At Large

On Getting Duped by Mike Daisey

I’ve been lied to before. But this was different.

“I haven’t figured out what I’m going to do next.” Mike Daisey told me while we sat at a Vietnamese restaurant in Berkeley, California, a little more than a year ago. He was castigating all journalists for not covering the labor atrocities taking place at Chinese factories. Down the street at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Daisey was unveiling these atrocities, which he witnessed on a trip to China, before sold-out crowds in his then-new monologue, The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. I would later recount this moment in a cover story for the April 2011 issue of City Arts.

He continued: “Maybe I’ll give them bullet points? ‘Go to Hong Kong, get on the subway, take the subway north, to its end, get off the subway, go over the border into Shenzhen, get on the Shenzhen subway, get to the center of Shenzhen in a goddamn taxi, go to the front of Foxconn, stand there and fucking talk to people. It’s not that hard to verify; just go and start interviewing these fucking people.’ I did. The first two hours of my first day, I met 14-, 13- and 12-year-old children who work at the fucking plant, so it doesn’t fucking take much.”

Turns out he didn’t. And, as the Seattle Times’ Danny Westneat so eloquently points out, it turns out that investigative journalism does fucking take much, much more than Daisey brought to his exploration of labor abuses by Apple’s Chinese suppliers.

When it was revealed late last week that many aspects of Daisey’s monologue were fabricated, I had hoped, for few cynical moments, that this was a devious move by the tech behemoth to undermine an act of journalistic bravery that, as I wrote in my story, was “turning the stage into an investigative forum at a time when investigative journalism is in decline.”

Such is the allure of a story that pits lowly Daisey, a theatrical performer of modest means, against arguably the most powerful corporation in the world. It is a David and Goliath story, Daisey’s remarkable abilities as a storyteller acting as his sling; revelatory reporting, his rock. For a fellow storyteller, the intoxication of Daisey’s tale was blinding.

Then, Friday night, I heard Daisey admit his deception on an episode of This American Life titled “Redacted.” The show was a mea culpa by the public radio program, apologizing for a show it had aired in January based around Daisey’s monologue. That earlier show, which earned TAL its largest audience ever, included parts where Daisey claimed to meet workers who were underage, as well as former employees who were poisoned and mangled while making iPads they could never afford. As an investigative report by another public radio program, Marketplace, later revealed, these meetings never happened.

“I’m not going to say that I didn’t take a few shortcuts in my passion to be heard,” Daisey told Ira Glass, the clearly perturbed host of This American Life. “My mistake, the mistake I truly regret, is that I had it on your show as journalism, and it’s not journalism. It’s theatre.”

I had been duped. The only consolation was that almost everyone else, including the staff of America’s most well-respected storytelling enterprise, had been as well.

It’s theatre.

I’ve been returning to that part of Daisey’s explanation often in the days since, wondering just how far the fourth wall of Daisey’s theatre extends.

Clearly it goes past the theatre lobby where, after each performance, the staff would hand out sheets of paper that provided Apple’s customer relations number, as well as the Web site for the China Labor Watch and a message: “If you choose not to ignore what you’ve learned tonight, here are some concrete steps you can take.”

It extended to that Vietnamese restaurant where Daisey’s blustery act continued as I, a journalist hungry for drama myself, ate it up.

And, by way of my carelessness in calling something journalism without treating it with the level of scrutiny that that type of storytelling requires, it extended to you, my reader. For that, I apologize.

Daisey claims that his art was in service of a “bigger truth,” but who is he to decide what the bigger truth is?

I learned in school that investigative journalism is one of the most difficult jobs in existence because it is one of the most paradoxical. A reporter must have a tremendous passion for truth to go through the great pains to get to it. But once he or she is in the presence of that truth, the reporter must be utterly dispassionate, because the truth is beholden to no cause. Anyone who thinks otherwise is fooling himself and anyone else who is listening to him.

Mark Baumgarten’s At Large column appears regularly on City Arts Online. If you have something you think Mark should see, in the flesh, email and tell him about it.

Photo by Malcolm Brown