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Mike Daisey, Storyteller

Did the monologist do more harm than good?
March 21, 2012

One of the unlikely themes of this blog about hardware has been storytelling. When Steve Jobs died, I eulogized him as a storyteller, and as a person who transformed the ways others told their stories. Now, storytelling is at the heart of a controversy related to Jobs’s company, Apple.

You might already be familiar with l’affaire Daisey, but in case you aren’t, here’s a super quick run-down. Mike Daisey is a thespian who recently put on a one-man show decrying Apple’s manufacturing practices (or more to the point, its reliance on Foxconn, with its dicey labor record). Daisey’s message resonated with audiences; when This American Life’s Ira Glass saw Daisey’s show, he invited Daisey to adapt it for his radio program. The TAL podcast, “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory,” became the site’s most downloaded in its history.

But you can’t download it today. The reason for that is that This American Life, prompted by some digging by a Marketplace reporter, discovered that Daisey’s monologue actually contained numerous fabrications–including some of the monologue’s most dramatic moments. And so the radio program took the unprecedented step of retracting the original story, and devoted an entire episode to explaining the retraction and the circumstances that led up to it. A transcript of that episode is here.

I consider myself to be something of a Mike Daisey early adopter. I had seem him perform other work in New York before the debut of The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, and I was among the first to see the show in New York when it did come to the Public Theater. I brought along my parents, and we all exited the theater quite moved by the experience. It was with some hand-wringing and soul-searching that we stepped into the sun and, inevitably, fished out our iPhones from our pockets for a sense of what to do next.

It is categorically true that I will be more moved when someone tells me, “I saw a man with a mangled hand,” than I will be when someone tells me, “I heard from someone else about this guy who had a mangled hand.” Firsthand repots are more affecting than second- and thirdhand ones. It’s true, too, in many cases, that I will be more moved by a story that is portrayed to me as true than a story that is portrayed to me as a fiction–provided the stories are told with equal art.

It’s these truths that led Mike Daisey to create his falsehood. Any journalist or non-fiction writer has thought to himself at some point, “Oh, but it would’ve been a better story if only it’d happened that way.” We make our choices: either we tell the truth, and call it journalism; or we tell the story we wish had happened, and call it fiction.

Daisey trades in monologues, a subset of the dramatic form with a curious history. Monologues often take the form of memoir, a genre with some wiggle room (though not much, following the James Frey debacle) when it comes to embellishment; too, they’re often the realm of humorists, who also are given some leeway with facts. Daisey, with The Agony and the Ecstasy, included elements of memoir and humor in his piece, but his aim was always higher. He was taking on the labor practices of a major corporation–an endeavor more typical of journalism. And from the very beginning of that project–not from the moment Ira Glass got coffee with Daisey, but from the very beginning–Daisey ought to have known that members of his audience would be, by the very nature of the project’s ambition, be taking what Daisey said to be the truth, and that when he made the claim to have seen something with his own eyes, it meant that he had seen them with his own eyes.

For me, the most galling parts of Daisey’s monologue–it can be downloaded here–are a pair of passages that seem to take implicit digs at journalists for failing to do their job in China. “That’s not really how we usually do things in China…ah…that’s really a bad idea—” are words he puts in the mouth of some journalists in Hong Kong who supposedly pooh-poohed his idea of showing up unannounced at a Foxconn factory. Later in the piece, he decries tech journalists who “would let themselves be flown all the way to Shenzhen in the company of PR reps for Foxconn.” I walked out of Daisey’s monologue buying into a narrative that he had somehow succeeded where journalists had failed (I saw the monologue before the great Times series on the “iEconomy”); that an actor had, through his mixture of sheer brazenness and cluelessness, turned out to be a better investigative reporter than the pros. In reality, some scenes conjured in Daisey’s monologue appear to have been based on work of the journalists who have been scrutinizing China and Apple for years. (It’s worth noting, too, that Apple itself routinely has discovered, and published, violations of its own labor regulations.)

What should Daisey have done? It may come down to, as Glass says in Saturday’s program, a question of labeling. If what he was serving up each night at the public was a mixture of first-hand reportage, other people’s reportage, and confabulation, it was incumbent upon him to let us know this. We live in an era suffused with “truthiness” as it is; and several successful books have walked the line between fact and fiction artfully. The key was that they had our informed consent before they took us on their genre-bending, truthy tours.

What makes Daisey’s missteps so frustrating, and so damaging, is the fact that most of the information about Apple and Foxconn–the real journalistic meat of the piece–is, in fact, true. “In fact-checking, our main concern was whether the things Mike says about Apple and about its supplier Foxconn. which makes this stuff, were true,” says Glass in Saturday’s program. “That stuff is true. It’s been corroborated by independent investigations by other journalists, studies by advocacy groups, and much of it has been corroborated by Apple itself in its own audit reports.”

Daisey’s monologue was designed to stir emotions in those who might not scrutinize the business section of a newspaper, those who might have overlooked a New York Times investigation, but who tune in to hear their weekly dose of Ira and company without fail. It was supposed to be journalism on the scale of entertainment. Now it’s become a scandal on the scale of entertainment. The worrisome thing, and what could make Daisey’s work ultimately more harmful than beneficial to its cause, is that some people may now be left with the mistaken impression that all of Daisey’s claims were false. Such, alas, is the fallout when truth is mixed with falsehood, but presented only as truth.

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