Friday night, public radio program "This American Life" posted a retraction to their January 6 episode, which featured excerpts from Mike Daisey's critically acclaimed show The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. Host Ira Glass stated that the monologue, based on Daisey's trip to visit the Foxconn factory in China, contained "significant fabrications" and Daisey lied to the show's staff during their fact-checking process. Although the details of Daisey's story seemed to check out at the time, Glass took full responsibility for airing the narrative and repeatedly apologized to his viewers throughout Friday's broadcast. Unfortunately, Mike Daisey's apology wasn't quite as convincing.
This retraction brings up two important issues: journalistic integrity and creative license. As a young woman growing up in conditions vastly different than those in Shenzhen, I bought into Daisey's story hook, line, and sinker. I even forwarded the "This American Life" link to family members and friends. Following the public retraction, I not only felt misled by Daisey, but like Glass, I felt guilty of misleading those to whom I recommended the story. Regardless of public backlash, Daisey stands by his story in the theatrical context and maintains his only mistake was bringing his monologue into the journalistic sphere. His adamant assertion of the distinction between the two forums brings up an important question: to what degree do storytellers, artistic or not, have a responsibility to their audience to be honest?
When I first learned of the falsehoods in Daisey's story, I immediately thought of the infamous retraction of "Jimmy's World," authored by Janet Leslie Cooke in the 1980s. Cooke wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning story, which was entirely fabricated, for the Washington Post. Like Daisey's story, "Jimmy's World," about an 8-year-old heroin addict, was well received by critics; those familiar with addiction, however, quickly recognized that this kind of a story was highly unlikely. In addition to law enforcement's failed efforts to find the boy, many could not reconcile the details and discrepancies in Cooke's story about the troubled child. Similarly, the lies in Daisey's tale were discovered only when a reporter familiar with the actual conditions in Shenzhen heard the monologue and questioned its authenticity.
Ironically, Daisey himself performed a monologue about another famous incident concerning the fine line between artistic leeway and journalistic standards. According to Daisey's website, his 2006 monologue about James Frey entitled Truth "follows the fictional and non-fictional stories of Frey's self-destruction." Perhaps a self-fulfilling prophecy, Daisey recounts his own history and struggles with lying in Truth, admitting that he once fabricated a story because it better "connected" with his audience. In Jason Zinoman's New York Times review, he writes, "After telling this lie over and over again, it became so integrated into the architecture of his piece that it became impossible to remove or, perhaps, to distinguish from what really happened. Mr. Daisey seems embarrassed by this confession, but he also pursues the issue further. Is lying acceptable when in service of a greater truth? What does truth mean in the context of art?"
While some argue that Daisey lied for critical acclaim, he maintains he was so determined to help the Chinese workers that he included half-truths in his monologue in order to call attention to Shenzhen's suicide problem. One anonymous friend insists that Daisey's "messianic zeal" took over. According to The Daily Beast, the friend says, "Mike has made himself an easy target because he can't keep his mouth shut. He got really excited about the press. He didn't think about what the consequences would be of writing an op-ed piece in The New York Times. He didn't think about what it would mean to be quoted constantly about Apple. He just kept going." Ultimately, Daisey was in way over his head. Everyone has exaggerated a story in order to further engage an audience, but one's audience is generally friends and family, not the general public. Moreover, Daisey quickly became one of Apple's most outspoken critics, frequently citing labor violations he saw with his own eyes.
In Friday's retraction episode, Glass asks Daisey why he wasn't truthful despite repeated opportunities to backtrack. Daisey replies after a long pause, "I think I was terrified." His regular pauses, once powerfully dramatic, convincing, and suspenseful, are now excruciatingly painful and uncomfortable. It is probable that the monologue, which became the most downloaded podcast in the history of "This American Life," would have been just as powerful without the fabrications. It is Daisey's uncanny ability to tell the story that is unmatchable, not necessarily the narrative itself. If Daisey truly believed that his fabrications were vital to the success of The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, he could have done as many movies do and included a small "based on a true story" disclaimer somewhere in the program. While he claims to distinguish between the theater and reality with ease, those who heard his theatrical monologue with the understanding that it was truth are having a more difficult time.
Unfortunately for Daisey, the decision not to change the name of his Chinese/English translator in the narrative ultimately led the remainder of his story to unravel. Perhaps if he had decided not to be truthful about this one small detail, the rest of his lies would never have been discovered.