By now you’ve probably heard that This American Life’s most downloaded episode Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory, has been retracted. They did so last night in an episode titled Retraction where host Ira Glass somberly apologized for their fact-checking failure. The reason for the retraction: statements made by Mike Daisey in an adaptation of his monologue The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, which was used in the aforementioned TAL episode, were flat out lies. A few weeks after the episode aired in January, Rob Schmitz a reporter for Marketplace (American Public Media) who reports from China, questioned numerous claims made by Daisey. After talking to Ira Glass and producer Brian Reed, Schmitz tracked down Daisey’s interpreter and began his own investigation.
The results of the investigation didn’t simply show that Daisey stretched the truth, in many cases he just lied. He lied about what he saw in the dormitories, he lied about meeting workers poisoned by n-hexane, he lied about meeting underage workers (a fact he refuses to admit is false), he even lied about personal moments he had with Kathy, his interpreter. This American Life has been very open about the mistakes made on their part, Ira Glass admits that when Mike Daisey wouldn’t give him the contact information for his interpreter “we should have killed it. The story.” To be clear when Ira asked for that information Daisey told two more lies, that her name wasn’t Kathy but Anne, and that the number he had for her didn’t work and that he had no way to contact her.
The Retraction episode features a direct confrontation between Daisey and Glass which features more uncomfortable dead air on a prerecorded radio show than I’ve ever heard. This was Daisey’s opportunity to come clean, to admit to all the falsehoods of his monologue, and apologize. This would have helped with his image and to remind everyone that while he didn’t personally meet all the people he claims to have met, their stories are real. Instead it appears that Mike Daisey has mastered the art of the non-apology apology. He admitted only to the most obvious lies, and apologized only to having ever allowed his show to be used on This American Life.
Obviously Daisey knew the same as Ira Glass, myself, and the rest of the audience. The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, has been Daisy’s most popular show, running for two years. His appearance on TAL opened him up to a wider audience which led to appearances on television and an op-ed article in the New York Times. Whatever show Daisey did after Agony/Estasy was going to receive national attention, he was going to be taken seriously, he was going to become very desirable. When TAL outed him for the lies, it called into question the honesty of any past, present, or future works. Newspapers won’t want articles, national television shows won’t seek his opinion, he’d just be another great storyteller.
This whole revelation is unfortunate on many levels. The first is purely superficial, I wanted to believe that what he said was true, it was an exceptionally powerful show that he expertly told. I told maybe a dozen other people, not only about the Apple factories but also about Mike Daisey and his experience.
The second level is a bit trickier, because while Daisey may have lied about the experiences that he may have had and the people he met, the truth is that n-hexane poisonings, underage workers, and poor living conditions are all true, it just didn’t happen to Daisey. It occurs all the time and as consumers who have the chance to make a difference, it is important to know that this does happen. Does the end (American awareness) justify the means (lying about your personal experiences)? I’ve not read a single article that would argue that awareness in this circumstance is bad. The problem is that once you’ve lied about one thing many will assume that you’ve lied about everything, and it becomes impossible to know when you are telling the truth. The important message he worked so hard to create has forever been tarnished by his fabrications.
The third and most intriguing level has to do with artistic license and journalistic integrity. When is it appropriate to stretch the truth and when are you bound to the rules of journalism? Dramatic license is the concept that Daisey has so desperately clung, here is his response to TAL:
What I do is not journalism. The tools of the theater are not the same as the tools of journalism. For this reason, I regret that I allowed THIS AMERICAN LIFE to air an excerpt from my monologue. THIS AMERICAN LIFE is essentially a journalistic - not a theatrical - enterprise, and as such it operates under a different set of rules and expectations. But this is my only regret.
What concerns me here is that Daisey is using ‘the tools of the theater’ as a shield to protect himself from the harsh reality that people who go to see his shows believe that what he says is true. Ira Glass did, I did, and I’m willing to bet that most everyone that saw the show did, he gives us no reason to believe it’s anything but the truth. Even if I was willing to accept that you can go onstage and tell any story you want without ever clarifying for the audience that some of the events are not wholly true, once you leave the safety of the theater people have no choice but to accept what you say as truth.
So, when Daisey went on MSNBC or Real Time with Bill Mahr, or when he wrote an article for the New York Times, he wasn’t an actor, he was a journalist. One who could not hide behind the tools of the theater or memoir. When he did those things he was just lying his ass off. Which is another question that has been nagging at me. At what point do you become a journalist? Daisey is fond of saying that he is not a journalist, in the original episode of TAL that caused the controversy, even Ira Glass admits that Daisey is not a journalist. Is there a card or license handed out by the ghost of Walter Cronkite to let you know you are one? Is it training? If you go to journalism school does that make you a journalist? Am I a journalist?
From the very beginning of this website I felt that while I have no formal journalism training and while I am not nor have ever been employed as a journalist, this website should have journalistic integrity, even though I feel that I could easily get away without it. I have failed in that effort before and learned from those mistakes, it would be wrong of me to believe that I was above journalistic integrity only when approached about the integrity of my claims. Though Mike Daisey may not have seen himself as a journalist, he was acting as one.
* * *
If this whole situation sounds familiar, it should. It is eerily similar to that of author James Frey. You remember James Frey right? His memoir A Million Little Pieces was found to be largely fabricated. This resulted in a very public shaming by Oprah, who had earlier chosen his book for her Book Club.
Irony of all ironies is that back in 2006 Mike Daisey performed a whole show titled Truth, which talked directly about James Frey and other authors who have been accused of lying. At this point it’s safe to say that Daisey knew better, he knew the risks involved in what he was doing and chose to ignore them. Both Frey’s and Daisey’s story are surprisingly similar. Both were featured on a nationally syndicated show, for both this was an opportunity to send their career up into the stratosphere, both let… something, dollar signs? Cloud their judgment and let fate decide if they would be exposed as frauds. Both were then shamed publicly by beloved media figures. But somewhere their paths differ.
A Million Little Pieces read either as a memoir or a novel is an exceptional literary work. I have met a handful of people who told me that they knew people who didn’t care if it was a work of fiction or fact, it helped them immensely with addiction. Frey apologized to Oprah and the television audience, the book is now printed with a disclaimer, and all of this subsequent books (all of which have been well received) are written as novels, based on true events. In this case the end justifies the means.
By all accounts Mike Daisey is a master storyteller who draws upon the original confessional storyteller Spalding Gray. To which I don’t disagree, the excerpt from the radio was as good a monologue as I’d heard in a long time, very powerful (and Daisey knows it). Just like Frey it’s possible that the end justifies the means, and by bringing the working conditions of Chinese factory workers to light, he is doing an incredible service. It doesn’t matter that he didn’t experience this first hand. As of today March 19, Daisey has been unwilling to admit that his shows should come with a caveat (though the Public Theater insisted upon one). He refuses to apologize for anything beyond getting caught, essentially. People love a great story, but they also love true stories. Mike Daisey’s story is not true, and he’s unwilling to admit that it is not.
Daisey is going to have to seriously reverse course if he’s going to continue to be successful. Judging by the comments on his website dated March 19, he isn’t going to be doing that anytime soon. In those comments he victimizes himself and attempts to paint Ira Glass and TAL as bending the truth with editing techniques. He needs to come completely clean about the lies in the show and stop hiding behind the excuse of art and theater. He will need to find proof for his past shows or admit their fabrications as well. Then maybe he can look back on his notes about James Frey and figure out where to go from there. At the absolute least he will certainly have enough material for his next show. The only question will be if people can believe him.
What’s for certain is that Daisey has done considerable harm to the cause he has been championing. It’s his plan A defense when questions about the honesty of his monologue arise, that is the real tragedy of this whole controversy. Daisey got so wrapped up in a self indulgent desire to connect with the audience on a deeper level and to create a powerful theater piece that he lost focus and resulted to lies. The lies we can handle, it doesn’t really matter if he did those things, unfortunately it’s because of those lies that we are talking about Mike Daisey and not the real issue. He would like to blame that on the media, but he should turn that finger around and point it at himself. He did it all to himself.
What still blows my mind is how he uses art as an excuse to lie not just on stage, but in public situations away from the stage. It makes me believe that Mr. Daisey is truly delusional and self obsessed, to think that not only does he portray a “character” on stage who witnessed terrible things, but he also portrays a “character” in life who claims to have witnessed the same terrible things.
I highly suggest you listen to the Retraction episode of This American Life: you can do so here. And though they have pulled the audio for Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory, ask around and see if anyone has it, it’s worth listening to them both.