Sunday, March 18, 2012

A Daisey Chain of Lies

On Friday, Twitter exploded with the news that This American Life was retracting the Mike Daisey episode because Daisey had "fabricated" parts of his monologue.  Despite the quick rush to judgment, the "I knew that story couldn't be true" naysayers, and angry Ira Glass fans, my initial thought was disappointment and sadness.  My fear was that an important topic would be more easily swept under the rug because it's most vocal advocate lost some credibility (Steve Jobs is/was still an enormous dickhead no matter what Mike Daisey did or said.  Let's not forget that important takeaway). 

This "scandal" has of course launched a thousand ships of opinions on truth, theater, journalism, documentary, authorship, dramatic license and lying.  So here is opinion 1001.  I think it is worth discussing because the issues of Apple supply lines, how we use foreign labor, and labor practices in China remain a valid and important topic of discussion even if Daisey overreached and acted inappropriately in how he presented his work.  And I think it is good opportunity to discuss truth and art.


I had not listened to the Daisey episode of This American Life.  I had only seen the show at The Public Theater but I knew Daisey had been out there sharing his monologue and speaking out on the labor abuses he "witnessed" in China.  My view of the monologue was that it was mostly true with probably some advocacy elements embellished.  I expected the embellishments related to characters (maybe composites), the character of the translator (which seemed hyperbolic but entertaining), dialogue made up for dramatic effect, but I imagined the overall facts offered were accurate.  I assumed Daisey went to Hong Kong and China.  I assume he went to factories, met with workers and the labor abuses and the facts about unfair labor practices and trade unions were real even if they did not unfold in front of Daisey exactly as he described them. I imagined the work was based on his research of the topic and for me I was galvanized by a discussion of labor issues in the modern market and how a supply chain can be connected from corporation to consumer. 

After listening to the Retraction, most of those central facts in the monologue remain true.  But Daisey, in the context of the This American Life presentation, actively lied about specific facts he was asked about and it appears he presented the work as journalism to This American Life.

From listening to the Retraction episode it would appear he lied about: 1) the factories having armed guards, 2) meeting anyone who had been injured by the n-hexane chemical, 3) meeting a lot of secret union workers, 4) meeting workers who confirmed they were underage, 5) the total number of workers he spoke to, 6) having access to factory dorm-rooms, and 7) cameras in dorm-rooms.

Daisey actively avoided telling people that this was not all true.  When questioned about it, he lied.  And in an attempt to gain a larger audience he damaged the tool he was using to reach that audience. 

The intersection of journalism and theater is a odd one.  I have not seen a lot of "journalistic" theater.  Certainly the rules for journalism are very specific.  When Daisey took the monologue to the radio and promoted it as fact This American Life had a duty to vet and review the accuracy of the "reporting" they were relying on and it would appear from This American Life's reporting in Retraction Daisey actively lied in their attempts to vet. Both sides seemed too eager to put out a story without confirming its "truth."


One thing I think needs to be clearer is the difference between a journalistic "truth" and the "truth."  Can we all agree we never know the truth about anything really?  Journalists strive for the truth but if your reporting is dependent on people then right there you are opening up room for personal perception.  I believe we have only our perception of things and that will be as close to a personal truth as we can get.   It may not be the "actual" truth.

Even in Retraction, the reporters for This American Life have to admit that they cannot just take Cathy the translator's memories as fact all of the time as her memory of events two years ago are hazy.  But journalism needs to draw a line somewhere.  By having rules and structure, reporting can carve out the semblance of journalistic truth which we rely on for forming opinions, taking political action, and educating ourselves on events a world away.

But real truth is a lot harder to really pin down.  I think that is why storytelling is such a lovely medium to work in.  Good storytelling should "feel" true.

My brother shortly after birth. I'm clearly helping.
I realize even in telling stories about my own life I struggle with what is really true and what is memory or belief.  It is easy to unthinkingly embellish the truth in hindsight as to you tell someone about it.  Might you be swayed by the photograph of that day and have the photo supplant your actual memory of events.  As a lawyer we prepare witnesses and they need to testify to what they know.  But think long and hard about what you KNOW to be true versus what you guess, surmise, imagine, extrapolate, or think is true. For example, I don't actually KNOW what my brother's true birthday is.  I was there.  I was 3.  But I have no memory of the date.  I have vague memories of visiting my mother in the hospital...and the rest of my "memories" are likely built from photos I have seen of that day.  I'd have to rely on someone else's reporting to "know" when it is.

I was bothered when people started suggesting Daisey's monologue should be as truthful as a documentary, as if documentary was pure truth.  The next time you watch a documentary film remember that the filmmaker has an agenda.  Editing, context, juxtaposition, music, color tones, camera angle all can change your emotional reaction to the work.  One reaction shot of an interviewee might make them sympathetic or not sympathetic.  Did they make that scowling face?  Maybe.  Was it in exact reaction to the shot immediately before it? Maybe or maybe not.  You are being manipulated by the filmmaker.  Is it still a reflection of some shade of truth?  Probably and hopefully most of the time.  But I often think it has more of a relationship to a memory or a personal truth, than factual truth.  Where a filmmaker intentionally stages scenes, has someone re-say what they said because the camera was not rolling, think about how that fits with your idea of the truth (Check out the film Broadcast News for the broadcast media version of these questions and also because it is a great film overall). I have included a photograph I took for an example.  With no context, it could be interpreted a number of different ways. 

Fact? Fiction? Truth? Documentary? Art?


That all being said, how do Daisey's actions fit into this.  I think the monologue standing on its own could have weathered some level of scrutiny as a piece of political theater and drama.  But the additional efforts Daisey took did to pass himself off as an expert and advocate in this area he kept masking the drama with an air of journalism.  In fact, he benefited from that confusion because it gave him a larger platform to discuss the monologue and the issues dressed up as cold facts.

When I walked out of The Public Theater I believed I had watched a show about Daisey's first hand account of his experiences in China and Hong Kong, mixed with research he did about Steve Jobs, Apple and China, offered up as a dramatic monologue.  But I likely believed more of it as fact than I should have.

When Daniel Kitson presented The Interminable Suicide of Gregory Church last year he explained at the outset that the piece was largely a work of fiction even though he uses his own identity as a character in the story.  There was no way you could actually be led astray by this disclosure (@zinoman has reported on Kitson's relationship with truth and fiction in his works of stand-up comedy and storytelling).  I think the audience then is properly primed for the story.  What it allowed the artist to do was build a fiction from something that was partly true.  In the end, it all felt incredibly real even though it was fiction.

Daisey had the chance to do the same thing (I had never seen a Daisey piece before TAATEOSJ so I don't know how this would have fit in with his past practices).  Would an admitted fictional gloss over factual issues make the monologue less compelling as a piece of theater?  I don't think it would have.  I thought Blood and Gifts was fantastic even though it was a fictional telling of the events in Pakistan and Afghanistan.  I am fascinated by the real story behind CQ/CX even though I saw a thinly-veiled fictional telling of it.  The Normal Heart is all about events that happened but dramatized for the theater and is devastating.  If this was a discussion about pure theater, than a fictionalized account of a Hawaiian shirt wearing Daisey wandering around in China looking for answers about how an iPad is made would still be entertaining.  Could that monologue have led to actual news outlets investigating the issues at Apple and more largely at electronics manufacturers in China?  I don't see why not. 

But since he chose a different path, I think Daisey has hurt the monologue.  The scene that keeps playing through in my mind is from the film All the President's Men.  When the journalists in the film make a mistake and report that Hugh Sloan testified to something in the grand jury and he expressly denies this and the White House can directly deny it as well there is a moment where their entire series of reporting could fall apart because their credibility appears shot (I know I am referencing the film, based on the book, based on the reporting of actual events that none of us actually witnessed).  Daisey's credibility even as a theater artist is at risk here.  Although he argues in Retraction that the context of theater is enough to protect what he does, I think he's limited his own purview of what he did with this particular monologue.  It did not live hermetically sealed in a theater labeled Hall of Fiction.  Even if it had, do all theater audiences know what they are consuming is fact mixed with fiction for dramatic effect?  Sometimes.  Sometimes not.  It's a bold assumption for Daisey to make that everyone automatically "gets" what he is about when they sit down in a theater seat. Also when he specifically asks audiences to take action based on what they saw he's suggesting the material is sufficient enough to inform you to take such action.  I think that further blurred the lines between fact and fiction.

For me, there was one fact that Cathy claims he lied about that really rubs me the wrong way (probably because I believed it was a fact).  It was the bit about the highway suddenly dropping off.  I know, why would I fixate on such a thing?  It suggested to me a China that is growing so rapidly it cannot even keep up with itself. It was certainly a compelling visual but it also fed into the concept that China as a country does not care about its citizens or their safety.  If there were facts that were true that could have supported that premise why not use those facts?  There was no reason to make up a fact when other true things could have supported your argument.  I don't really care if he was in a car where this happened, or someone else was in a car where this happened, or he merely saw an unfinished highway off in the distance and filed it under--ooo cool visual let's use that.  But if it never existed at all then I am bothered by his choice to include it.  But he claims it is true, Kathy just wasn't there to witness it.

Trust is a precious commodity.  I fear Daisey might have squandered his theater audience's trust in him.

What was your reaction to the Retraction?

1 comment:

  1. This falls into what I like to call the Stewart Trap. Presses interviewees like a journalist and then when they fire back, he jumps to the "I'm a comedian/satirist" crouch. You can't have it both ways...

    Daisey does the same thing here, but the manner in which he's so cavalier about the deception is what irritates me most. Positioning yourself as someone creating a piece of journalistic theatre (for the purposes of T.A.L.)and then when you get called out on the inconsistencies, replying with the "c'mon guys, this is theatre! I'm a theatre *artist*" is frankly quite arrogant and cowardly.

    Great post.