say that something happened, then I believe it happened is breath-takingly idiotic. You explain to me how this piece is different than "Hamlet," and why a two-person scene somehow is different than a storyteller. That's a distinction that makes absolutely no sense to me. The idea that it should somehow be LABELED as "fiction" -- a THEATRE piece ought to be labeled as FICTION -- strikes me as crazy. Was "Ragtime" labeled as fiction -- it had historical people in it. Think about the novel "The Jungle" -- should it be dismissed because it is "fiction"? The real point of this whole thing comes at the end of Glass' interview with the NY Times reporter when he asks the burning question "whether I should feel bad about this...Because I don't know that I feel so bad when I hear this." This is the issue at root of the Atlantic article, too: all us liberal hipsters who just love our Apple products and have our identities tied up in the hipness that it represents don't want to feel guilty when we snag the latest iPad release because that just isn't cool. Please, please, please tell me that it's OK. And the NY Times reporter does just that: I can't tell you how to feel, I'm a journalist. But he also says hey, some people say that the workers WANT to work inhumane working shifts. (And all the Apple afficianadoes jump off the hook.) Well, that was the way we justified abusing workers in the country in the 19th century before unions FORCED the government and businesses to create a 40 hr workweek and pay a livable wage. They were called sweatshops, and they are still sweatshops if they are in China. And so American corporations have picked up their business and moved it to China or some other 3rd world country where there can have the sweatshops that we outlawed here in the US, and saying Apple isn't the worst of them is a dodge.

    Artists exist to make us CARE about these issues, and that's what Daisey's play does. His mistake was taking a piece that takes a firm moral stand onto a program like TAD which has no sense of outrage but only an ironic smirk. The public flogging of Daisey on that show was wrong, and self-serving. The fact is that Ira Glass saw Daisey's show, a show done in a theatre, and decided to transport it to his show. If he wanted to do journalism, he shouldn't be looking in a theatre.

    1. Funny, your reaction to Glass was identical to my reaction to Daisey (I had to read the transcript because I was shaking so violently with anger every time I heard his voice).

      Appalling working conditions do exist. The guards with guns don't. The workers at Foxconn were not exposed to n-hexane. Apple does not turn a blind eye to underage workers in their plants.

      Did you have a reaction to Daisey, when confronted with the fact checking process, saying, "oh yeah, these things happened," and then later admitting it was a lie, instead of giving the perfectly reasonable explanation that, "no, in fact, as a dramatist and a storyteller does, I mixed my personal experiences with other journalism I read and created a piece of theatre. I dramatized, in other words." I know you're not given to tribalism, given your passionate advocacy against a lot of current norms of the theatre norms, but that's what it reads like to me. Ira Glass is the problem here, Ira Glass doesn't take a stand? The guys who gave an hour to Adrian Schoolcraft trying to highlight the corruption in the NYPD, who have never before issued a retraction on anything they've done viewed this in particular as so egregious that they devoted their time to it (admitting in the process that it was their bad, that the original piece shouldn't have aired because of their inability to corroborate details) and Glass is the problem? Daisey has a line near the end of the piece - "And when tech journalists would let themselves be flown all the way to Shenzhen in the company of PR reps for Foxconn, and walk around the gleaming factories, and then write cover stories for glossy magazines without ever speaking to a single worker…
      …I would keep my head down. And I would tell my story." Can you not see the irony of that line in light of his fabrications? You can't see the line crossed?

      "And then she shows me a copy of the blacklist—a friend of hers in accounting photocopied it and snuck it out to her. She gives it to me, I hand it to Cathy to translate. You know, in a fascist country run by thugs, you don’t have to be subtle. You can say exactly what you fucking mean. The sheet is very clear that it comes from the Labor Board, and it says, right across the top, “The following is a list of troublemakers. If any of them are found in your employ, dismiss them immediately.”
      And then there’s column after column after column of names, page after page after page of them.
      Cathy’s hand trembles as she translates it."

      This is really evocative and horrible. It also didn't happen.

      There are awful things that are going on there and Daisey didn't think they were bad enough, or couldn't find them, because he was there for two days outside of the Foxconn factory. He's a writer, an actor, not a journalist, that's fine. Can you not see that there's a problem that he was so brimming with zeal to tell HIS story that he went into libelous areas? What Apple and Foxconn have done, are doing, is enough rope. Daisey went beyond the truth in order to make his point, and presented it as something that happened. "This is a monologue - a single voice telling the story of a single experience." There is a difference between Agony and Hamlet, and I shouldn't have to explain it to you; there is a difference between a piece of theatre that is presented as a story and a piece of theatre that is presented as an actual event, and as I said, there are dramaturgical notes that can be added in programs to outline the distinction. He had ample opportunity to make the distinction when his story and his show got traction and he never did until it was brought right to his face.

      Glass is the one with integrity in this situation, not Daisey.

    2. Jake -- You DO have to tell me the difference, because it doesn't exist. If I stood up in a theatre and started discussing how I killed JFK, would the FBI arrest me? The frame of the theatre space contextualizes EVERYTHING that happens in it. Listen to Daisey's prologue that he added to his performance this weekend, paying particular attention to the idea that when he leaves the stage and comes back with the lights up, he will be someone telling a story. Not a reporter, someone telling a story -- one that reveals Truths, not mere facts. When Spalding Gray does his autobiographical pieces, do we believe that everything happened exactly that way? No. When Mike Daisey did "How Theatre Failed America," did we really believe that actors were freeze dried and flown to the rehearsal room where they were put in a microwave and turned back into actors? No. It's called "willing suspension of disbelief." It is the basis for all theatre.

      Also, does it ever occur to anyone that Cathy, a citizen in a fascist country, might not be quite at liberty to say something that might undermine what the government is sponsoring? Why do we accept everything she says as God's truth?

      Most of the facts that are contested involve exaggerations of actual stuff. There WAS a blacklist, there was an underage worker, there were poisoned workers, there are twelve hour and even 24 hour shifts, there was a meeting with illegal union workers, there were visits to Foxconn factories. These are being swept under the carpet because instead of a dry journalistic presentation Daisey turns it into a story with emotional power. That's what theatre does.

      Cathy the translator gets it right when she says that Daisey is a writer so it is OK that he does that. The argument made by the "Marketplace" reporter -- sheesh, the "MARKETPLACE" reporter, of all people -- that "his play is helping form the opinions of many Americans" is exactly the point: yes, his play IS forming the opinions, countering the corporate advertisements that allows people like Ira Glass to smugly buy Apple products to prove his coolness.

      I AM a tribalist, but my tribe is the tribe of people who object to the abuses that are endemic to the global economy, abuses that Americans ignore because those truths make them feel uncomfortable. And I find this attack on Mike Daisey, whose work was making people aware of these abuses, all too typical.

      Should Daisey have said no to TAL? Yes, I think he should have, and he should have told them when they started to "fact check." But Ira Glass' insufferable "outing" of the whole thing, like a radio confessional complete with hushed voices and expressed "disappointment," was ridiculous, overblown, exaggerated the importance of the issues being "exposed," and allows Apple buyers to bury their heads in the sand once again and get in line for the latest iPad release. Do you think it is a coincidence that this show happened just as the new iPads were being released?

    3. Why are you sarcastically quoting "fact check?" TAL isn't strictly a news program, but they check facts (and they don't do it ironically or in a hipster fashion), and they found that Daisey was misrepresenting them. All I keep hearing here is that Daisey's ends are justifying his means.

      Why are you seeing a conspiracy in the fact that this stuff is coming out around the release of the Apple (and by the way, all of the stuff I've read emphasizes that Times report about the continuing abuses in Apple/Foxconn factories) and not in the fact that Daisey's adding this prologue (which is not attached to the current transcript of his performance from his website, dated 2/21/2012) during the week when his fabrications are coming to light (also Ira Glass as a tool of Apple's Illuminati-esque control of American media?)?

      Here is the difference to me. Daisey's transcript of his show, which I am working off of, draws no distinction between Daisey-as-performer and Daisey-as-character in the way that something like Hamlet does, or even in the way of an Eric Bogosian or Anna Deveare Smith show. It might be in the performance, but the clips of Daisey performing his show and then defending himself sound of a piece to me, barring the obvious context; he doesn't put on a voice or an accent as I imagine Bogosian would when transitioning from one character to another. Daisey's monologue, as one would expect, is I, I, I, since he's talking about himself and what he did, and is structured so that you believe that these things happened to him; not just happened, but happened to him. I appreciate that you would apply the same context to Daisey's piece and Hamlet, or Bogosian, but can you appreciate that it seems deliberately structured, even beyond the simplicity of his presentation as documented in these articles, to create a slightly different context? Can you not see how someone would see a man sitting at a table with nothing but his outline in front of him, directly addressing them, telling them "this happened to me," hearing a story about the world we live in now, today, and at least acknowledge that they would interpret it at face value? He's not creating any sort of Brechtian alienation here that would cause the audience to question it (barring this new prologue). Ira Glass is not a rube, and remember, he was so affected by the story and the message that he was moved to give it a wider platform on his own show.

      The translator might have a governmentally-influenced reason to lie; Daisey certainly has a professional one. But there are still the little things from the monologue; the guards with guns (which I notice you haven't addressed, and is still in the piece; Chinese security guards aren't allowed to carry weapons, so why is that an important detail for Daisey to include?), the taxi driver taking them on an unfinished exit ramp, the fact that the workers are organizing at a Starbucks (a detail pointed out as ludicrous, equated to the United Auto Workers organizing at a Chinese teahouse even beyond it being prohibitively expensive for these workers). There's the fact that Daisey is on the record in an interview about his show about fabricators, "Truth," as having made up a monologue because it resonated with audiences? (Which was okay anyway, because it probably made them care about something.)

      To me it looks like another fabricator, with so much in common with other fabricators, who embellished facts to make a good story and then, when confronted with the embellishments, hid behind his artistry. He doesn't have to adhere to the same standards? I believe otherwise.

      Would you have less of a vociferous reaction to noted corporate shill and conspiracy tool Ira Glass if you hadn't been so affected and inspired by "How Theatre Failed America?" Or is what's really going on your reaction to Mike Daisey betraying Scott Walters?

  4. I am halfway through your comments, boys, and it's one a.m.- could you send me the cliff notes so I can write a witty retort tomorrow?

  5. Jake thinks unless you use a funny voice or accent, you shouldn't use "I" in the theatre without a disclaimer or another actor present. I think that everything in the theatre is a lie, and Ira Glass is a insufferable moron. Both of us were infuriated over the TAL piece for opposite reasons. Jake thinks I'm wrong because everybody else disagrees with me; I think I'm right for exactly the same reason. How's that? ;-P

    1. Alternately, I think Daisey, intentionally or un-, created a piece of theatre that can actually be reasonably interpreted/read in a more factual manner than even monologists of a similar stripe, and that the nature of his piece in regards to how he advocates for specific action places on him a higher burden of fidelity to truth. I don't know that I can say Ira Glass is acting consistently and I think that's beside the point for me, which is Daisey. I think fidelity to truth for anyone is important, but especially for artists because their powers of persuasion are more highly tuned than other people, and I think that it is damaging to an artist's message when they take shortcuts, just as it is for a journalist or for a politician.