Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Defending Mr. Daisey (part 1 of 3)

[Also posted on Huffington Post]


On March 16, Ira Glass devoted an entire episode of This American Life to doing that which newspapers do with a few sentences in a small box buried on an inside page: retracting an error. In this case, the error was the January 6th episode entitled Mike Daisey and the Apple Factory, a broadcast devoted to the working conditions at Apple's supplier Foxxconn. Since then, following Glass' lead, there has been a great deal of commentary condemning Daisey for his "fabrications." Nevertheless, recent news reports have confirmed that the conditions at Foxxconn are as bad or worse than Daisey described.

Over three days, here on the Huffington Post Culture page, we'll look at this controversy from three different perspectives. Act One: Lies Like Truth, in which we look at the difference between art and journalism. Act Two: Big Fact, Little Fact, in which we examine the importance of the "fabrications" and the basis for labeling them as such. And finally, Act Three: The Full Winfrey, in which we explore Glass' seeming attempt to claim a spot as the next Oprah.

I'm Scott Walters. Stay with us.

Act One: Lies Like Truth

When Ira Glass and This American Life broadcast its "Retraction" of their story that featured Mike Daisey's The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, I was in rehearsal and didn't have the time to write. I've spent my adult life doing and teaching theatre, and I've even done research into the traditions of one-person shows. So my reaction was perhaps a little bit different than most: I laughed out loud, and then I got angry. Both reactions were directed at Ira Glass. Let me explain.

When I first heard Glass' quavering opening remarks, as if he were announcing to the world the death of Tinkerbell right there on his show, all I could think of was all of the bad actors I've heard over my career desperately trying to sound "distraught" during a Henrik Ibsen or Tennessee Williams audition monologue. "I'm coming to you today to say something that I've never had to say on our program," he intoned, voice uninflected as if he were trying to maintain control of his emotions. "Two months ago, we broadcast a story that we've come to believe [deep, deep breath] is not true." Oh, spare me.

But when he mentioned the story was Daisey's, I pricked up my ears. Could it be that all those stories Daisey had been telling about the horrendous conditions at Foxxconn weren't true after all? I listened, trying to ignore the delivery and focus on the words themselves.

Glass went on, "We did fact-check the story before we put it on the radio." Oh, well, OK, I thought, did you miss one? "But in fact-checking,,." he continued, "our main concern was whether the things that Mike says about Apple and about its supplier, Foxconn, which makes this stuff, were true. That stuff is true. It's been corroborated by independent investigations by other journalists and studies by advocacy groups. And much of it has been corroborated by Apple itself in its own audit reports."

At this moment, I felt myself doing a blink take made famous by George Burns back in the Golden Age of Television, when his wife Gracie would say something incomprehensible and George would turn to camera with a confused look on his face and cigar suspended mid-puff.

I listened with growing incredulity as Glass said, "But what's not true is what Mike said about his own trip to China." Did Daisey not actually go to China? Did he make the whole thing up? Surely it has to be something as major as this to require an entire hour to retract. Glass turned the program over to Marketplace reporter Rob Schmitz, who to my amazement outlined the "issues" that were causing Daisey's story to "unravel." We'll talk about these in Act Two, but right now I'd like to rewind to the original January broadcast.

In the Prologue, Glass tells his listeners, "A couple weeks ago I saw this one-man show where this guy did something on stage I thought was really kind of amazing. He took this fact that we all already know, right, 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. 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. And I bring this up because today we are excerpting that story here on the radio show.... What you are about to hear is an excerpt of Mike Daisey's show which he adapted for the radio and performed for a small audience." By the way, those italics were mine.

So let's stop right there. Glass, someone who has spent 17 years telling stories on This American Life, saw Daisey's show -- a show done on a stage in a theatre where tickets are sold -- and he was emotionally affected. Through his talents as a storyteller, Daisey was able to turn facts that "we all already know" into something that made the audience "actually feel something about that fact." Which is sort of what theatre is all about, right? And Glass was so impressed that he asked Daisey to do an excerpt of the play on the radio. And excerpt. Of a play. By a storyteller.

And they fact-checked the stuff about Apple, and it all checked out. In fact, the second part of the broadcast was a bunch of experts confirming the details of Foxxconn and its ilk. All good.
What made it necessary to retract, then? Because the details of the framing story, Daisey's trip to China, didn't happen exactly as he said. Things were altered a bit in order to make the audience "actually feel something" about the issue. Daisey explained, "It's theater. It uses the tools of theater and memoir to achieve its dramatic arc. And of that arc and that work I'm very proud. Because I think it made you care, Ira. And I think it made you want to delve. And my hope is it has made other people delve.... I don't know that I would say in a theatrical context that it isn't true. I believe that when I perform it in a theatrical context in the theater, that when people hear the story in those terms, that we have different languages for what the truth means." Yes, those italics were mine again.

In response to this explanation, Glass utters a few sentences that made me whoop with laughter. This oh-so-sophisticated Ira Glass, the hipster who has spent years smirking through my radio at the absurdities of common folks, blurts out "normal people who go to see a person talk-- people take it as a literal truth. I thought the story was literally true seeing it in the theater....I took you at your word. But I feel like I have the normal worldview. The normal worldview is somebody stands on a stage and says, "This happened to me," I think it happened to them, unless it's clearly labeled, "Here's a work of fiction." Yes, those italics are mine again.

I'm sorry, but as a theatre historian, I find absurd the idea that someone standing on a stage using the first person singular is speaking literal truth. Samuel Taylor Coleridge talked about the "willing suspension of disbelief," the idea that we pretend what we're seeing on the stage is really happening. Did Glass believe that everything Spalding Gray said in, say, Swimming to Cambodia or Monster in the Box literally happened in that order and just as he said it? Gray uses the first person singular, after all, just as Daisey does. I wondered whether Glass also believed that reality TV was, you know, actually reality.

To reiterate: Daisey is using the tools of theater and memoir. Why is that significant? In 1996, Frank McCourt's memoir Angela's Ashes won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. As Jack Hart points out in his book Story Craft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction, "only a few voices questioned how McCourt could remember exact dialogue from his early childhood. Aggrieved citizens of Limerick, the Irish city where much of McCourt's action takes place, did step forward to point out dozens of errors in his description of the city.... Nobody claimed McCourt's memoir was invented from the ground up, but much of his dialogue was obviously invented and he clearly didn't apply [journalistic] standards to verify historical accuracy." To my knowledge, McCourt still possesses the Pulitzer for nonfiction, and his book doesn't reside among the novels on the shelves of my local independent bookstore. Certainly nobody devoted an entire hour of radio to "exposing" McCourt.

As Hart points out, "Creative nonfiction textbooks differ widely on their standards of accuracy," and he quotes Sondra Perl's and Mimi Schwartz's Writing True:The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction when they say, "Go to a writers' conference on creative nonfiction and two terms - emotional truth and factual truth -- create a storm of controversy." Indeed, Perl and Schwarts argue, "If we stick only to hard, verifiable facts, our past is as skeletal as line drawings in a coloring book. We must color them in," which includes letting "imagination fill in details we only vaguely remember." Indeed, that's what makes "facts that we already know" into something we "actually feel something about," the very thing that drew Glass to Daisey in the first place.

We find a similar situation when examining the Latin American form known as testimonia, which Kimberly A. Nance, in Can Literature Promote Justice?, defines as "a first-person narrative of injustice, an insistence that the subject's experience is representative of a larger class, and an intent to work toward a more just future..." She goes on, "Although the genre is frequently characterized as didactic, that description fails to recognize that the goal of testimonia is not only to educate readers about injustice, but to persuade those readers to act." Nance finds roots for the genre in Aristotle's writings on rhetoric, which characterized "deliberative speech" as speech that "asks decision-makers to determine whether or not to undertake a future action; its means are persuasion and dissuasion." In other words, testimonio shapes facts into a narrative that makes people actually feel something about those facts, and actually encourages them to do something about it. Which is precisely what Daisey's work does.

The point is that this issue of truth and fact, memoir and journalism, and theater for God's sake is not quite as simple as Glass and Schmitz would like to make it. At a time when another emotionally affecting work, Kony 2012, is being hammered for "over-simplifying" a complex topic, I find it ironic that Ira Glass is being allowed to get away with the over-simplification of this issue, and the artistic community is allowing it to occur. Yes, it makes sense to expect that the most important aspects of Daisey's monologue be able to stand up to scrutiny -- and I repeat that reports continue to verify the truth of Daisey's assertions about Foxxconn, and Ira Glass does not deny those facts -- but to expect that they should be able to excerpt a theatre piece, a work of testimonia, a memoir, a performance by a storyteller on the radio and suddenly expect it to stand up to journalistic standards in every particular is naïve at best and dishonest at worst. What drew Glass to Daisey's performance was his ability to tell a story in a way that affected an audience and moved them to delve further. As Adam Matthews says in his recent article at the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting, "Blaming Mike Daisey for lying about Steve Jobs misses the point... Foxconn does need to reform its high-pressure environment. And so do a staggering number of Chinese manufacturers, across various categories."

Stay tuned for Act Two: Big Fact, Little Fact. Next.

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