The story was updated to include an excerpt from Berkeley Rep's response.
You might have heard that monologist s on This American Life, which compelled Glass to spend an entire show issuing a retraction. But it’s also sparked an interesting conversation about journalism, storytelling and the blurring line between the two.
I previously produced a bi-weekly tech segment that aired on the NPR-affiliate in LA. We had Mike Daisey on our radio show nearly a year before This American Life (bragging rights!). We met up with Daisey at the Berkeley Rep where he was preforming his one-man-show calling attention to the horrendous conditions under which Apple products are made at the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen, China.
I heard about the news of Daisey’s giant fib first thing on the morning that the news broke. It was in an email from my former boss who had CCed nearly everyone in the universe (or so it seemed to me) saying that we too needed to issue a retraction.
My heart started beating wildly.
But I went back and listened to the show and lucky for us, we’d been careful to call Daisey storyteller and monologist, rather than journalist, and to put an opposing argument next to his. And lucky for the show’s co-producer Queena Kim (whose more serious work can be seen ) she thought the whole thing was hogwash to begin with.
But it’s interesting to note that Daisey’s account of life at Foxconn in Shenzhen isn’t hogwash. Daisey did get a tour of Foxconn, as he said he did, and he did speak to Apple workers in China, as he said he did. But those workers he spoke to weren't at Foxconn. In other words he combined the two (speaking with Apple workers and touring the Foxconn factory). In short, he played loose with the facts.
What’s even more interesting is how theaters are reacting. The Wooly Mammoth Theatre came out strong, boldly throwing Daisey under the bus with a call to "boycott his work,” according to the Washington Post, only to then issue a retraction of their retraction when their fans became irate.
Berkeley Rep, perhaps learning from Whoolly Mammoth's PR headache, appears to be playing it safe. They told the Bay Citizen:
Mike could have been more clear with us about how he shaped his story. [...] Yet the essential argument remains and we should not be distracted
from the conversation about social injustices that support our daily lives.
I’ve been curious to ask them a few questions myself, but so far they haven’t returned my calls or emails.
Meanwhile Daisey stands by his work. Daisey said in his blog:
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 [...] What I do is not journalism.
It’s true Daisey isn’t a journalist. And it’s true that his lies were, in essence, the truth. But if someone asks you point blank, as Ira Glass did, whether you met people standing outside the Gates of Foxconn, and you say that you talked to “about 100 workers” standing “outside the gates” of Foxconn, when you didn’t. It makes you a huge conman if nothing else.
But is successfully conning people part of the job description of a performer? Some might call it the essential element of any work of fiction: the suspension of disbelief. Well one thing we can safely say is that when performance and journalism mix, it makes for an interesting cocktail.
**An Excerpt from Berkeley Rep's response:
We are extraordinarily proud that our recent production of The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs helped raise consciousness about Apple's labor practices in China and the conditions under which many familiar products are manufactured. These conditions are not in question – and, as a result of recent scrutiny, meaningful reforms have been made. Mike Daisey's show is a passionate and persuasive story about how our everyday actions affect people on the other side of the globe.
Having said that, we are dismayed to learn that some of the incidents he presented as personal experiences were instead fabrications or composites of other people's reports. If we had known this, we would not have allowed Mike to bill the show as nonfiction; we would instead have worked with him to reconstruct the story and properly contextualize it for our audience.
We are saddened and disappointed by this entire situation, particularly as we continue to believe that Mike tells a damn good story and what he was trying to accomplish is important. Many sources confirm the harsh conditions faced by Chinese workers who produce goods for American consumers. It would be a pity if this incident distracted us from the larger conversation about social injustices that support our daily lives.