In the summer of 2010, monologuist Mike Daisey began to tour with a new piece. There was no script, just a list of notes that guided an extemporaneous stream of language, delivered from behind a plain desk. He augmented the monologue with each performance, reflecting audience reaction, and continued to present it around the country for two years. To date, the play has been performed over 200 times and in at least 18 cities, and recently concluded a long run at New York’s Public Theater. In it, Daisey charts the mystique of Steve Jobs, Apple’s iconic leader, and the working conditions for the workers who make the phones and computers that have made him legendary.
Much of the piece’s structure, he says, originated with the spate of suicides at a Shenzhen plant owned by the Foxconn Technology Group, which makes over forty percent of the world’s electronics. It is the largest private-sector employer in China. Daisey was in Shenzhen researching the monologue when the suicides were at their height, and he spent evenings in his hotel watching reports on the death toll, fascinated by the grim parade of information, in disbelief that by sheer coincidence, there he was, at that very time, able to watch the news that was being repackaged for the West. He used Google Analytics to map the story’s spread and gathered steam for the interviews he hoped to conduct at various plants owned by Foxconn.
But the news stopped, ostensibly due to a government crackdown. The television reports ceased. The thin veins of news coverage in Europe and America dried up. Despite the cacophony of news today, spitting and sputtering from a wider number of television channels than ever before, from blogs and newspapers which update all day and all night, the story had disappeared, and its absence became the motor for Daisey’s monologue. It was different from his previous pieces, in its subject matter but also in its aim. “It wanted very badly to break out of the theater and change things,” he said. “It wanted very badly to see change happen in the world.”
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Mike Daisey probably never imagined that “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” would accrue widespread attention, elicit interviews from media outlets nationwide, or cause 888,000 people to click a mouse and download an adapted version of the show, broadcast in January by This American Life. “He took this fact that we all already know, this fact that our stuff is made overseas in maybe not the greatest working conditions, and he made the audience actually feel something about that fact,” said Ira Glass, the show’s host. “Which is really quite a trick. You really have to know how to tell a story to be able to pull something like that off.”
Daisey also couldn’t have anticipated listening to his own voice ten weeks later on the same program, this time explaining fabricated facts and incidents in the monologue. The events the show described are damning: lying to the show’s producers about the identity of his translator, telling them he’d lost her contact information and changing her name, claiming to have visited ten factories (he went to three), saying that he met a man with n-hexane poisoning (he didn’t), alleging that he conversed with underage workers (he says he did, but his translator doesn’t agree). Beyond these errors, he invented a world in rapid transition, contextualized by details others deny, in which unfinished highways drop off unexpectedly in a shag of rebar, and armed guards man the gates at Foxconn.
“I’m not going to say that I didn’t take a few shortcuts in my passion to be heard,” Daisey told Glass. “But I stand behind the work.” In the course of a year, Daisey had rocketed from being an obscure theater star to citizen muckraker to James Frey. News organizations combed through their transcripts to reveal lies from earlier interviews, and issued their own retractions. I work at one of those news organizations (though these opinions are my own); our interview with Daisey predated the This American Life episode by nine months. “I will talk to anyone from Apple who wants to sit down with me and explain to me what kind of complexities I don’t understand about the twelve-year-olds I met who are putting together electronics,” he says. When the correspondent says he is acting as a spy and journalist as well as a performer during the piece, Daisey does not correct him.
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The Monday after This American Life’s retraction, Daisey was at Georgetown University, where he had a long-standing speaking engagement. The event, titled “A Hammer With Which to Shape It: Art and the Human Voice in the Global Labor Struggle” (a reference to Bertolt Brecht), was billed as a lecture on the use of art in labor activism, but as the hosts of the event made their introductions, they acknowledged that the circumstances surrounding the talk had changed dramatically.
The evidence was in the room. The auditorium was packed. Journalists, students, and city residents sat in every chair, each looking down the tiered rows to the wooden podium. When Daisey took the stage he proposed a new itinerary for the night. “What I’m going to do, is sort of go through the whole thing,” he said, “give it a shape and a context, and I’m just going to try to be really open. That’s my plan.”
What ensued was an extemporaneous and convoluted discussion of his goals and transgressions. He had gone to China, he said, to bear witness to what was happening, not to be a journalist. Of course, he had played the part of journalist (a bad one, he clarifies), the basis for the part he plays onstage as “Mike Daisey,” not to be confused with the off-stage self who devises monologues and gives interviews. “I actually portray myself, and I think it’s fairly accurate, as not a very good reporter, as sort of hapless,” he says. “It’s fairly accurate. I’m fairly hapless in the ways that are described in the monologue.”
He was hapless in real-life, he says, as someone who permitted the altered details and poetic license of the monologue to creep off the stage and into the print and tape of the news media. When reporters erroneously assumed that he had done and seen everything described in the piece, he made no effort to correct them. “I would find myself not interrupting them because we’re in interview situations,” he said. “It started like that, you get pulled over because then people report things, and then people when they are doing the research for the next story, they refer to those stories, and then you try to clear up some of them, maybe you draw lines in the sand, and you decide, no, every time they say that I’ve gone into Foxconn, I’ll be clear that I have never gone into Foxconn.”
When he told a journalist that he had met a man with n-hexane poisoning, his wife and director Jean Michele Gregory read the report and suggested they include the detail in the monologue. Unwittingly, his supporters and confidantes helped him into a straight-jacket of his own design. Almost every night for a year, Daisey took a seat behind a desk on stages around the country, repeating invented facts and giving interviews in which he reiterated them. He really believed he’d met underage workers, he told us. “I cannot erase it from my mind,” he said. “So I’m sticking with it, because I don’t have anything else now.” The comment stuck out. Was Daisey unable to apologize because he had convinced himself of his own story? Was he unable to admit the degree to which he’d miscalculated?
In either case, he had more sympathizers than some working in journalism might have imagined. He pounded his fist on the lectern, outraged that a factory explosion in China could be so easily replaced in the news cycle by his own bad judgment. Daisey had succeeded in keeping Chinese labor in a Google News queue for months, and his mistakes exposed the fragility of the much of the information eco-system.
But his outrage also struck me as theatrical. His voice crescendoed into a desperate throb. When audience members stood abruptly, cheering his message, he flinched, surprised.
“I had been working under the blanket assumption that you were going to lynch me,” he said. The room echoed with laughter.
There were two separate lines of inquisitors during the Q&A, and Daisey turned from side to side to look up at the opposing microphones. When was your “Oh shit!” moment?, someone wondered. How did he assess Apple’s approach to corporate responsibility? What is the next step for activism surrounding labor issues abroad? Daisey wasn’t sure. What is the difference between his show and propaganda? “Is there much of a difference?” Daisey asked. Was the form of the monologue a monopoly on the political voices represented in the work? “I always think of it as a conversation,” said the monologuist. Why call this piece nonfiction when it could lead to a dangerous relationship between fact and invention in the minds of others? “I am troubled by the way fiction works in our culture,” Daisey said, calling contemporary literature “toothless.” Where are leverage points for greater action? He didn’t understand the issues well enough to know.
Eventually a young man approached one of the microphones and noted two omissions in a string of apologies Daisey made toward the end of his remarks. The man pointed out that Daisey hadn’t indicated any remorse about the position in which he’d put his translator, and the degree to which he’d excluded her own voice from the work. There were activists who’d devoted their careers to exposing Chinese working conditions more thoroughly, he said, and Daisey had jeopardized their efforts without apology. Did Daisey think that his own voice was uniquely indispensable to telling this story?
Daisey took a moment to answer. “I’m sick about that,” he said finally. On March 25, quietly, he posted a more complete apology on his blog. “When I said onstage that I had personally experienced things I in fact did not, I failed to honor the contract I’d established with my audiences over many years and many shows,” he wrote. “In doing so, I not only violated their trust, I also made worse art. This is not the place for me to try and explain my good intentions. We all know where the road paved with good intentions leads. In fact, I think it might lead to where I’m sitting right now.”
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There are two issues at hand in this kerfuffle. The first surrounds Daisey’s decision to lie to This American Life and to other journalists about the facts of his story. The ethics of this are obvious; misleading reporters about important information is wrong.
The second part of the story is more nebulous: Was it wrong to present “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” as creative nonfiction? Daisey is combining the traditions of muckraking and reportage with theater; if the piece is a journalistic failure, does is still succeed as a memoir, on a stage? Is it a “true” story, as Daisey claims? Not only are these harder questions, but we are trying to rip off their packaging in an age where our definitions of journalism and journalist are being re-drawn.
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Daisey’s introduction at Georgetown came through Jennifer Luff, a labor researcher at the university. A veteran of the AFL-CIO, Luff currently directs Georgetown’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor, which aims to change workers’ lives by developing unique strategies to alter public and private policy. Striking a professorial pose, and speaking in a level tone that is increasingly absent from television news and from the blogosphere, she suggested that we look at Daisey’s piece as part of the tradition of muckraking. Writers and journalists have historically heated, bent, and reshaped objective facts to rouse people to action. The Jungle, Upton Sinclair’s landmark novel about meatpacking in early twentieth century Chicago, was derided by journalists of the period for its distortions of real-life events. Of course, The Jungle never masqueraded as journalism, though it did appear, serially, in a socialist newspaper, and was grounded in seven weeks of undercover investigation.
I wonder what the publication of The Jungle would be like now that online book reviews carry a train of comments with them. Information is more superficially accessible, and the assumed facts of any given premise are refuted, proved again, and reframed by a symposium of pseudonymous readers. The people who critiqued Sinclair’s decision to cast a person into a vat to become lard (not just animals, as historically happened) would no doubt elicit vehement detractions and defenses, lobbing their commentaries across time zones, from their homes, their desks at work, or the libraries where they study. Any point of weakness or controversy can become an instant fulcrum of discussion. Daisey’s piece, with all its poignance and its problems, has landed on a planet different from Sinclair’s.
That planet, for all of its comfort with opinionated news sources, has had a recent, volcanic reaction in response to John D’Agata’s recent collaboration with Jim Fingal, The Lifespan of a Fact. I haven’t read this book, nor have I read “What Happens There,” the essay Fingal was charged with fact-checking for The Believer, a piece structured upon intentional falsehoods, all aimed at achieving a more artistic end, and subsequently, a more impressive experience for the reader. In D’Agata’s case, this included altering the number of nightclubs in Las Vegas and the distances between locations, but also the way in which a young boy died, his final hours, and the origins of Tae Kwon Do. Numerous reviewers have wiped their feet on D’Agata’s insistence that essayistic nonfiction has no obligation to the objective truth, and others have defended his right to sit in the painted line that delineates the essay and the short story and smudge it defiantly. Last week, Lucas Mann expressed incredulity that the book has inspired such a strong reaction in an essay titled “Please Stop Yelling,” which appeared on The Rumpus. “It seems that Lifespan isn’t being reviewed, but instead a status quo is being swiftly and aggressively defended,” he writes.
D’Agata and Daisey’s reasons for invention are similar: to heighten the experience of a text to evoke a purer reaction. I’m not sure what that monolithic, pure reaction truly is, but I continue to read and love memoir and personal essays along with fiction and narrative journalism, and while plenty of that writing is designed to inspire empathy or evoke a specific argument, the liberties in The Things They Carried do nothing to diminish the complexity of Vietnam. Daisey’s make his story’s vehement delivery less convincing; things shouldn’t be changed simply because they get in the way. Writers have the right to blend fact and fiction as it suits them, but truth is just as hard to get at. And today, the people who may be likely to contest it can come across your half-truths without even trying.
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Some commentators have pointed out that the apparatus of hard journalism ultimately exposed Daisey’s lies, but the internet — and the podcast that brought the material overseas — is equally responsible. For years, reporters and producers interviewed Daisey and published his commentary on their home pages, aired his story on their shows, all relayed through the goggles of an amateur expert. Daisey is upfront about his lack of expertise, both on and off-stage. The monologue describes Shenzhen with the wide-eyed language of someone who is trying to figure it out. “Shenzhen looks like Blade Runner threw up on itself,” he says. At Georgetown, he said, “It was very far out of my comfort zone. I had never been to China before. I never had a life dream of going to China. In fact, I felt very compelled. Like I didn’t actually really want to go to China, I just felt like I needed to, if I’m going to tell this story.”
When reporters living in China heard the piece, they discussed incredulous aspects with each other, wondering whether or not it could be real. They were startled by the guns guards allegedly carried outside the plant, the highways that abruptly stopped, unfinished. These things were unlike anything they’d seen living in China. Then there were the union activists, who supposedly met at Starbucks, which is more expensive in China than in the United States, and out of the price range of most factory workers in Shenzhen. Daisey remarks in the monologue that his plan to go to the gates of Foxconn was scoffed at by journalists, though reporters often talk to people outside of factories when they report pieces on Chinese labor. Evan Osnos, who covers China for The New Yorker, described these conversations in a post for the magazine’s website. “We complained to each other about the breathlessness and the clichés—the ‘Blade Runner‘ comparison is the hoariest line about Chinese cities,” he writes. These details –as well as the alleged n-hexane exposure at Foxconn– brought revelations about Daisey’s fabrications to the attention of the media. Visiting three and not ten factories, or meeting workers who are sixteen and not twelve or fourteen, don’t carry the whiff of dishonesty as strongly as his depiction of contemporary China.
Why invent these details? They don’t shore up his argument, as inflated numbers of factory visits do, or heighten the urgency of his cause by lowering the ages of workers he chatted with. Instead, they create a texture for China itself, depicting a country in a way that casts a glint on preconceived ideas of China as dangerous, undeveloped, and perhaps, in need of international intervention. “His story was initially a success because it satisfied so many of our casual assumptions about China and Apple,” writes Osnos. Daisey’s China, like Jason Russell’s Uganda, requires our awareness and our feelings. The Kony 2012 uproar prompted a series of eloquent tweets from novelist Teju Cole, including this one: “I deeply respect American sentimentality, the way one respects a wounded hippo. You must keep an eye on it, for you know it is deadly.” Daisey has discussed the importance of invoking feelings about where our products come from, telling Glass defiantly during the show’s retraction, “I think I made you care.” We should care, but how we feel isn’t the most important point. As much as we shouldn’t condone Foxconn’s labor practices, it is arrogant to assume these products are for us alone, and our interest in lobbying for better working conditions ought to be predicated on a desire for justice, not to satisfy our own emotions.
In one of the most striking moments in the monologue, Daisey describes meeting an old man poisoned by n-hexane. His hand is mangled after years of working at Foxconn, and despite his time on the assembly line, he’s never seen an iPad turned on. Daisey shows him the contraption. His eyes brighten and he plays with the icons, using his “ruined hand,” before saying, “It’s a kind of magic.”
That this never happened, Daisey had claimed, shouldn’t concern us. “That is actually what drama is. It is dramatizing,” he said at Georgetown. “He played with it a little bit. And he told Cathy something. He might have said it’s magical, he might have said it’s awesome. I don’t know what he said. I think he said something that basically turns into, ‘It’s a kind of magic.’ He certainly said something positive. I don’t know what he said. That happened, and it is dramatized in the show, and that’s where it is.”
Certainly creative nonfiction is full of moments like these. Small details gain emphasis to make a point, funny phrases become pithier. Daisey is also an impassioned advocate and a traveler in a new place, sorting through an unfamiliar environment. But if Daisey is putting an awe-struck comment in place of another, altering what is already a compelling moment for the benefit of American audiences, the connotations of those liberties are different, no matter how well-intentioned. His myopia in overlooking the remarkable circumstances of his own trip –that he went at all, that he talked to as many people as he did, that he sat through Apple’s business presentations and became an amateur authority on Foxconn– is disappointing because his trip was fascinating on its own merits. Choosing to turn “it’s awesome” into “it’s a kind of magic” for us to unwrap and sigh over is to overlook the strange mixture of decision and necessity that has spurred dramatic migrations from the countryside to the cities in search of difficult work in awful conditions. Why, after a couple days in China, should Daisey be able to put words in this man’s mouth?
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As outrage over the monologue grew, Daisey criticized journalists for fixating on these details instead of going to the Foxconn themselves. “I know in the end that at least one of them went to the gates of Foxconn and talked to people, but I don’t know that any of the other ones ever fucking did,” he said at Georgetown. “That’s fine.” He’s right to lament the dearth of coverage from media outlets about Chinese industry; detailed, authoritative coverage from overseas has dwindled with the decline of the foreign bureau. But it’s worth pointing out that when Daisey rails on his blog about the limited perspective of media reports, he is assuming an expertise that is partly experiential, partly imagined, and partly lifted from the work of the journalists he dismisses, who have slowly, quietly, and in small numbers, reported on the Foxconn suicides, labor violations, and n-hexane.
His new authority on this subject interests me because my own standards for information have radically changed in recent years. Much of that information comes unfiltered from activists, by necessity: the images that have defined our understanding of the Arab Spring have come from citizens with camera phones, and most of that footage has been assembled by various pro-democracy groups. But lots of the news I read comes from the blogosphere, where more stories are covered, but where posts usually present one perspective. Some of it comes from notable TV anchors who don’t consider themselves journalists. Daisey talks about using the “tropes of journalism” as well as the “tropes of the theater.” This strikes me as being awfully similar to contemporary television news itself. Daisey may believe that the theater’s setting is itself a clue not to take every word as fact, but his monologue arrived at a time when entertainment and information overlap on more stations and web pages than before.
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Journalism requires choices about representing reality and maintaining a level of interest. Some of these decisions –the selection of quotations, shaving down those quotations, the arrangement of information– affect print and television alike, but others, like footage selection, affect broadcast news specifically. When I first began working in television, I was startled by the difference between presumptions inherent to watching a news program and the production choices that enable it to happen efficiently. Huge portions of the show’s introductions and transitions might be taped ahead of time, though it seemingly unfolds in real-time. Walking shots are directed, re-directed, and repeated. Bystanders are instructed not to look at the camera, but its presence may prompt flamboyant, shy, or generally unnatural behavior. The cameraman can adjust any lens to make a crowd look sparse or packed. Newscasters and their producers usually consider ways to be both informative and interesting, and for decades, they’ve borrowed techniques from entertainment to do so.
As imperfect as some of this coverage can be, television has brought us closer to the news, at home and afar. Knowing that an event is covered widely when it’s visible, American campaigns contort to meet the demands of television crews, to the extent that political print reportage sometimes represents the tape more than the local mechanics of the trail. Covering the 1988 presidential campaign, Joan Didion recounted a moment when Michael Dukakis tosses a baseball to aides outside of an Ohio bowling alley. One camera recorded the gesture, but the event was restaged for the benefit of all of the networks. This set off more ball tossing at different campaign stops, which the networks used and then tired of. The gesture, repeated purely for television, featured prominently, without caveats, in The Washington Post and U.S. News & World Report. “The Duke seemed downright jaunty,” Joe Klein wrote. “He tossed a baseball with aides.” Artificial optics became metaphor.
The current election cycle arrives after a decade of reality television. Countless people who lead otherwise ordinary lives have offered themselves up for televised, competitive, and surreal exercises in domesticity, romance, cooking, dieting, dancing, modeling, and singing. Ira Glass created This American Life before the reality television furor began, though it has evolved alongside it, and suggests one of the concepts that makes reality television appealing: everyone can be interesting.
The show is entertaining by design. Described by Glass as “mini-movies for radio,” the producers employ first person narrations and atmospheric music to heighten the pacing of the stories. While its reportage is subjected to journalistic scrubbing, those pieces share air time with original fiction and memoir, including David Sedaris, whose work doesn’t withstand fact-checking. Many of the pieces are tweaked and pinned and squeezed into a parabolic shape, which often concludes with a salient lesson or moral. It’s an exciting exercise in narrative, but also raises questions: is this what the subject of this story would say? Is something being conveniently excluded? Is this “true?”
Daisey expressed a kind of puzzlement over the show at Georgetown. “I think the story is complicated by the fact that they were clear with me that they are journalistic institution,” he said. “At the same time, it’s storytelling, you can feel it on the show, the way it is edited, the way it hangs together, the way music comes in and out, they use the tools of art constantly.” This is a bad excuse given the fact-checking he was subjected to, but it’s true that in an era of synesthesia between documentary and fantasy, the terms of production can appear relaxed, even when they aren’t; I feel that confusion all the time. What rules guided This American Life’s excellent, personal feature on break up songs? Its decision to air a producer’s theorizing about President Obama’s smoking habits? An opinionated report on a notable website? A write-up on a personal blog? Sorting through the media isn’t exhausting or impossible, and diverse ways of reporting and sharing information benefit all of us. But there are more opportunities for misunderstanding than before.
This year, I have converted and downloaded countless YouTube videos from across the Middle East and from Occupy protests, most of which were shot by participants, and few of which could be verified. The term “citizen journalist” arises more and more these days, as people create Tumblr accounts, or head into a crush of people with an iPhone. As newsrooms shrink the contributions of average citizens with open eyes seem to be more important. Though it’s rare for someone to buy a ticket to China to “bear witness” to labor violations, we now have a name for such a person, one that nestles them into journalism, and not the monologue.
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Luff urged us to take the long view, which will require some patience. Some have demanded a strict adherence to the truth in all essayistic writing, but I am happy to leave Sedaris’s embellishments up for negotiation by him, his siblings, and Hugh. A number of desk-pounding writers on the internet have berated Daisey for undermining the cause he championed, but we shouldn’t be hasty in assuming he has. An exhaustive investigation in The New York Times confirmed many of Daisey’s details this January, and in late March Foxconn pledged to scale back workers’ hours and increase wages. Those changes may happen; in fact, a weeklong series by Rob Schmitz, the reporter who exposed Daisey, says no raises have gone into effect. But his reports and others are keeping Foxconn in the news, and Daisey deserves some credit for that, even if his own efforts are a journalistic failure.
When I take the long view, I imagine that any voice which cuts across the fray of pings and static will receive, almost instantly and from all quarters, wider attention than expected, written, recorded, and posted with the same devices that peaked Daisey’s interest in Apple. Today, when I read essays on websites, I barely distinguish the essay from the riot of opinion below it, staking out the frailties of the argument, squabbling amongst each other, and linking to additional information, to different blog posts, to original videos. You’d better know your stuff if you’re going to include fictions and call it “true”; you have never been more likely to encounter someone who will know better, or at least, differently.
When Daisey looks for subject matter for his monologues, he looks for “places where my culture is in collision. I look for things where I think something about something and it’s colliding with something else; it creates dissonance and meaning.”
I liked this comment as soon as I heard it; it’s an important impulse for journalists, for writers, for anyone. I crave literature that plays the flat note against the level one, and that’s why I want as much relevant detail as I can get. Daisey’s attempts at altering the facts erode his own attempt at portraying that clash. I’ll take the truth or the “truth”– but with all its dissonance.
Annie Strother lives and works in Washington, D.C.