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 Change.org (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: mikedaisey.blogspot.com)

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.