Monday, March 19, 2012

The Daisey Chain

On Friday I was in the writers' room for Aaron Sorkin's new HBO series, The Newsroom, when my colleague Gideon Yago -- who trolls the Internet even more fiercely than I do -- blurted out something like "Wow."

Gideon -- a one-man encyclopedia who worked at MTV and CBS news and reported from Iraq and Afghanistan -- does this several times a day, and sometimes it's about things I can't comprehend, like international finance.  But Friday's topic hit close to home -- especially since we're working on a show that has to do a tricky dance with truth and reporting and fictional entertainment.

What tripped up Gideon was the news that the esteemed NPR show This American Life was going to retract a story it had aired. The website was so clogged it took me about 15 minutes to get to the story.

Sounding a little like a parent about to tell his kids about a divorce, host Ira Glass [left] wrote a blogpost starting with the unfortunate phrase:"I have difficult news."

In the days that followed, Mike Daisey, who most Americans had never heard of, went from a beloved cult truthteller to a nationally discredited fabricator. And again put what Stephen Colbert called "Truthiness" front and center stage.

The outsized Daisey's one-man show The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, about Apple's outsourcing of its manufacturing to China, played a sold-out extended run at the Public Theater and is credited with spurring investigations of heinous labor practices that Apple is now pledging to improve. Daisey handed out a "fact sheet" at the end of performances with suggestions on how audience members could join the cause. And since Apple is a beloved brand among self-styled liberal types, the show had tremendous impact.

But when TAL decided to excerpt an hour for its broadcast and asked Daisey to put them in touch with the translator he used on the trip (and is a character in the piece) to corroborate some of the personal details in his story, he claimed he could no longer get in touch with her.

Any journalist would smell a rat, but Glass -- who is one of my heroes -- decided the larger issues all checked out, so it was probably okay.  Daisey was not some arriviste, he had made a name for himself with other shows, including a 2006 one called "Truth," which he described this way:
TRUTH follows the fictional and nonfictional stories of James Frey’s (author of A Million Little Pieces) self-destruction, the sordid and shocking tale of J.T. LeRoy, (The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things) a world-famous transsexual author whom the world learned ultimately didn’t exist, and Fernando Pessoa, a Portuguese poet whose great works were written by warring multiple personalities inside his head. These stories are reflected against an autobiographical accounting of Daisey’s own history of lying and telling the truth in an attempt to illuminate the uncertain landscape of the emotionally true, the literally true, and the constant struggle to speak the truth.
But by airing Daisey's story -- which became its most downloaded episode -- TAL took it out of the realm of theater like Spalding Gray monologues, and presented it as journalism.

As has been delineated all over the internet, including the New York Times (media critic David Carr got famous fabricator Jayson Blair to weigh in, while theater critic Charles Isherwood held forth on the theater/journalism question), a chain of events led Glass to realize his mistake, and air an hourlong retraction that is ruthless and painful to listen to.

My friend Andy Aaron timed the silence when Glass asked Daisey why he lied.
IRA: Why not just tell us what really happened at that point? 
MIKE :(13 seconds of silence) I think I was terrified.  
IRA: Of what? 
MIKE: (8 seconds of silence) that... (8 more seconds of silence) I think I was terrified that if I untied these things, that the work, that I know is really good, and tells a story...
[later]MIKE: After a certain point, honestly...(7 seconds of silence)
IRA: Wait, after a certain point what?
MIKE: Well, I started a sentence and then... my nerve failed me, I stopped talking. So that’s what you saw. So, I’m working on it, it’s coming. (13 seconds of silence) I can’t say it.

On Facebook, my friends were quite voluble on the subject (part of why I decided this warranted a blogpost -- to reprint the discussion, since the blog itself rarely gets this much chatter).  Journalists, theater people, theatergoers, fans of This American Life, people who know Daisey, everyone felt strongly about what had happened. Some wanted refunds from the Public Theater, some felt it discredited TAL forever.
K: This makes my head hurt. Certainly, in a verbatim theatre piece there is artistic license unless Mike was saying that it was all true, yes? "The Laramie Project" was also factually true, although artistically shaped with fictional dialogue and the like, yes? I imagined this was the same. Did Mike make that clear?

R: TAL has no one to blame but themselves. They used to run only original stories they commissioned and which they (presumably) fact-checked. Since they moved to NY it's been Moth Stories, stand-up routines and now this. For shame, Ira. How long before Fox News picks up this story to prove their point that NPR lies and should have their funding pulled?
S; I came into this without having seen the stage presentation, and without having read too much about it, and after listening to the Ira Glass takedown I unambiguously agree with his condemnation of this creep. I don’t care if Daisey "cares deeply." What I know is that he cares more deeply about [fill in the blank: being a star, being famous, being rich, being recognized as a great whatever]. Fuck him. What’s most egregious is that what he claims he wants to do — “touch people” etc. — can be done, and has been done, in almost exactly the way he’s doing it. The difference is, the other people who do it (and who are not dickwits) do not feel they have to lie about the storytelling component. This guy, on the other hand, has just bumbled his way into James Frey territory. He will never recover.
J: I've read the "retraction" transcript and it does sound as if Mike made a very real mistake in how he chose to handle the fact-checking process; for that I do fault him and it seems he faults himself as well. When he was asked by a journalist whether the piece was written using journalistic standards and methodology,  he should have said no.  But the point that's getting missed in this whole "controversy" is that the fact that he did not use journalistic standards/methodology takes NOTHING away from the piece. He didn't fictionalize the facts of the human rights situation; he merely fictionalized his own story arc. so he compressed events, said he was physically present some places where he wasn't, etc. He's a storyteller. He has every right to do that, as long as he represents that accurately when asked. A simple "the situation represented is very real and exhaustively researched, but I took some liberties in shaping, condensing, and inserting myself int the narrative" should do the trick. I also think it's important to note that Mike does NOT present his work as verbatim or documentary theater. He presents it as storytelling. documentary theater---while still not journalism--has stricter standards (I say this as a maker of documentary theater who's been pretty immersed in these questions). and even those stricter standards are not identical to those of journalism. I don't think we should be expecting mike to be a journalist, and i don't think the fact that he's not means that his play contains "lies."
R: If I had a friend who lied to me like this I could never trust that person again. Who could believe a word he says in any other show he does?  
J: Glass takes on this Javert type of role where what he wants to do is vilify Mike Daisey, and in the process, he loses the point of the show and the facts that are facts--albeit not well represented by Mike Daisey outside the context of drama. ...both Daisey and Glass let their own egos get in the way of how this story played out, both are responsible for where it is now. Daisey lied about his sources, but does it really matter if a factory worker is 13 or 12 or 14 if she's working 20 hour days in a row? Does it matter to me if Mike Daisey met someone or took a factual and researched news article and wove it into his story--it doesn't. It's what theater does. Documentary style or not--he's telling a dramatic story. ...Glass spent an awful long time debunking Daisey's facts and then putting Daisey on the hot seat and it wasn't until the last third of the program, when the new york times reporter came on and said, look, this is what the situation is like, that we could come back to the question of what is our own personal responsibility as consumers in this--which a cornerstone of Daisey's piece. 
K: Whatever happened to just putting at the end or in the programme notes somewhere, 'Some events have been invented or changed for dramatic purposes'? ... I do a lot of work in docu theatre and I really believe in it as a form. So I kind of care about its structural integrity. Daisey just seems like a main-chancer looking for a fast route to fame and who understands that in the last 10 years, it's become easier to make it as a non-fiction writer than as a novelist (or playwright). I think it's very telling that he said at least once 'but this is my best work' and I nearly went 'WHAT?!' out loud when I read that he'd done work in the past on the James Frey story. Please.
I feel like it's kind of basic. 1. He lied. Over and over. To the public seeing the show, to TAL's fact-checkers!! and to Ira bleeding Glass, for pete's sake. Who lies to Ira Glass? 2. I don't like being manipulated. Don't invent stuff designed to yank my chain and then tell me it's real. 3. Because in addition to being manipulative, that's lazy. And that offends me as a fellow maker of stuff. 4. You're talking about a real company, headed until a few months ago by a real person who is no longer here to defend himself. Get your facts right, or else come clean and say it's a fictionalization. What a loser.
D: I found it a tad disingenuous that Ira was insisting that everything on the show is subject to the same rigorous journalistic standards as all-journalism NPR shows on which he previously worked. Sedaris was the example that sprang to my mind. It's always struck me as a storyteling show, not a journalism show. On the flipside, Daisey's blanket excuse that "theater" excuses him for cutting corners is also disingenuous. As Ira said, people in the theater thought he was telling them the journalistic truth. It's all about expectations. Fiction's ok, non-fiction's ok, even grey areas are ok--but when you're serving up one in the guise of another, you may well run into trouble.
I am more in the middle in terms of blaming the Public or TAL. In journalism, it's easy to get tripped up by a liar, and in theater the same rules don;t apply as in journalism, but I agree it's a huge mess that all comes down to Daisey's not wanting to reveal the man behind the curtain. And though I am aware of the self-aggrandizng aspect of Glass's retraction, I am mostly appreciative of his swift and thorough self-flagellating investigation, which certainly puts bigger news organizations like the Times (remember those WMDs?) to shame.

I knew Daisey's work from The Moth, an organization that started with the idea (from novelist George Dawes Green) that true stories told unvarnished onstage would be compelling like in olden days. When I first started going to the Moth, it was in bars and basements and cost $5. Now it's held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, UCLA's Royce Hall, Cooper Union, tickets are as much as $40, the podcast is wildly popular, it got a MacArthur "Genius" grant, and had a national tour co-sponsored by USA Network which decided its brand of fictional characters somehow could benefit from being linked to the "characters" of the storytellers.

This was all more than a little troubling for me, and not only because, like when a beloved cult band gets too popular, it's suddenly impossible to get cheap tickets any more.

Our culture has a fetish for true stories.  The highest-rated HBO movie is the recent Game Change [right], taking us behind the scenes of the McCain-Palin campaign. Whatever you think of it dramatically, it is thoroughly researched and clearly relies on the source material and refuses to speculate on scenes that weren't reported on. (Disclaimer: yes, I work for HBO right now.) Hollywood relies on "based on a true story" to get us into theaters -- and last year's King's Speech and Sorkin's Social Network vied for Best Picture.

While The Newsroom is being clearly branded as fiction, we are operating in the real world where the Obama Birth controversy and Jan Brewer exist. The episodes are built around news events, but our characters are fictional and work for a fictitious network. We get headaches trying to balance story with truth, and no doubt there will be the naysayers who complain about things not happening on a certain day, or how our characters could have known something. If we get a second season, maybe we'll deal with the Daisey chain of events. It certainly has enough pro-con to keep my boss happy.


Eliza Gagnon said...

I'm late to the conversation I guess and maybe won't add anything so new. But having just listened to the retraction episode and having seen Daisey's show in the fall, I'm stunned and grossed out by his disingenuousness. And then to come back and insist that he "stands by the work" as theater just digs a deeper hole of dishonesty and cast even more doubt on his judgment. Everything about the framing of the play and Mike's delivery gave one to assume that what he was describing was true. The sad thing is that what was most affecting in what he described wasn't the fudged stories about workers with stumps and so on, but rather the sheer scale of the entire system of production and that pretty much everything we touch is made under a similar system. I also left the theater thinking about the fact that decent working conditions and decent pay had existed in the US for really such a short interval before companies moved and moved again. My grandfather worked in factories in Rhode Island as a child and he described not knowing what it was he was making and wanting to go to the end of the line to see the whole toy assembled. Kind of like the story about the guy seeing the iPad for the first time. So then there was what, a period of about 20 or 30 years where labor conditions in New England were decent before the factories packed up and moved south. And then there a short window there before they moved again. And so on. I guess that's the point that Duhigg is making at the end. Daisey got those ideas across without the fabricated bits. It's unfortunate that he undermines it all with unnecessary distortions.

Robert said...

Another great post, David. When I was listening to the podcast I kept looking to see if there was a problem w. my internet connection b/c Daisey's pauses were so long. I find it odd that a lot of people (in my opinion) seem to be giving TAL a pass on this. I understand that no one wants to crap on their beloved TAL but, seriously, they deserve half of the blame for running this thing before they did their jobs. (hops)

David Handelman said...

here's mike's statement from his blog today:

Many consider this week’s THIS AMERICAN LIFE episode one of the most painful they’ve ever listened to. In particular the segment with me is excruciating—four hours of grilling edited down to fifteen minutes. I thought the dead air was a nice touch, and finishing the episode with audio pulled out of context from my performance was masterful.

That’s Ira’s choice, and it’s his show. He’s a storyteller within the context of radio journalism, and I am a storyteller in the theater.

In the last forty-eight hours I have been equated with Stephen Glass, James Frey, and Greg Mortenson. Given the tenor of the condemnation, you would think I had concocted an elaborate, fanciful universe filled with furnaces in which babies are burned to make iPhone components, or that I never went to China, never stood outside the gates of Foxconn, never pretended to be a businessman to get inside of factories, never spoke to any workers.

Especially galling is how many are gleefully eager to dance on my grave expressly so they can return to ignoring everything about the circumstances under which their devices are made. Given the tone, you would think I had fabulated an elaborate hoax, filled with astonishing horrors that no one had ever seen before.

Except that we all know that isn’t true.

There is nothing in this controversy that contests the facts in my work about the nature of Chinese manufacturing. Nothing. I think we all know if there was, Ira would have brought it up.

You certainly don’t need to listen to me. Read the New York Times reporting. Listen to the NPR piece that ran just last week in which workers at an iPad plant go on record saying the plant was inspected by Apple just hours before it exploded, and that the inspection lasted all of ten minutes.

If you think this story is bigger than that story, something is wrong with your priorities.

If people want to use me as an excuse to return to denialism about the state of our manufacturing, about the shape of our world, they are doing that to themselves.

To radio listeners: I apologized in this week’s episode to anyone who felt betrayed. I stand by that apology. But understand that if you felt something that connected you with where your devices come from—that is not a lie. That is art. That is human empathy, and it is real, and even if you curse my name I hope you’ll recognize that and continue reading, caring, and thinking.

To my audiences: It’s you that I owe the most to. I want you all to know that I will not go silent—I will be making a full accounting of this work, shining a light through this monologue and telling the story of its origins, construction, and details.

I believe the truth is vitally important. I continue to believe that. I believe that I will answer for the things I have done. I told Ira that story should always be subordinate to the truth, and I still believe that. Sometimes I fall short of that goal, but I will never stop trying to achieve it."

Scott McDonald said...

How inspired to include the LBJ "Daisy" commercial here, one of the gems of Presidential TV propaganda. When I saw Daisey's piece at the Public, it smelled like propaganda; it made me doubt the whole thing and left me feeling sour and manipulated. Michael Moore territory. Insulting and repellant. As it turns out, I think that the thrust of the story is true and that the conditions in Apple's supply chain in China are awful. But it offends me to have it represented so tendentiously -- as journalism or as theatre.

The Author said...

Daisey repeatedly attempts to shift the focus from his own mendacity to the exploitation of workers in China and his part in bringing that exploitation to our attention through the fine work he has done in the theater (if he does say so himself). He's essentially saying that in talking about his mendacity we'll forget about what's going on in China. Note to Mr. Daisey: Seeing that you're full of shit doesn't necessitate our forgetting that there are exploited workers in China.