This American Lies: An NPR Fan’s Reaction to the Mike Daisey Controversy

By , March 30, 2012 12:43 am

This post was originally featured on In Our Words, and is reposted with permission.

I love This American Life (TAL). I love it as an NPR fan, I love it as a Chicagoan, I love it as a storyteller and strong believer in the power of the spoken word. That’s my bias, and I don’t apologize for it. But it means I’ve been following the TAL retraction of their Mike Daisey piece with particular attentiveness. Briefly, TAL did a show consisting of an excerpt of Mike Daisey’s one-man show, “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.” In it, Daisey discussed his trip to China, interviews with workers, and how utterly horrible the conditions were for Chinese workers. It was an extremely emotional and blunt piece about the unseen price of American electronics.

Oh, and a lot of it wasn’t true.

Investigation by other NPR reporters uncovered that much of Daisey’s story was either lifted from news reports and interviews not conducted by him, or entirely fabricated from whole cloth. TAL’s retraction of the original piece made news on sites ranging from Entertainment Weeklyto The Washington Post. More personally, my roommate and I had bought tickets to a special performance of Daisey’s piece at The Chicago Theatre next month, a performance which was canceled following TAL’s retraction. TAL actually devoted a full hour episode to their retraction, including the account of Daisey’s interpreter, Daisey’s story now that the truth has come out, and a discussion of what actually seems to be happening at Apple’s factories in China. (And, even if Daisey wasn’t wholly truthful, he was right that the working conditions are – by American standards – pretty shitty.)

I want to give TAL a huge amount of credit for their retraction, and the way they handled it. They didn’t beat around the bush and they didn’t offer justifications. They apologized, showed where they went wrong, and explained how they’ll be doing better in the future, all in an extremely open and forthright fashion. It made me proud to be a donor to TAL’s parent station, WBEZ, and raised my respect for the work that they do. But I don’t want to use this post simply to sing NPR’s praises, or highlight how awesome TAL is. I want to use it to discuss “theatre” and “truth,” two things Mike Daisey brought up quite a bit in his followup interview as part of TAL’s retraction of his original piece.

The transcript of TAL’s retraction episode is up online (pdf warning). Here’s an excerpt:

Rob Schmitz: Does it matter if the things you’ve said in this play are untrue?

 Mike Daisey: Yeah I think the truth always matters, truth is tremendously important. I don’t live in a subjective universe where everything is up for grabs. I really do believe that stories should be subordinate to the truth.
Rob Schmitz: Then in parts of this why didn’t you tell the truth?
Mike Daisey: Everything that’s in this monologue is built out of the trip I took and time I spent on the ground. So I don’t know that I would accept that interpretation. I don’t know that I would agree with that. (Emphasis added)

And later,

Mike Daisey: Yes [those things happened]. And I stand by it [the larger piece] 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. And I regret, deeply, that it was put into this context on your show.

 Ira Glass: Are you going to change the way that you label this in the theater, so that the audience in the theater knows that this isn’t strictly speaking a work of truth but in fact what they’re seeing really is a work of fiction that has some true elements in it.

Mike Daisey: Well, I don’t know that I would say in a theatrical context that it [the show] isn’t true. I believe that when I perform it in a theatrical context in the theater that when people hear the story in those terms that we have different languages for what the truth means. (Emphasis added)

I’ve thought a lot about balancing truth and entertainment in theatre. There have been moments when I’ve said, “OK, this slight modification will make what I’m saying more relatable.” There have also been times when I’ve said, “This sequence of events is a bit confusing, but it’s important here for me to share what actually happened.” I don’t know what that line is, when something crosses from truth into fiction. I try to offer lots of time for discussion around my shows, and be easily accessible after, so that people can ask questions and continue the conversation. But I also feel I have a responsibility to – when presenting first person “this happened to me” accounts – tell what actually happened!

There can be a difference between “emotional truth” and “literal truth.” Otherwise we wouldn’t have similes and metaphors. But that wasn’t what Daisey was discussing. He was dealing in facts and figures, in individuals who he (supposedly) met with, ate with, talked with. Daisey also wasn’t simply telling his own story, he was putting words into the mouths of others. That seems to cross a pretty explicit line, and I don’t think he should get a pass for draping the piece as “theatre.” I also don’t like the way Daisey conducts himself on his blog. He is absolutely right, in that his fuckups shouldn’t blind people to the legitimate problems in Chinese factories. He’s also right that what he did was not journalism, and should be held to a different standard. But if that’s his only regret, I feel sorry for him. Sorry for not seeing the difference between telling your own story and telling someone else’s story, and the latter has much higher responsibilities than the former. Sorry for not understanding the disconnect between his praise of the truth and failure to provide it. Sorry that he has, by saying there is such a thing as “theatrical truth,” given himself a pass on living up to any sort of truth at all.

From Derek Powazek:

There’s a reason that journalists are trained not to do this, and it’s not just highfalutin professional ethics. It’s far more practical: If you lie to get the story, it throws the entire story into doubt. Tell the audience you’re a liar and they stop believing you. Or, at least, they should.

3 Responses to “This American Lies: An NPR Fan’s Reaction to the Mike Daisey Controversy”

  1. Nate says:

    That last episode of This American Life was one of my favorites ever. So crazy to see Ira and his staff so raw and exposed, and it takes a great artist/journalist to shine through in the midst of mistakes.

    Hearing Daisey speak in the “Retraction” episode and use theatre or art as his excuse to lie to everyone makes me sick and I wanted his entire career to crumble for it. He said to his interpreter “I am going to lie to lots of people” (speaking of posing as a businessman to get access to factories etc.). Little does he know that he himself is one of the people he’s lying to, and he’s losing touch with what’s true :(.

  2. Jocelyne says:

    I felt pretty much the same way, and listening to the retraction episode was so uncomfortable and outraging in a lot of ways. But I really just want to thank you (and the previous commenter!) for using “interpreter” instead of “translator” like TAL themselves and everyone talking about this. As a translator (and occasional interpreter), the conflation of the two drives me nuts. And here ends my linguistic tangent.

  3. Andrea says:

    I wondered how old Daisey is, but I don’t really want to suggest that age could have a thing to do with it. It is much more a mentality- had by some regardless of age- that I believe is enforced by some forms of entertainment today. I feel sorry for Daisey too- because he’s really training himself- and others- to cough up a willingness to accept fake truth. One fake truth automatically morphs into two fake truths. They try to grow reality from fake TV somewhere every day- and I don’t just mean “The Bachelor”. While it’s not really an age issue, it’s an issue we’re having to deal with much more today than ever before- like a virus and we’re in mass proportion condition. Population – communication – debate – mass media – Journalism is almost lost to the mass marketing media. Where did Daisey start with this sort of thing? I’ve never been a reader of his blog, but after reading your article here, for some reason I now want to. If I think it’s any good at all, I suppose I’ll make it a part of my regular checks. Didn’t he just make his life much more difficult? Hard to tell, yes?

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