I’m a longtime fan of Mike Daisey. I’ve written about him on this blog many times; he even quoted a couple of the things I wrote over on his own blog (like my description of 2007’s “Great Men of Genius” cycle as “the theatrical event of the year”). I’ve put his shows in my best-of-the-year lists, and have recommended them to lots of people.
So yeah, I feel extremely betrayed today after his “truthiness” scandal. I listened to the “Retraction” episode of “This American Life” all the way through, even though it was incredibly awkward and painful. It really laid bare how he lied to Ira Glass and the “TAL” team in order to get his story on the air. But while Daisey apologized for letting “TAL” present “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” as journalism, he is not sorry that he embellished the facts in the piece: “I stand by it as a theatrical work. I stand by how it makes people see and care about the situation that’s happening there. I stand by it in the theater.”
I was going to say that Daisey’s excuses reminded me of that old Mark Twain quote, “Never let facts get in the way of a good story,” but then I was unable to find corroboration that Twain actually said that. Since this blog is not a journalistic enterprise, I guess I could probably take the same type of license that Daisey does. Who cares if what I say is 100% factual, as long as the posts are entertaining? It’s been mentioned that David Sedaris, a frequent “TAL” contributor, reportedly fudges the truth in his tales, but to me, the difference is that the stakes are lower. Nobody really cares if Sedaris’ story of taking guitar lessons from a dwarf teacher is the God’s honest truth or not. But Daisey’s monologue had a higher purpose than merely entertaining the audience — he wanted to create change, even passing out a sheet after the show urging people to take follow-up actions, such as emailing Apple to complain about abuses at the Foxconn plant.
Despite successful runs at Berkeley Rep and New York’s Public Theatre, Daisey was pretty much under the radar — theater is hardly, except at the loftiest Broadway levels of Andrew Lloyd Webber and ABBA, a mass art form — until “TAL” picked up his story and ran an edited version in January. I’ve been following Daisey’s blog for years, and all of a sudden, he was everywhere, becoming the go-to spokesman for the cause. When activists delivered a quarter million petitions to Apple stores urging the company to make “an ethical iPhone,” Daisey was quoted in news stories about the event. He became a frequent guest on high profile TV shows, and wrote op-eds for the New York Times web site and the New York Daily News. And while he told Glass that he worried “all the time” that the untruths in his monologue would eventually come to light, stating that “I was kind of sick about it,” he continued to use his blog to confrontationally call out tech journalists whom he felt were not sufficiently skeptical about Apple.
“One of his weaknesses is his sanctimoniousness,” says an anonymous friend of Daisey’s, quoted in the Daily Beast. “Mike has made himself an easy target because he can’t keep his mouth shut. He got really excited about the press. He didn’t think what the consequences would be of writing an op-ed piece in the New York Times. He didn’t think about what it would mean to be quoted constantly about Apple. He just kept going.”
Ira Glass told Daisey that he “thought that the story was literally true seeing it in the theater… I saw your nuclear show, I thought that was completely true. I thought it was true because you were on stage saying ‘this happened to me.’ I took you at your word.” Daisey responded, “I think you can trust my word in the context of the theater.” Of course, the trouble only happened when Daisey took his story out of the context of the relative obscurity of the theater, broadcasting it onto radio, TV and in newspapers. My armchair psychologist’s point of view is that he loved commanding a higher profile, reveling in the ability to suddenly communicate with a million people at once instead of a couple hundred at a time in the theater. The average stage actor or playwright doesn’t get asked to appear on Bill Maher’s show. This was the big time.
On “TAL,” Glass mentioned in passing a Daisey monologue I’d never heard of — “Truth,” dealing with the James Frey and J.T. LeRoy literary scandals. It only had a short off-Broadway run, but it did yield this interview that appeared on a blog back in 2006. Reading it now is revealing, to say the least. Daisey insists that “my shows aren’t designed to have messages,” something he’d obviously changed his mind on prior to working on “Agony.” “I can see parts of myself reflected in [Frey’s and LeRoy creator Laura Albert’s] hungers and failures… I found that the Frey and LeRoy cases make an interesting lens for looking at what our values are in regard to truth, from the personas that some feel they need to inhabit to tell stories, to the famewhoring and literary starmongering that follow, and to the cults of personality that worship experience and testimonial above transformation and synthesis in writing.”
It will be interesting to see what happens to Daisey’s career after this scandal. His blog and Twitter feed have been uncharacteristically silent lately, and he is wrapping up a run of “Agony” at New York’s Public Theatre this weekend. According to the Wall Street Journal, he has “cut questionable sections from the monologue and added a prologue explaining the controversy.” The Public is standing by him, although a one-night-only Chicago performance (where Daisey was to have been introduced by Ira Glass — my guess is that they’re not exactly going to be BFFs from here on out) has been canceled. Considering Daisey’s penchant for mining his own life history for his shows, it wouldn’t surprise me if this incident someday turns up in a monologue. As to whether I’ll go see it… I don’t know. I still respect his talent, but I have no respect for his integrity.
Worst of all, it’s quite likely that he’s done damage to the cause he claims to care about, the abuses of Chinese workers. (A friend of mine posted, tongue-in-cheek, that “the working conditions at all Apple factories in China must be exemplary, so guilt-free iPads for everyone!”) Glass closed the “Retraction” episode by interviewing the New York Times‘ Charles Duhigg, who has reported extensively from Shenzhen. When Glass asked him if he should “feel bad” about the working conditions in Foxconn’s factories, Duhigg replied: “Do you feel comfortable knowing that iPhones and iPads and, and other products could be manufactured in less harsh conditions, but that these harsh conditions are perpetuated because of an economy that you are supporting with your dollars?… If you made different choices, if you demanded different conditions, if you demanded that other people enjoy the same work protections that you yourself enjoy, then, then those conditions would be different overseas.” I hope that message doesn’t get lost because of Daisey’s hubris and poor judgment.