The fracas Friday involving monologuist Mike Daisey and the public radio show "This American Life" is not just the latest scandal of a purported truth teller caught in at least an act of embellishment, if not an outright lie, but a double-barreled cautionary tale. It reveals the perils of what can happen to news organizations when, in the pursuit of populist storytelling or buzz-heavy names, they subcontract their reporting to artists or entertainers. And it reveals what can happen to artists and entertainers when they become so seduced by the desire to compound their real-world influence that they obscure or misrepresent the nature of their work.
Before he wrote "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs," Daisey was known mostly in theater circles as a talented, caustic monologuist, of leftist leanings and fascinated by the intersections of culture, money and power. Daisey appeared like a sweatier, sharper-edged and more overtly political heir to the late Spalding Gray, a great monologuist whose material was based mostly on his own neuroses.
But "Agony and Ecstasy," a huge hit at the New York Public Theatre last fall, changed all that. Daisey had hit on a topic with enormous public interest — Apple Inc., the high-flying colossus on good paper among progressives who long have bought its arty products, even while knowing that they were manufactured in China by workers whose job conditions and pay fall far below minimum American standards. Jobs died while the show was in process, sparking fascination with his legacy and giving the Daisey monologue currency. Suddenly, Daisey was hot. So hot, he was invited to do part of his piece on "This American Life," the much-loved Ira Glass show that long had one foot in the Daisey world of passionate and personal storytelling, but another in fact-based journalism with the ethics of public radio.
There was another reason "This American Life" wanted Daisey. "Agony and Ecstasy" wasn't all opinion or personal memoir, like Daisey's previous shows. In the piece, Daisey describes a research trip to Shenzhen, China, that involved him visiting the factories of the Apple subcontractor, Foxconn. He said he'd talked with workers (through his translator) and they'd told him tales of long hours, injury and dangerous chemicals in the workplace. As things turned out Friday, those allegations, while seemingly substantially true, did not pass muster with fact-checkers paying attention to things like names, precise chronology and the little matter of who said what to whom. Daisey defended himself by saying he had created an artistic work — suggesting that embellishments and composites were an accepted part of political theater. "This American Life" essentially said it had taken his stories as hard and precise truths, and it accused him of telling lies. To prove its point, it pulled the plug on Daisey's upcoming show at the 3,600-seat Chicago Theatre, which "This American Life" and WBEZ-91.5 FM had been presenting, and returned everyone's money.
So in the theater, did it matter that Daisey wasn't telling the literal truth? Well, anyone listening clearly to what he was saying at the Public surely understood that this entire show was an artistic construction, a fusion of opinion, fact, idea, emotion and razzmatazz. "In the late 1990s, I did sleep with the Windows system," Daisey said at one point, pushing his potent theme of a complex love affair with Jobs' products. No one asked to see the sheets from that man-and-computer encounter. It was, demonstrably, a metaphor.
Moreover, there is a noble tradition of monologuists embellishing. Part of the pleasure of watching Gray was always to try to figure out where truth ended and psychosis began. Or take what the writer-monologuist David Sedaris once told Time magazine, when asked if his works should be shelved in the fiction or nonfiction section of the bookstore: "Nonfiction. I've always been a huge exaggerator, but when I write something, I put it on a scale. And if it's 97 percent true, I think that's true enough. I'm not going to call it fiction because 3 percent of it isn't true."
Try running that by a journalism ethics class.
Sedaris is wrong about the section of the bookstore — "mostly nonfiction" belongs with fiction — but he was being upfront about where his work sits. Daisey himself had, just a few days ago, owned up to his own complex relationship to the truth on MSNBC, telling Chris Hayes, "I use all these tools that the world of objective journalism doesn't use." That's a fancy way of saying I also shape stuff and make things up in service of my broader point.
That's what artists do: They make things up in service of their broader point. Their subjective broader point. That's why "This American Life" made a mistake in airing Daisey's monologue as fact. And it's why Daisey made a mistake in accepting the offer. "This American Life" wanted to use a master storyteller — for who does not want to tune into the passionate musings of a master storyteller? — to enliven and humanize the potentially dry story of mistreated Chinese workers, and yet they wanted this master storyteller to leave his masterful stories outside the studio and stick to the naked facts. That he could not do. If he did, he would not have a show.
And Daisey? I suspect he was seduced by the glare of attention and his sense of rectitude. Politically motivated artists logically dream of reaching more people: more viewers, more minds changed. He doubtless thought his exposure of how our obsession with those Jobs-fueled gadgets was paid for by the sweat of Chinese workers excused his fudging the details. Apply artistic criteria and he has a case. Apply journalistic criteria and he has no case at all.
Shortly after Daisey's show started drawing attention to the workers, The New York Times launched its own investigation. It used its own reporters who told their own, fact-based story and reached fact-based conclusions. Real-world changes at Apple and Foxconn were the result. Investigative journalism was working. Daisey was pretty much left out of the story, even though his artistic work had surely put this issue on the Times' radar.
Unfair? Sure. But it's the price artists have to pay for their freedom to tell their own truths with impunity.
Chris Jones is the Tribune's theater critic.