The Agony and Ecstasy of This Here Editor/Actor/Blogger/Liar

The truth of the matter is that I did not want to know about the story of Mike Daisey.

I didn’t because I had seen the show a year ago and loved it. Because I think Daisey is a brilliant performer. Because he was able to hold the attention of an audience for about 90 minutes with nothing more than his voice. Because I think there are a lot of elements to his story that are factually correct. And because I knew that thinking about Mike Daisey would unleash a lot of conflict in my head and I didn’t feel like dealing with it.

So I didn’t. Until Dave pestered me to listen to the This American Life retraction episode — not once, not twice, but three days in a row until I finally cried uncle. So we listened to the story and now I’m up at 1:37 am still thinking about the whole thing which is why I’m writing this blog post on a topic that has been covered, repeatedly, ad nauseum, instead of just going to sleep like a normal person.

Here’s the deal. In my current job as an editor, whose job it is to supervise and often conduct fact checks, I can’t help but empathize with Ira Glass. It’s pretty clear that This American Life effed up in airing Daisey’s show, and effed up bad by airing the show without doing a completely rigorous fact check. It sucks when you realize that you screwed up. When you screwed up because someone else BLATANTLY lied to you? That’s a whole another level of betrayal, loathing, and self loathing. 

Now, I believe that publications are ultimately responsible for ascertaining the accuracy of the pieces they publish. But ultimately, occasional incidents like this do not tend to tarnish the reputation of a media outlet. They will absolutely tarnish the reputation of that specific writer. Editor Ruchi will also tell you in an exasperated voice that fact checks protect writers as much as they do publications. And that next time a writer is cranky about getting an email asking for verification of a bunch of details they would do well to think about how much better it would have been for Daisey if This American Life had actually tracked down Daisey’s translator and subjected his monologue to a rigorous fact check. Sure the piece might have never made it on the air, but we also wouldn’t be talking about the death of Daisey’s career right now either.

As an editor, I can understand the importance of facts, of accuracy, of note taking (which Daisey never did), of quotations, of precise reporting. 

But as an actor … well I think there’s considerably more gray area. And as a writer and blogger, I’m starting to wonder about my own guilt.

So let’s start with reporting. Reporting is what you see on the front page of the New York Times. It is fact-based, it is usually neutral point of view in tone, it is clear cut. When you are reporting it is important to know whether you visited five factories or ten. Whether you interviewed twenty people or five. You cannot turn five people into one. You cannot say something happened in Shenzhen when it happened in Hong Kong. That is reporting.

Then there are books. These are neatly labeled. There is non fiction, there is fiction, and then there are memoirs which falls into a convoluted in between category. The non fiction may contain fiction — dialogue is often not exactly verbatim — and the fiction may contain non fiction. But these are categories one understands.

But there is no “fiction” section at your local theatre, nor “non fiction.” Theatre is not neatly categorized, but a lot of theatre (but not all) works under the idea of suspension of disbelief. Basically, the author accepts the world of the show while watching. Afterwards, outside the theatre, suspension is suspended, and the audience is free to conclude that actually people don’t burst out into song randomly or that no one swears as much as those a$$holes in that David Mamet play.

Those are of course uncomplicated examples of works that would generally be taken to be shelved in the “fiction” section. But even with works with non fictional elements, liberties can be taken that cannot in journalism.

Chronology for example. Dialogue. The creation of an emotional arc. 

When I was 19, I stage managed a play about the Haymarket riots in Chicago. The play was painstakingly researched by the director Lawrence Bogad, and there were scenes, dialogue, and elements from the play that came straight from the historical record. There was also stuff that was completely theatrical. But put together, the play told a story about Haymarket that was … well, let’s just say that to drape the title “fiction” over that work would have felt wrong.

Which is why I think Daisey’s critics — the ones who say he should have a disclaimer in front of his theatre performance saying that it’s fiction — are not being entirely fair. We just don’t view theatre in the same lens as journalism. In my mind, if Daisey’s sins are inflating the number of union workers he interviewed, or turning three people into one, or saying that an old man with a bad hand who really existed said the iPad was magical when he didn’t exactly say that … I just don’t think, in the context of the theatre, that that crap matters.

It just doesn’t. And Daisey doesn’t need a big honking fiction sign over his play to signify that those details were fudged. I felt for Ira Glass when he said that talking to Daisey was exhausting because instead of saying, “Yeah I lied,” he’d say, “Well I did take that taxi to that exit ramp but it wasn’t with Cathy and it wasn’t in the city I said it was,” but I also —and maybe I’m giving Daisey too much credit — but I also think that the long, exhausting answer is probably the more truthful one. Because the way theatrical monologues are created in dynamic ways can involve fudging details.

On the other hand, if Daisey did not actually meet anyone that was underage when he was in China, well, that’s a problem. In journalism and in theatre. Because that bit is so critical to the story Daisey is telling. And yet, that problem, I feel, could not be solved by simply slapping “fiction” onto Daisey’s story, because really, this is ultimately a story about real people, alive and recently deceased. The “fiction” label doesn’t tell us what is real and what is fabrication. The “fiction” label does not tell us that many elements of Daisey’s story are true — workers are often overworked, there have been safety issues — just as it does not tell us the elements that are exaggerated — underage workers in China exist, but are rare.

So in journalism there are lines and they are very easy to cross. In traditional theatre there are lines and they are pretty hard to cross. In first person monologue pieces, or in say blogging and personal writing, there are lines and they are confusing.

In 2000, Dan Savage wrote an account in a weekly Seattle newspaper The Stranger about a time he went to Iowa and licked the door knobs of the Gary Bauer campaign offices. I am pretty sure this is not in fact, a factual account of his trip to Iowa, although it was a highly amusing read. 

In my own blogging, I am certainly guilty of screwing with time and space, making up dialogue, and exaggerating for comedic effect. I have never worried that someone was going to come fact check me and say, “You said there were five cop cars but there were only three,” mostly because no one really cares that much about my writing, but I’ve also never felt like I was letting my audience down with my occasional fabrications. Like Daisey, I regard my first person narrative as story telling. And stories, even true stories, have a little bit of spice thrown in.

In fact the blog spectrum operates within a wide range of truthiness — some bloggers operate on the side of honest and in your face on things as personal as mental illness and divorce. Some ostensibly write about their lives, but in a super sanitized way that you know cannot possibly be anyone’s actual and complete truth. And some write hysterical stories about metal chickens that are really too good to be true, but don’t tell me that they’re not because that is just spoiling it. And all bloggers omit all kinds of details about their lives so the reality you get from someone’s blog is essentially a created one, a theatrical self, if you will.

We accept this creation of self in personal writing and story telling quite a bit. We accept exaggeration, futzing with chronology, we accept spice. We accept five factories instead of twenty.

But there is futzing and then there is a central and core honesty of your piece. No one gave a shit if I said that three cop cars had shown up when there were only two. But if I had lied about my year of not buying things — if I had been secretly shopping at the Gap the whole time, or even if I had shopped at the Gap once or twice and never mentioned it — that, I believe, would have been a complete and total betrayal to my audience. And no amount of disclaimers about how my blog was a fictionalized account of my life would have changed that.

And ultimately that’s why I find a lot of the This American Life handwringing over where the guards had guns or whether there were five factory workers or twenty … it matters in the context of TAL, a journalism program, but it doesn’t matter in the context of story telling. 

What matters in the context of story telling is if Daisey actually met an underage worker.

And he knows it.

Which is why, whatever the actual truth, he’s sticking to that part of the story.

7 responses to “The Agony and Ecstasy of This Here Editor/Actor/Blogger/Liar

  1. Oh Ruchi. I usually agree with you, but in this case, I couldn’t disagree more. You wrote, “I just don’t think, in the context of the theatre, that that crap matters,” referring to some of the stuff Daisy exaggerated, and I think it absolutely fucking does. Because he is standing there before an audience telling a story in first person, a very important story, and we have NO reason not to believe him. It’s not the same as a play in which actors are playing other people. Daisy is standing there playing himself, and just telling a story, and using details to make a point, and if he is exaggerating the facts of what actually happened, then he is misleading the audience because we naturally assume that he is telling us what really happened. You might not, as an experienced theater person, but I guarantee you the general public does.

    This whole incident makes me absolutely sick. I listened to his piece on This American Life and believed every word he said. And it wasn’t only because he was saying it on a journalistic show like This American Life — it was because when people say, “This happened to me. I spoke to this many people and visited this many factories, and these workers told me x, y, and z,” I take their word for it if I have no reason not to. And I think most people do.

    About the scene in which the mangled worker tells him he’s never seen an operating iPad before, it’s a great theatrical moment, but it’s also rendered impotent by the fact that it didn’t actually happen. Why? Because Daisy emphasizes that part with such dramatic intensity in order to prove his point. And that’s what I’m really getting to here in a round about way. He is standing before an audience in this show making a case. Trying to get us to believe something. Trying to prove something to us. And if the “facts” he is using to prove his point are all made up, then he is no better than someone who lies on the witness stand. He has not actually proven anything.

    He has seriously undermined his cause because once we find out he’s lied to us about certain facts, we have no reason to believe anything else he tells us. All of this words are called into question.

    But don’t worry about Mike Daisy’s career. He’s a slippery son of a bitch. I predict that he will write a show about this incident and try to milk our sympathies for all they are worth. He sounded like he was already doing it on This American Life’s retraction show. His answers sounded like just more blustery drama, and I was screaming to all the other people I imagined listening to the show, “Don’t believe him! Don’t feel sorry for him! That’s just what he wants!”

  2. “He has seriously undermined his cause because once we find out he’s lied to us about certain facts, we have no reason to believe anything else he tells us. All of this words are called into question.”

    Yes. This. He did his cause no favours at all. I’m sure that most of what he said is true, but he just made it a hell of a lot easier for Apple, other similar manufacturers, and anyone else to dismiss the whole case.

    I do get where you’re coming from, and I did have some sympathy for him when he said that the theatre is different (it’s great to hear some commentary from someone with a theatrical background – I’ve mostly been reading through a scientific lens, e.g. this post on the Retraction Watch blog that usually deals with the retraction and correction of scientific papers). BUT, as he said on the (excruciatingly painful) retraction show, he made a HUGE mistake in letting TAL air it within their own, journalistic, context.

    I also agree with the first commenter that this will not be the end of Daisey’s career… something tells me that people in the theatrical world, where he makes his living, will understand his arguments much better than scientists or journalists will!

  3. Heh – just saw this from Slate:

    “Can I make stuff up? A visual guide”. Might lighten the mood a wee bit 🙂

  4. Cath, thanks for the link! I think it raises part of what I was trying to get at in my 1:30 am brooding session.

    I want to be clear: I am not defending Daisey. I think he absolutely lied on TAL and in interviews where he was treated as an expert. I think he also very likely crossed the bounds of what is okay even in a theatrical context — this is why I’m fixating on the did he actually meet an underage worker question — but so far Daisey insists that he stayed behind the line of what I think is acceptable for theatre.

    But I do think theatre is a different medium than journalism. And some fact bending in my opinion (though not all fact bending) is okay in theatre that is not in journalism.

    I look a lot of my favorite writers and bloggers, and I know that a lot of them made stuff up. People fabricate stuff all the time especially when it is in a first person narrative. And we don’t care. We don’t care when David Sedaris makes things up. We don’t care when our favorite blogger makes things up.

    Obviously, the Daisey piece is different. But I guess I’m left wondering when it is okay to fabricate and when it’s not. That article is actually kind of helpful! (Although I think memoir is too high up there. People make stuff up in memoirs all the time and most people don’t get called on it in the way James Frey did … again it depends on how central your fabrications are to your core truth.)

    One thing though that I do wonder. This year, the NY Times did a huge story on Apple in China with some really brilliant reporting. Would they have done it if Daisey hadn’t been getting all this attention for his play? Did he push the actual journalists to get off their ass and find out what was going on? I think it’s possible that he did.

  5. I think Daisy could have gotten as much attention for his play and this issue without making stuff up. I think Daisy is a good enough writer/performer that he could have been completely truthful and still made his point.

    The difference between David Sedaris or a funny personal blogger and Mike Daisy’s piece about China is that the former are meant to simply entertain, while the latter is meant to prove a point. You can’t prove a point by making up shit because made up shit is only proof that you’re good at making up shit.

    I guess I also feel really miffed because I DON’T make stuff up–not stuff that matters. I might quote a conversation and forget the exact words, but I wouldn’t change the entire gist of the conversation to suit my ends. I would never say that someone cried and said they had never seen how an iPad works if that whole entire conversation never happened! What matters is whether what you’re making up actually changes the meaning of what you are reporting. Daisy’s exaggerations absolutely change what we believe to be the truth about what is going on in China.

    The real truth is bad enough.

  6. And also? If I had seen Daisy’s show in the theater and then found out later a lot of it was made up, I’d be pissed. I don’t care what the forum is. If he wants to make up funny stories about his personal life, I could care less. But if he’s trying to convince me to care about a real situation occurring in the world, he’d better be telling me the truth.

  7. It’s funny because I read this NYT Mag article about “The Lifespan of a Fact,” a book which tracks the correspondence between a lowly factchecher — who got tasked with factchecking an *essay* in which nearly every fact was fabricated or exaggerated — and the obstinate author. The author said he had the right to make things up for the sake of telling a story and getting his message across.

    I ended up reading another article on “The Lifespan of a Fact,” which revealed, hilariously, much of the correspondence in the book was actually made up. (I almost bought it for you!)

    All that to say, I think the distinction between fact and fiction can be muddy, except for when your “art,” “essay,” or whatever has a call to action, that a) takes advantage of people’s emotions and b) puts someone’s livelihood at risk.

    To be fair, Apple’s livelihood is just fine, whether Daisy is lying or not. But you could easily imagine an analogous situation that could cause real harm to a smaller business if Daisey is, in fact, lying.

    Finally: “Editor Ruchi will also tell you in an exasperated voice that fact checks protect writers as much as they do publications.” – I can confirm that Editor Ruchi really says this sort of thing in an exasperated voice.

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