Lee Wochner: Writer. Director. Writing instructor. Thinker about things.


Journalism drama

 One story I’ve been following all day is this one: that public radio’s “This American Life” has “retracted” the episode they ran several weeks ago culled from Mike Daisey’s monologue show “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” because it contains fabrications. Here’s This American Life executive producer Ira Glass’s statement on their blog. Here are some excerpts from that statement:

We’ve learned that Mike Daisey’s story about Apple in China – which we broadcast in January – contained significant fabrications. We’re retracting the story because we can’t vouch for its truth. This is not a story we commissioned. It was an excerpt of Mike Daisey’s acclaimed one-man show “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” in which he talks about visiting a factory in China that makes iPhones and other Apple products. …

Daisey lied to me and to This American Life producer Brian Reed during the fact checking we did on the story, before it was broadcast. That doesn’t excuse the fact that we never should’ve put this on the air. In the end, this was our mistake….

During fact checking before the broadcast of Daisey’s story, This American Life staffers asked Daisey for this interpreter’s contact information. Daisey told them her real name was Anna, not Cathy as he says in his monologue, and he said that the cell phone number he had for her didn’t work any more. He said he had no way to reach her.

“At that point, we should’ve killed the story,” says Ira Glass, Executive Producer and Host of This American Life. “But other things Daisey told us about Apple’s operations in China checked out, and we saw no reason to doubt him. We didn’t think that he was lying to us and to audiences about the details of his story. That was a mistake.”….

Mike Daisey’s response, essentially, has been that his show is theatre, not journalism. That response hasn’t satisfied BusinessWeek, among others. I have playwright friends who’ve been emailing me with pretty much the same rationale. Here’s a response (edited together from several emails) from a very talented, literate, thoughtful playwright friend:

 But isn’t Mike Daisey giving a fictional portrayal of real events?  He is a character in his own play. Even if he had never been to China, he’s not making up what goes on over there. He’s just telling it effectively (in my view).

I guess this incident makes me feel particularly vulnerable, because I feel like I would have done the same thing – I would have crafted a compelling story from the facts I was exposed to, so that I could best get my message across. I don’t consider it lying, I consider it good storytelling.

I agree that branding Daisey a liar gives Apple cover to hide behind. But they already claimed to be changing their practices, rather than proclaiming their innocence, so I hope this comes too late for that.

But here’s the interesting question to me – because I agree with you, misrepresenting facts or disregarding them is detrimental to whatever cause you are trying to advance – but if you are just doing what I do as a playwright, which is taking something that I know is true and structuring it and manipulating it so that it has the highest impact, in order to get the result I want, and that makes a big corporation like Apple change, then why is that bad? How does that make Daisey’s emotional manipulation of his audience worse than James Cameron’s or Arthur Miller’s? I guess it gets to the question of, what is truth, really? Isn’t it more than a series of facts?

I would argue that his show is entirely true. It may not be factual, but it’s true.

In Titanic, James Cameron is giving a fictional portrayal of real events.

In The Crucible, Arthur Miller is doing the same.

I once wrote a play about Hieronymus Bosch. Given the dialogue alone, I think it’s clear that I just made it up, and even if it isn’t clear, I didn’t pass it off as being “true” or built upon the facts of my recent trip to 15th century Brabant.

But Mike Daisey’s show has Mike Daisey saying, I went to China and here’s what I saw.

And it isn’t true.

Mike Daisey didn’t say he was giving a fictional portrayal. He said, essentially, that his first-person show was a show about the facts of his trip to China.

And that’s where all the problems come from.

Moreover, as Max Fisher writes on The Atlantic’s website, the problem with this story is now that the story is “Mike Daisey’s lies,” when the story should be — and had been — inhuman work conditions in China. Now the story is directed in the wrong direction, and now all the facts of what all of us had taken as an expose, have been challenged.  Which gives cover to Apple.

I’m glad Mike Daisey took on this issue and spread it. I wish he had stuck to the facts of his encounters.


5 Responses to “Journalism drama”

  1. Werner Trieschmann Says:

    Yeah, as somebody who sat in a newsroom for 15 years and is a playwright, this is a fascinating series of events. My question for journalists is this — why was it that a guy doing a shaped and partially made-up monologue about the Apple factory was the one who got the attention. Was it the platform — This American Life? Or was it the fact that Daisey told the best story? And does this mean that it was the best way to communicate this story?

  2. Lee Wochner Says:

    Why did this get the attention? Because he had a vested self-interest in promoting it. He is a relentless self-promoter (as well as an engaging storyteller).

    Why is he suffering the backlash?

    a) because he lied. (And is now trying to hide behind the veil of “fiction.” And he’s not the first to do that.
    b) because Apple is similarly self-motivated — especially on the release day of the new iPad, and especially when some protesters showed up.

    As a former journalist, I’m sure you’re familiar with the axiom “Never argue with a man who buys ink by the barrel.” Whether or not you hold to that saying, Apple owns that barrel.

  3. Werner Trieschmann Says:

    Oh I do not doubt for a moment that Apple is estatic and will exploit this for all it is worth. I guess I just marvel at how Daisey’s theatrical story triumphed over ever other story when it comes to getting the lion’s share of attention. Sure, he has a self-interest in promoting it. So did all the other journalistic outlets that covered the story — without the lies — before Daisey. I don’t know enough of Daisley’s monologue or enough of how much he embellished to know whether or not the power of the piece would be still as great without the fabrication.

    On another tack, I don’t absolve This American Life for running the piece in the first place. Sounds like they had a good idea that it all might not wash. Also, it doesn’t sound like TAL absolves themselves either.

    Finally, one part of me just says the hell with the minute facts and the hell with journalism that is so obsessed with exact details that the story is drained of any feeling. No, I probably couldn’t win the argument started by that statement but feel it is right anyway.

  4. Greg Machlin Says:

    I’m a playwright, and I’m appalled by your friends’ responses. All the plays I’ve had produced have been clearly marked as plays, and therefore fiction, including a biographical play based on the life of Miles Davis. If I were (for some unknown reason) asked by “This American Life” to turn it into a clearly non-fiction piece, I would delete all the clearly fictional parts (including the ghost of Charlie Parker) and begin the piece with a big giant disclaimer. If they couldn’t air it, so be it.

    If you’re passing something off as non-fiction, that means that *every single thing* is either rock-solid true, or clearly labeled speculation based on the best available evidence and research. If you say, “I went to Factory X,” and you didn’t go there, you’re lying. Bam.

    I say this not only as a fan of Mike Daisey, but someone with a (slight) personal connection to him. Spinning a story is acceptable if it’s only about you and has no consequences (a la his “All Stories Are Fiction.”) But I’d even argue that when he was doing his monologue, he shouldn’t have said, “I went to Factory X” if he didn’t because you’re making a political case against a large, powerful, amoral corporation. It is INCUMBENT upon you not to give that corporation one SHRED of ammunition to undermine your story–because if you take a hit, *every single person* fighting beside you for labor rights can thus be undermined.

  5. Greg Machlin Says:

    To clarify: I have no problem with Spalding Gray, David Sedaris, and Daisey manipulating their own lives for entertainment–but once other people and politics enter the equation, it seems pretty clear-cut that you need to stick as close to the facts as possible. There’s no such thing as a “character” with your name who does things that you don’t do in a piece that could plausibly be true without disclaimers.

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