A few weeks ago, This American Life featured its most-downloaded episode in its history, reaching just under a million online listeners. The bulk of the show was devoted to a theatrical monologue about Apple and its Chinese manufacturer Foxconn by Mike Daisey, a former Silicon Valley grunt and author (“alarmingly true”) who’s become the most prominent monologuist since Spalding Gray, or perhaps TAL star David Sedaris. Daisey’s one-man show The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs has been around awhile, but as a theater piece; TAL gave it a huge boost, and coming out around the same time as substantiative New York Times investigative work on Foxconn, it gripped the Internet.
And it contained several fabrications, and Daisey, according to Glass, tried to cover his tracks. Now they’ve pulled it, canceled the performance and Q&A scheduled for next month at the Chicago Theatre, and are devoting this week’s show to the aftermath. Ira Glass’s open letter explains what went wrong, and the crucial turning point that, if you’ve ever done fact-checking, should make your stomach turn:
When the original 39-minute excerpt was broadcast on This American Life on January 6, 2012, Marketplace China Correspondent Rob Schmitz wondered about its truth. Marketplace had done a lot of reporting on Foxconn and Apple’s supply chain in China in the past, and Schmitz had first-hand knowledge of the issues. He located and interviewed Daisey’s Chinese interpreter Li Guifen (who goes by the name Cathy Lee professionally with westerners). She disputed much of what Daisey has been telling theater audiences since 2010 and much of what he said on the radio.
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.”
Daisey released his own statement, though an interview with him will be a part of TAL’s show:
My show is a theatrical piece whose goal is to create a human connection between our gorgeous devices and the brutal circumstances from which they emerge. It uses a combination of fact, memoir, and dramatic license to tell its story, and I believe it does so with integrity….
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….
Daisey’s brief statement has odd echoes of his earlier work As Edward Champion noted on Twitter, one of his pieces from a few years back, Truth, dealt with precisely this issue. After a pre-screening of the piece, Daisey had a long conversation with Phil Campbell at the site of literary blogger Maud Newton, in which he touches on his empathy for exposed fabricators like JT Leroy and James Frey, the “conflict between truth and fiction,” and how “one person’s deceit is another’s artistic license”:
[M]y shows aren’t designed to have messages — it’s not an OpEd piece, like the countless ones that have been written about Frey and LeRoy, but a monologue that attempts to weave these events against each other and my life to find correlations, sympathies, and dissonances which ring true. That’s not to say that I feel the monologue has no point of view, but to say that what I’m mostly interested in is our perception of, and struggle with, truth.
It is always more interesting and more difficult to work toward empathy than it is to indict, and I feel the piece’s central allegiance is to unfolding the puzzle of what it means when we say we want the truth — and that carries the responsibility to get under the skin and try to unearth what makes these people like all of us, and like myself, because that’s where understanding begins.
Of course working toward empathy sometimes undermines the truth — everything sometimes undermines the truth, including obsessive insistence on absolute truth, as though there even were such an animal.
That Daisey’s monologue was about Steve Jobs contains no shortage of dramatic irony: “friends would theorize that [Jobs] had been exercising what would prove a limitless capacity for sustained and gratuitous lying that came to be nicknamed the ‘reality distortion field.’” But one of the last vestiges of sincerity is the lonely, belabored fact-checker.
The most famous fact-checkers in American journalism are probably the New Yorker’s; when they went up against the famously litigious Church of Scientology for a 2010 piece by Lawrence Wright, they put five fact-checkers on the case, submitted 971 questions, and devoted an eight-hour meeting with a team of Scientologists to the process. But it only has 16 fact-checkers; the New York Times Magazine has even fewer on staff. It’s not a failsafe process, and things like this happen: “But other things Daisey told us about Apple’s operations in China checked out, and we saw no reason to doubt him.” Sometimes editors are reliant on the good word of their writers, and it’s rare that outright fabrications happen, mostly because they’ll inevitably get found out if the piece is as high-profile as Daisey’s—the game was up when Marketplace’s Rob Schmitz heard it, as he’s scheduled to discuss this evening. Editors don’t expect writers to lie to them, in part because the consequences are so great.
They may not be as great for Daisey. If he was a journalist, his career would be over, but he’s not. He’s a monloguist, not a career track with much precedent anyway. And that, it seems, is where the process failed. Whereas what went on between Daisey and the Foxconn workers was between him and his interpreter, his views of truth, deceit, and artistic license were a matter of public record.