I’ve been thinking a lot this weekend about the controversy surrounding playwright Mike Daisey, the creator of the wildly popular one-man show The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. The reason why this is such an important issue for me is two fold.

First, I’ve been a fan of Daisey’s work for years, going back to his original performance 21 Dog Years: Doing Time @ Amazon.com. I also attended Daisey’s latest performance when it was in Seattle, getting the opportunity to speak to him afterwards along with other members of the technology community.

Second, this controversy is about truth in the media (whether newspapers, blogs, TV, and yes, even theater). In this day and age of talking heads and misinformation, it is so easy to get a muddled message. It’s an era where the journalism profession — and the meaning of journalism itself —  is taking a beating.

If you’re just catching up to this controversy, here’s the gist of what happened. In The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, Daisey tells the story of his personal experiences chronicling the supposed horrors of working conditions at Apple supplier factories in China where he claims to have met underage workers and those who’ve been physically mangled by the experience. It is compelling stuff. But as Ira Glass — the host of the radio show This American Life discovered — much of it is not true.

Mike Daisey

Daisey embellished what happened, now saying that he used “dramatic license” to tell the story. He also now claims: “What I do is not journalism.”

In a performance this weekend in New York, Daisey entered the stage and told the audience that he stood by the performance. He also altered the work to include the latest controversy.

“I stand behind this work, and the work you are going to see today has had changes made to it so we can stand behind it completely. And it includes this controversy in it, so that you can have a full picture and you can do what you want with it,” Daisey told the crowd, according to a prologue from the show posted to his blog. “Because I believe as an audience that is your role — is to determine about how you feel about the art you take in.”

Daisey also noted:

“The whole attempt is to try to shine a light through something and get at the truth. The truth is vitally important. I believe that very deeply, and I have come here to today to set this up, because I think context is utterly important.”

Now, here’s where I have a beef with Daisey. If the truth is so important, why did he not stick to it in his performance? He didn’t offer a disclaimer before the show that I saw indicating that some of the stories he was about to tell were not true.

In fact, he did the exact opposite.

Daisey presented himself as a truth-telling crusader, the only one bold enough to show the world this story — a story that he said was being ignored by a lazy, uncaring mainstream media that didn’t have the chops to go after it.

More importantly, however, is what happened before and after the performances.

Daisey intentionally blurred the line between art and journalism — appearing on countless news shows where he presented his findings as the truth. We were led to believe that the things Daisey saw actually happened. We were led to believe that he was telling the truth, not as a theatrical playwright but as an observer who encountered first-hand the abuses in the Chinese factories. We were outraged, an emotion that Daisey played upon. He basically duped his audience.

Furthermore, after the performance, audience members were encouraged to take action based on what they had just heard. In other words, Daisey elevated his role from artist to activist, and with that changed the responsibility he had to his viewers.

All of this could have easily been avoided if Daisey had just communicated to his audience beforehand that some of the stories had been altered or changed for artistic purposes. He also could have just let the work speak for itself, rather than going on a media blitz.

Of course, that doesn’t make for powerful theater, especially on a topic as complex as the one Daisey was tackling.

We’ve actually been here before. You might recall the controversy that surrounded The Social Network, a film that portrayed the early days of Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook.

As moviegoers, were we to believe this film as the truth? Probably not, and director Aaron Sorkin actually addressed that issue in an interview with New York magazine.

“I don’t want my fidelity to be to the truth; I want it to be to storytelling,” Sorkin said.

That’s a line Daisey is now uttering: He claims that his performance — and subsequent discussions about it in the media — are really about the art. Basically, telling a good yarn.

For the truth, Daisey now is encouraging folks to read about the issues from media organizations such as The New York Times, CNN and NPR which have done the “hard journalism that is necessary.” To me, that’s the biggest irony.

After all, Daisey once represented himself as the person who was the truth teller.  We now know that’s just not the case.

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  • http://blog.findwell.com Kevin Lisota

    Agreed. If you listen to him being interviewed on the episode of This American Life where they talk about retracting the story, he stammers around embarrassingly trying to explain his definition of fact vs. fiction, which clearly diverges from how the average person would define it.

    His egomaniacal quest for telling an interesting story seems to be unraveling much of the good that his message should have accomplished. Even in the embarrasing spot he finds himself in, he seems incapable of simply owning up to the real story and moving on.

  • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

    Great analysis, John. The line was crossed when Daisey himself crossed the proscenium line and kept telling the same story, without acknowledging he had taken creative license on stage. With artistic license I have no issue – but only when that material is used in an artistic context. Not when, as you note, it’s taken and promoted as having a word-for-word factual basis for later reporting or activism.

    I also saw the show in Seattle, listened to the original This American Life broadcast and then to this weekend’s retraction show. I thought Ira Glass was fair in giving Daisey ample opportunity to explain what he’d done and why he’d done it. 

    The smartest thing Daisey can do now is not to argue the righteousness of his position or attack his critics, but keep it at an apology for crossing the line, only emphasize what he truly witnessed when off stage, and keep all future literary devices inside his performances.

  • http://www.chinalawblog.com/ Dan Harris

    Great post. I too saw the play and was duped. I even wrote about how much I liked the play:  http://www.chinalawblog.com/2011/05/the_agony_and_the_ecstasy_of_steve_jobs_twelve_year_olds_work_in_factories.html

  • http://www.heinzmarketing.com Matt Heinz

    The broader issue that’s implied (at least for me) in this story is whether the growing network of amateur/citizen journalists are held, or hold themselves, to the same levels of integrity that “traditional” journalists hold dear.

    There isn’t exactly a literal equivalent of the Hippocratic oath for journalists, but a huge part of my journalism school experience was learning about mthe written and unwritten guidelines, laws and responsibilities of reporting and interpreting news and events for others.  Now that just about anybody can start a blog or gain an audience on YouTube or speak to thousands on Twitter, our access to information is nearly infinite but the integrity of that data has deteriorated.

    I don’t exactly expect nonfiction when I watch a play.  But, as John notes above, even Aaron Sorkin doesn’t shy away from the fact that he embellished the truth to make for a better story.

    Would we have cared as much about Daisey’s story and play if we knew it was fiction?  Probably not.  Gossip only works if we think there’s a possibility it might be true.  But when someone passes a story as fact (even implicitly), and we find the opposite is true, it makes us question a lot of other factual stories as well.   And that’s too bad, because responsible journalist, bloggers and storytellers get hurt in the process.

    • johnhcook

      Well said Matt. Well said. 

    • prsTM

       Matt, two words: Dan Rather.

      We’re seeing the “traditional” journalists being exposed as sloppy and/or biased by the very citizen journalists you seem to be criticizing.

      • Guest

        Very good.

        Because Dan Rather has been exposed as a fraud by citizen journalists, citizen journalists are virtuous and “traditional” journalists are not to be trusted.

        Good. I like your style.

  • Guest

    Dear Mike:

    Refund, please.

    The public

    • Guest

      Retard.  Please don’t speak for everyone.  
      Mike’s *theater* is great, very entertaining, and worth every penny.

      • Guest

        Mike is a clown. If you want to go to the circus, go. I went to a show to be informed, not just entertained, and I expect a full refund.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Steve-Murch/705204492 Steve Murch

    As Stephen Colbert noted with his incredibly witty satire, this is sadly the era of “truthiness”.  Unfortunately, we are in an era where the storyline sometimes “matters more” (at least in terms of selling stuff) than the facts.  


    “Truthiness is a quality characterizing a “truth” that a person claims to know intuitively “from the gut” or because it “feels right” without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts.”

    • Anonymous

      I truly wish I could agree with you but this is not a new thing.  Consider the yellow journalism that incited the Spanish-American War a century ago.  I see no difference between Mr Daisey and Hurst though one could argue Hurst had more interest in making money that Daisey.  That fact is that journalistic bias and outright fabrication have been with us since Gutenberg.  I seriously doubt that the future will be any better.

  • Guest

    Blatent fraud like this should not go unpunished.

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