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.
But both of them, in this sordid affair, sacrificed their profession’s most sacred principles in overzealous pursuit of values from the other side.
This American Life —which bills itself as proffering “mostly true stories of everyday people, though not always”—typically bends events to a three-act structure with narration that announces, and sometimes hammers, a theme. There’s usually a quirky, even weird, aspect to the plot or a character and often a quest to get to the bottom of a conundrum. Conflict, something at stake, specificity of place, captivating characters with distinctive voices: every episode contains the stuff of good drama. Daisey’s Agony mapped perfectly. It needed shortening, and Daisey couldn’t punctuate with the ubiquitous “fuck” he uses onstage; but otherwise all Glass and his team had to do was to throw in some “balance” toward the end by interviewing Nicholas Kristof, who said the factories were not so bad in the context of Chinese development.
TAL was journalistically lazy. Sure, Daisey’s stage piece was riveting—he’s a master storyteller with great timing and a voice that can expressively whine, warble, whisper and wail. But Agony is not simply about working conditions at Foxconn, which is what the radio adaptation made it into, by cutting out its interwoven strands tracing Daisey’s geeky obsession with Macs and the professional rise-and-fall-and-resurrection of Jobs; it is about the dissociated way we live, loving our gadgets even as we know (or learn of) the human and environmental costs they exact.
The thread TAL used lines up with clichéd, unexamined assumptions about the scary and heartless Chinese system. That’s not to say that high-tech sweatshops shouldn’t be exposed and combatted but that Glass did not question Daisey’s exaggerations because he was not disposed to. Especially given that Daisey had parachuted into China for a couple of weeks without any experience there or any journalism background, why didn’t TAL run the script by an expert? Real balance in the program would have meant confronting Foxconn or Apple officials with Daisey’s specific allegations about chemical poisoning, child labor and armed guards—questions that would have served a fact-checking function, too. Yes, Glass and his producers were misled by Daisey, but as they admit in “Retraction,” their fact-checking process was less than rigorous. If Glass had wanted to do a story about labor at Foxconn, the more TAL-ish move—and the more honest journalism—would have been to follow some workers over time, or maybe their families back home. Story trumped standards, it seems, and Glass strolled right into Daisey’s snafu. (This wasn’t the first time Glass had run into such problems: As Jack Shafer detailed on Slate a few years back, Glass committed a similar, if less egregious, error with Malcolm Gladwell.)
For his part, Daisey steered off-course long before he accepted Glass’s invitation to bring his work into a journalistic frame. If Glass neglected some basics of his trade, Daisey forgot the power of his own. By supposing that audiences needed pumped-up numbers, emblematic high-drama images and the claim of factuality to believe in the urgency of his story, he mistrusted the metaphorical mode of the theater. Plays can certainly convey newsy information but never as a native speaker. The theater’s primary language is different from the linear, rational discourse of journalism. Indeed, the two realms have contrasting epistemic systems: we come away from each with different kinds of knowledge.
I didn’t learn much in that straight sense from Agony—I’d read NGO and news reports about Foxconn before—and never thought that was the show’s main point, anyway. Not having seen the note in the program labeling the show nonfiction (though if I had, it might not have mattered), I also didn’t take it to be unvarnished. Daisey’s honed prose and his fine-tuned performance—the well-placed sudden shouts, the comic slow takes, the repeated, careful small gestures—all pointed to admirable artifice, which at the very least always frames the factual. Nonetheless, Daisey was trying to strike a bargain with the audience that he could not keep, as if he could deliver the veracity of Lawrence Wright’s The Human Scale and My Trip to Al Qaeda—elegantly wrought, staged lectures by a seasoned journalist with a personable presence, but little acting skill and not a sliver of Daisey’s kinesthetic command onstage. Daisey belongs more to the varied tradition of Wally Shawn’s The Fever, Spalding Gray’s Swimming to Cambodia and Holly Hughes’s Preaching to the Perverted, works that twine personal narratives around journeys of political discovery or entanglement.
There’s a longstanding joke about performance artists doing psychotherapy onstage, and it’s true of myriad bad cases. But the best performers—like Daisey—put the audience in the shrink’s chair in a different manner: they prime us to listen for emotional honesty above all. And that is the truth I responded to and admired in his show: Daisey’s own ecstasy and agony, his abiding romance with his gorgeous iStuff and his disgust with the injustice of its production, his—and our—urgent and frustrated desire to reconcile those feelings with action. Like many of his shows I’ve seen, Agony traces an experience of seduction and betrayal. This time, in more ways than one.