Based On a True Story: Mike Daisey

I agree 99% with the pop­u­lar con­sen­sus regard­ing Mike Daisey: he lied. But the tiny 1% nobody seems to be talk­ing about is both­er­ing the hell out of me: if his now infa­mous mono­logue The Agony and Ecsta­sy of Steve Jobs is a work of fic­tion, why can’t we talk about it as a work of fic­tion?

Until recent­ly, Daisey was forg­ing a rep­u­ta­tion as a pop­u­lar monolo­gist in the tra­di­tion of the late Spald­ing Gray: fus­ing the mechan­ics of auto­bi­og­ra­phy, jour­nal­ism, and the­ater to tell sto­ries with the pow­er to move indi­vid­u­als and sway pop­u­lar opin­ion. That is, he was, before his enor­mous­ly pop­u­lar show The Agony and Ecsta­sy of Steve Jobs was dra­mat­i­cal­ly revealed to be large­ly com­prised of half-truths and fab­ri­ca­tions. Daisey ini­tial­ly required the­aters to adver­tise it as “a work of non-fic­tion”. When he began to feel the heat, he ini­tial­ly claimed he had mere­ly tak­en dra­mat­ic license, but final­ly issued an actu­al apol­o­gy.

The imbroglio has been Tweet­ed, blogged, pod­cast­ed, and ana­lyzed to death over the past two weeks, but here are the key inci­dents: Daisey’s orig­i­nal stage mono­logue (with a free tran­script on his web­site), an episode of the ven­er­a­ble radio pro­gram This Amer­i­can Life fea­tur­ing a ver­sion of it, fol­lowed by their aston­ish­ing­ly grip­ping retrac­tion. My favorite analy­ses of the ensu­ing fall­out came from Dar­ing Fire­ball (Sep­a­rat­ing the Baby From the Bath Water) and Derek Powazek (How to Spot a Liar).

The gen­er­al con­sen­sus among the cognoscen­ti, digerati and NPR set alike, is that Daisey made a fatal error in pre­sent­ing his piece as jour­nal­is­tic report. I agree. But most of these ana­lysts go on to express hor­ror and out­rage that Daisey’s show goes on. The mono­logue inspired a pop­u­lar peti­tion on (now there’s a peti­tion against the peti­tion). The­aters are not can­cel­ing Daisey’s future shows and are refus­ing refunds for past show­ings. Gru­ber, in an episode of his pod­cast The Talk Show, attrib­ut­es this to the the­ater busi­ness run­ning on a tight mar­gin, as if it were sim­ply a mat­ter of eco­nom­ics. Inter­est­ing­ly, The Under­state­ment reports that many the­aters are also dar­ing to defend the “essen­tial truth” of Daisey’s work.

Mike DaiseyMike Daisey went to great lengths to pre­serve the fic­tion that “The Agony and Ecsta­cy of Steve Jobs” was non­fic­tion (pho­to cred­it:

Which brings me to the tiny sliv­er of this whole sto­ry that I believe needs to be addressed: there is a mas­sive dis­con­nect between jour­nal­ists and, for lack of a sin­gle term, artists/writers/performers/monologists/etc. So Mike Daisey large­ly lied about what he saw in Chi­na; so what? Should his admit­ted­ly pow­er­ful mono­logue be wiped from the record? Can we not talk about it as a work of lit­er­a­ture? Here is the point where, per­haps, the Eng­lish majors of the world ought to take over from the jour­nal­ists.

Ira Glass states in the This Amer­i­can Life retrac­tion that Daisey’s use of the lit­er­ary device of speak­ing in the first per­son trig­gered his brain to reg­is­ter it as truth. Oth­er out­raged jour­nal­ists seem to not want to even enter­tain the idea that Daisey’s work might be an effec­tive work of fic­tion on its own terms. Daisey was free to present his first-per­son account as truth (or as Stephen Col­bert might term it, “truthy”) with­in the con­text of his play itself, but he erred by also doing so on This Amer­i­can Life, Real Time With Bill Maher, CBS News, and oth­er news venues. He deceived accred­it­ed jour­nal­ists with hard-earned rep­u­ta­tions in order to pre­serve the fic­tion that his piece was non­fic­tion.

But what if he hadn’t? What if he had, from the begin­ning, pitched The Agony and Ecsta­sy of Steve Jobs as what it actu­al­ly is: a fic­tion­al­ized dra­mat­ic account, told in the first per­son but, to use a famil­iar phrase, based on a true sto­ry. Most of what Daisey claims he per­son­al­ly wit­nessed are actu­al ongo­ing events at Fox­conn and oth­er fac­to­ries in Chi­na. Work­ers’ con­di­tions are harsh and unjust, not only to west­ern sen­si­bil­i­ties, but also in vio­la­tion of Chi­nese reg­u­la­tions. Many com­menters have mused on how Apple Inc. may have been harmed by Daisey, both finan­cial­ly and in terms of rep­u­ta­tion. It most like­ly has to some mea­sur­able degree, but no mat­ter how much I may per­son­al­ly use and like many of their prod­ucts, I don’t believe Apple is any more pos­sessed of sen­si­tive feel­ings than any oth­er multi­na­tion­al cor­po­ra­tion. Apple is no more deserv­ing of pro­tec­tion from a work of fic­tion than — to fab­ri­cate a hypo­thet­i­cal exam­ple — Exxon might be if a writer were to pub­lish a nov­el telling the sto­ry of an envi­ron­men­tal activist vis­it­ing the 1989 Valdez spill.

The cur­rent refusal to con­sid­er that Daisey’s dis­cred­it­ed work might still have mer­it as a piece of lit­er­a­ture smacks to me of two things:

  1. Exces­sive apolo­gia to Apple. Apple is just­ly beloved for design­ing great prod­ucts and seems to be mak­ing a great effort to improve its envi­ron­men­tal impact and sup­pli­er respon­si­bil­i­ty. But no one needs to wor­ry about their feel­ings being hurt.
  2. A gen­er­al dis­trust and fear of fic­tion and lit­er­a­ture. On a grand scale, you often see this when video games are blamed for school vio­lence, rock lyrics for drug use, or com­ic books for juve­nile delin­quen­cy. When a prob­lem is too big to deal with, often the eas­i­est thing to do is ban or burn a book. Now, of course those are extreme cas­es, and all that’s hap­pen­ing here is a few jour­nal­ists dis­cred­it­ing one man’s dra­mat­ic mono­logue. Per­haps jour­nal­ists spend too much of their careers deal­ing with ver­i­fi­able facts, and are ill-equipped to deal with the some­times messy busi­ness of ana­lyz­ing lit­er­a­ture.

Daisey is not a jour­nal­ist, and his sit­u­a­tion right now is not the same as that of Jayson Blair, who was right­ly run out of town for his numer­ous fab­ri­ca­tions pub­lished by the New York Times up until being dis­cov­ered as a fraud in 2003. He’s more akin to James Frey, whose sup­posed mem­oir A Mil­lion Lit­tle Pieces was revealed in 2006 to have been bet­ter clas­si­fied as a nov­el. Had it not been mar­ket­ed as his true life’s sto­ry, it prob­a­bly would have been lost in the fray of book­stores’ crowd­ed fic­tion aisles. Daisey’s medi­um is the the­ater, worlds away from the media jour­nal­ists work in. No the­ater­go­er or nov­el read­er expects absolute ver­i­fi­able truth from lit­er­a­ture. The tools of lit­er­a­ture have the pow­er to enter­tain, instill a sense of cathar­sis in the audi­ence, to illu­mi­nate, and per­haps even to move peo­ple to action. All of these goals seem to have moti­vat­ed Daisey to do what he did.

It’s now near-impos­si­ble to appraise the mer­it of Daisey’s work on its own terms. Inter­viewed by Ira Glass in the This Amer­i­can Life episode Retrac­tion, he stat­ed that The Agony and Ecsta­sy of Steve Jobs is the “best thing I’ve done.” Clear­ly, he knew he had real­ly hit on some­thing that touched a nerve in his audi­ences, and it brought him a great deal of acclaim that lat­er cur­dled into noto­ri­ety. He wrong­ly felt that the notion his work was fac­tu­al­ly true was essen­tial to its con­tin­u­ing pop­u­lar­i­ty, which pro­vid­ed him many ben­e­fits: larg­er audi­ences, fame, and like­ly a greater income than the vast major­i­ty of strug­gling the­ater artists are ever like­ly to glean from their work. I think it’s clear now that had he pre­sent­ed his work as fic­tion, it would have reached far few­er peo­ple, but still have had its unde­ni­able impact on those that did expe­ri­ence it. The shame is that now we’ll nev­er know.

The sil­ver lin­ing is he con­tributed to an ever increas­ing spot­light on the com­plex issue of China’s labor prac­tices, and a grow­ing aware­ness that the con­sumer elec­tron­ics indus­try could not exist as we know it today with­out it.

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