Clash of the Storytelling Titans

I performed Mike Daisey’s “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” in a staged reading at A Red Orchid Theatre over two Mondays in March of 2012, shortly after the piece was made available for royalty-free public performance, and shortly before This American Life revealed certain details of the story to be false. I’ll start with this:


“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.” — Mike Daisey

He ain’t lying.

Daisey did go to China, in 2010, when many were not going there. There was a story in China that Daisey thought wasn’t being given a full hearing, in any medium, and he used the biggest tool in his arsenal (and the oldest tool there is) to spread that story: the first-person account, told to a room with people in it, listening.

That’s what he does. He’s been doing it for over 10 years. He’s very, very good at it.

But the problem was this: because he zealously craved attention to that story, and because he’d spent the last decade in a bubble of performance art creating compelling personal narratives for adoring audiences, he pathologically assumed that it was okay to tell tens of thousands of people that he had witnessed certain things first-hand, things which he only knew to be true second-hand.

That was wrong.

I don’t care how “sophisticated” you think your audience is. Telling people “I met workers who were 12 years-old” is not a metaphor. You, Mike Daisey, told me (and I, subsequently, told two Chicago audiences) that you met a 12-year-old worker in China. No one who saw either of our shows heard those words and thought “perhaps that’s not true.”

You and I know better: the fact that people heard that and believed it to be true, in a theater as in life, is the juice that drives the point home.

But that’s not a “use” of the performer-audience relationship; it’s an abuse. And it’s an abuse that an audience in a theater only forgives in ignorance; as soon as a narrator is found to be unreliable, the larger points of a story always suffer.

This is what you were referring to when you told Ira that telling people the whole truth about your experiences in China would “ruin everything.”

And now we find that, in a way, yes, it has. For every person who is engaged with the nuances of this controversy, there are perhaps thousands for whom the only takeaway is “Mike Daisey = Liar.” That’s just the way it is in the soundbite world, admittedly a world far away from the place where people will sit for two hours straight and listen to one person tell his story.

But let’s get a hold of ourselves. Should we really be discussing “the abuse of the performer-audience relationship” in the same breath as the real, tangible abuse of Chinese factory workers? Shouldn’t This American Life feel just a little bit silly devoting a solid hour, full of probing research and revealing details, to both of these abuses equally?

The brief piece on Marketplace could have been followed up with a footnote on the TAL website, and perhaps an audio insertion at the top of the original piece, and everybody would have been happy.

But to drag Daisey into a studio and grill him for four hours about what he did actually see and what he didn’t– it’s called “burying the lede.” For apparently hell hath no fury like a public-radio storyteller scorned, especially when he’s got the huge, sanctimonious club of “journalistic ethics” at his side.

Ira tells us that when Daisey told TAL (quite reasonably but perhaps now could be seen as duplicitous) that he didn’t know how to get in touch with the translator he worked with in China, Ira says “We should have killed the story right there.”

Really? And not go to the trouble of google-ing the words “Cathy Translator Shenzhen,” and calling the first number that came up, as Marketplace’s Rob Schmitz successfully did?

Perhaps it would be more accurate to say hell hath no fury like a public-radio storyteller scooped.

But even still– Cathy Lee (actually Li Guifen) was only one observer to the events Mike Daisey describes. Mike Daisey was another. Yet in the follow-up piece on TAL so many of Daisey’s assertions were seemingly shot down using no more evidence than the very un-journalistic practice of “he said/she said.” Over and over in the piece, Mike said something happened, and they would play tape of Cathy saying it didn’t happen.

The conclusion: Mike lied.

No mention was made of the mitigating factors, such as Cathy’s reliance on business interests as her primary source of income. Barely any credence given to the two-year gap between event and recollection. And holy cow, you know how long people in China can go to prison if they agitate for labor reforms? That’s right, the correct answer is years.

While Cathy certainly sounds open and honest and unconcerned with her personal involvement in the whole matter, it certainly seems, for those operating under the unbending cause of “pure journalism,” irresponsible to accuse Daisey of untruths using the testimony of only one other (perhaps comprimised) witness.

But even if one takes the translator at her word, and even if everything Glass/Schmitz asserts to be a lie is in fact a lie– total it all up and it comes to a very small fraction of Daisey’s overall piece (the original script of which you can still download at Daisey’s site; don’t go looking for the original TAL audio, as it is no longer available).

Draw a line through all the “horrifying” (Ira’s word) stuff: look for instances where Daisey prefaces his details of worker abuse and physical trauma with the words “I saw”; strikethrough those two words immediately. Cross out the bit about the guards carrying guns. Take out any references to Starbucks. Shave off about half of the number of factories and people Daisey visited. The guy with the claw for a hand probably didn’t call the iPad “magic.” No cameras in the factory dorm rooms (just everywhere else). And let’s go ahead and change “12-year-old” to, say, “16-year-old.” (But guess what! You can leave that part in about Mike wearing a Hawaiian shirt! Because Schmitz, with the kind of straight face that surely only the hardest journalism can muster, assures us that at least THAT much is true).

Make all the corrections necessary to Daisey’s show that This American Life requires, and I think, at the end, you’ll find no need to re-sharpen your pencil.

Even if you’d been following this story closely, unless you’d seen or read the show you’d never guess that almost half the show’s two-hour running time actually has nothing to do with China at all, concerning itself instead with Steve Jobs’ history with Apple. And those sections are some of the funniest things you’ve heard since Sedaris.

Speaking of which: Where’s the expose on “Santaland Diaries?” Was that not also one man’s recollections of the sordid underbelly of a major corporation? Quick, Ira, google “Macy’s” stat!

All this to say: Daisey was taken down for being a faulty storyteller, not for being a faulty journalist. Something he never claimed to be and something he really wasn’t even presented as during his original appearance on “This American Life.”

His piece on the show was not read to a microphone in a studio. He performed it as he’d always performed it, in front of a live audience, who do not, as a matter of habit and taste, come to the theater expecting straight journalism. I’d argue those listening to the piece on the radio, because of the format it was presented in, were under the same assumption.

They were listening to a man tell a story. Just as they, two months later, listened to Ira Glass tell a different story. But while Daisey’s piece holds an entire multinational corporation’s feet to the fire, Glass’ piece was only concerned with lighting the fire under Mike Daisey.

And, in the end, as always, we will all hear what we want to hear.

I look forward to Daisey’s next piece with great interest. He says he will “be making a full accounting… shining a light through the monologue and telling the story of its origins, construction, and details.” Sounds most compelling– a story about a story, told by one of our master storytellers. And I may perform “TATESJ” again someday. After all, no one in MY audience ever believed for a second that I had personally seen the things I described. Still worked like gangbusters.

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About Lance Baker

An actor and director in Chicago and on the road.

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