Curtain Call

A Sad Story

Mike Daisey didn’t just break the rules of journalism. He did a disservice to his own art.

Mike Daisey

Ira Glass of This American Life and Rob Schmitz of Marketplace weren’t the first journalists to confront Mike Daisey about the accuracy of The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. I did it last May.

I’ve covered Daisey’s career for a decade, most recently as a critic for the New York Times, and have been one of Daisey’s most effusive champions. Weaving poetic meditations with emotionally probing memoir and fascinating historical digressions, his monologues displayed an ambition that I believe the American theater badly needs.

I had been following reviews of Steve Jobs before I even saw it. As it toured the country before coming to New York, critics noted how Daisey’s show attacked the press for not sufficiently covering the labor conditions at Apple’s factories in China. A Seattle reviewer reported that Daisey said in the show that “there’s no journalism” in Shenzhen, where about half of the world’s consumer electronics are produced, and that the New York Times merely reprinted corporate press releases when reporting on Apple’s labor practices.

This surprised me. Searching the Times archives, I found plenty of reporting, particularly from 2010, around the time of a series of employee suicides in Shenzhen. As I saw it, Daisey was diminishing the contributions of foreign correspondents working under tremendously difficult conditions in order to make his show seem more noteworthy. I criticized Daisey’s comments on my Facebook page. Daisey responded on my page by attacking the writer of the review. I countered that if the review was accurate, and Daisey were a journalist, he would need to begin his next show announcing a correction. Our conversation then migrated to email, where Daisey said that he described the Times coverage as emphasizing “the economic story, and not the human one.” He asked that the rest of our exchange be off the record, but it was a respectful back-and-forth, and I was happy to see that he took the journalism thread out of the show before it came to New York. But in our conversation, he never allowed that he’d gotten the facts wrong about the Times’ coverage.

This tracks with his reaction to last week’s revelations that he had invented material for Steve Jobs. He remains defiant, arguing that he wasn’t lying, only using dramatic license. “I’m not going to say that I didn’t take a few shortcuts in my passion to be heard,” he told Ira Glass last week. “But I stand behind the work. My mistake, the mistake that I truly regret is that I had it on your show as journalism, and it’s not journalism. It’s theater.”

But the reason Daisey became a star is that he was seen—by critics and audiences alike—as much more than a theater artist. Daisey has in the past referred to himself not as an actor or playwright, but as a storyteller. The standards for truth in this form are not as stringent as they are in journalism, but Daisey clearly traded on his audience’s expectation that he was delivering accurate accounts, not inventing experiences.

Daisey’s defense is that he told small lies in service of a larger truth. But Apple’s labor conditions had already been reported on by the press and by human rights organizations. What Daisey brought to the table—and what made his monologue so gripping to so many—were precisely the details he fabricated: the details about the human victims, the shaking-hands of the workers infected by the neurotoxin N-Hexane, who he claimed to have met; his claim that he met workers who were 12, 13, and 14 years old. What was missing from the reporting was flesh and blood; real life examples, observed in person. That’s what Daisey gave us. And it worked, at least for a while. The Times’ 2010 reporting on Foxconn did not grab the attention of the general public. Daisey’s inventions did.

But Daisey’s small lies in service of a larger truth did a disservice to his own art. If there is one thread that ties together all of his solo shows, it would be this: His work locates the human spirit at the heart of institutions that are inevitably dehumanizing. By focusing on the sacrifices of the poorly-paid actor in a theater system that puts its resources elsewhere, or on how innovators like Nicola Tesla or the woman who made the prototype of the board game Monopoly were eventually marginalized, Daisey reminded us of how essential—and disposable—one life can be. Daisey burst onto the scene in 2001, and his early style of storytelling had a forceful momentum, but his intricate multinarrative yarns were often ambivalent in tone, allowing for doubt and nuance. In his show Invincible Summer, he describes the miracle of the New York City subway system while at the same time explaining in detail the vast numbers of workers who died building it. The result is a nuanced argument that allows the audience to decide if the result was worth it.

This embrace of complexity was one of the qualities that I most respected about his art. He understood that humanity is messy and contradictory. His favorite example of this was himself. In one show, he explained how his rage after Sept. 11 made him support the Iraq War, a war he later came to oppose. “I wasn’t willing to admit that my government was lying—or wrong,” he told me in an interview. “It was a failure of imagination.”

The ambiguity in his work began to recede with How Theater Failed America, a 2008 broadside in which he charged that nonprofit theaters were neglecting their communities, sinking resources into buildings rather than artists, and turning theater into a luxury good. While often trenchant, the show tended to imply the most cynical motivations. For instance, whether or not you agree with regional theaters hiring New York actors, the motivation of this kind of outsourcing was artistic, not financial. In his next work, The Last Cargo Cult, he blamed the banking crisis on “financial terrorism.” In my otherwise positive Times review, I compared this thinly-sourced argument to those of Glenn Beck.

Like Beck, Daisey enjoyed an explosion of success with his move to a more polemical style. That success culminated with Steve Jobs. Undergirding the show was the belief that if a human face was put on the suffering of Chinese workers, change would happen. And it did bring the issue into the public sphere: On Bill Maher’s show, cable news, the Times op-ed page.

But Daisey didn’t just take a journalistically unethical shortcut. By inventing events that audiences thought were real, Daisey turned Chinese workers into abstractions, means to an end. He became a dehumanizing storyteller. Daisey doesn’t contextualize these people historically or socially. He doesn’t portray them at home, or show us their other employment options. They were described in just enough detail to send the audience home outraged. This was my main problem with the show when I finally saw it, that its portrait of Chinese workers seemed remote. Now I understand why. The Times’ masterful recent exploration of the conditions at Foxconn proves that you can tell the economic story and the human story, and without invention or exaggeration.

Mike Daisey may well recover from this scandal. He’s not a precocious careerist like Stephen Glass or Jayson Blair. He is one of the most gifted artists of the American theater. It’s even possible that This American Life has done him a favor—if Daisey draws the right conclusions from this episode. So far, it doesn’t seem like he has. 

Old-fashioned objective journalism is supposed to follow the truth wherever it leads, but great art does the same thing, often more fearlessly. Storytellers may not be bound by the same rules as newspaper reporters, but some do believe that the desire to engage emotionally with an audience requires very careful handling of the truth. Daniel Kitson, Daisey’s highest-profile peer, says he refuses to lie about details of his personal exploits:  “I am quite strict about telling the truth,” says Kitson. “I am interested in engaging emotionally and I don’t want to be duplicitous.”

The problem isn’t that Mike Daisey was thinking like an artist instead of a journalist. The problem is that he was thinking like an overly zealous activist. The agony of it all is that is not what he does best.