Mike Daisey in a scene from "The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs." (AP Photo/The Public Theater, Stan Barouh)
In the crowded firestorm of denunciation that erupted over the falsehoods in his solo performance piece, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, Mike Daisey cried theater. Journalism and the stage “have different languages for what the truth means,” he said on the March 16 “Retraction” episode of This American Life (TAL), which disavowed and apologized for the excerpt from Agony that had run on the program in January. TAL host Ira Glass and Marketplace China correspondent Rob Schmitz grilled Daisey about the holes in his account, in Agony, of his trip to the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen, China, where hundreds of thousands of workers make iPads and iPhones (among other electronics) in grueling conditions. Daisey, who typically holds forth with nary an “um” nor an unorchestrated pause, sputtered and flailed when confronted with the inaccuracies. Excruciating.
After enduring more than a week of exuberant public flogging, on March 25 Daisey issued an eloquent, nearly 1,000-word mea culpa on his blog, apologizing to audiences, theater colleagues, journalists and human rights advocates. “Things came out of my mouth that just weren’t true,” he wrote. “When I said onstage that I had personally experienced things I in fact did not, I failed to honor the contract I’d established with my audiences over many years and many shows. In doing so, I not only violated their trust, I also made worse art.” Perhaps his candid and humble acknowledgment will bring a close to l’affaire Daisey. Certainly the news cycle will soon scurry on to the next scandal.
Still, it’s worth pausing over the point Daisey tried to make on TAL’s “Retraction” and that he stated somewhat more judiciously (if defensively) in a blog post as the scandal broke: the spheres of journalism and theater operate “under a different set of rules and expectations.” Worth pausing not because the distinction excuses his misdeeds—it doesn’t. But because an ever growing (though hardly new) genre of documentary theater is blurring the boundary from one side, and the ever growing (though hardly new) theatricalization of news is eroding it from the other. Fox, for example, beats every playhouse in town at invoking spectators’ willing suspension of disbelief: global warming, the president’s birthplace, the great gas-price conspiracy, etc. Meanwhile, journalism as a concept (never mind as an industry) faces threats far greater than the scrapes a blundering performance artist can inflict. From “citizen journalists” who blithely report their version of the news with no discipline of verification or commitment to transparency to the shameless gotcha tactics of a James O’Keefe, who merrily flouts ethical principles on purpose, professional standards are under siege. In such a climate, what are the differences in the “rules and expectations” of theater and journalism?
Half a century ago, rebels with reporter pads and in rehearsal rooms sought greater truth in their respective fields by demanding greater revelation of the maker behind the work. New Journalism, taking up the narrative tools of novelists, urged writers to stop hiding beneath a false claim of objectivity and use the first-person; the radical experimental theater called for actors to assert their authentic presence and address their current realities rather than disappear into a fictional character in a make-believe world. Both disciplines absorbed these innovations without diluting their defining conventions: New Journalism could still hallow accuracy, thoroughness and fairness; experimental theater couldn’t help occupying a space of blatant artifice where even the (often literally) naked self was revealed as a constructed “self.” Today, a couple of generations into these practices, they are mainstream: with 1.8 million weekly listeners, This American Life is one of the most successful programs on public radio; Mike Daisey simply sits at a table with a glass of water and some pages of notes, talking for two hours, and he plays in major regional theaters all over the country.