Ira Glass of This American Life and Rob Schmitz of Marketplace weren’t the first journalists to confront Mike Daisey about the accuracy of The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. I did it last May.
I’ve covered Daisey’s career for a decade, most recently as a critic for the New York Times, and have been one of Daisey’s most effusive champions. Weaving poetic meditations with emotionally probing memoir and fascinating historical digressions, his monologues displayed an ambition that I believe the American theater badly needs.
I had been following reviews of Steve Jobs before I even saw it. As it toured the country before coming to New York, critics noted how Daisey’s show attacked the press for not sufficiently covering the labor conditions at Apple’s factories in China. A Seattle reviewer reported that Daisey said in the show that “there’s no journalism” in Shenzhen, where about half of the world’s consumer electronics are produced, and that the New York Times merely reprinted corporate press releases when reporting on Apple’s labor practices.
This surprised me. Searching the Times archives, I found plenty of reporting, particularly from 2010, around the time of a series of employee suicides in Shenzhen. As I saw it, Daisey was diminishing the contributions of foreign correspondents working under tremendously difficult conditions in order to make his show seem more noteworthy. I criticized Daisey’s comments on my Facebook page. Daisey responded on my page by attacking the writer of the review. I countered that if the review was accurate, and Daisey were a journalist, he would need to begin his next show announcing a correction. Our conversation then migrated to email, where Daisey said that he described the Times coverage as emphasizing "the economic story, and not the human one." He asked that the rest of our exchange be off the record, but it was a respectful back-and-forth, and I was happy to see that he took the journalism thread out of the show before it came to New York. But in our conversation, he never allowed that he’d gotten the facts wrong about the Times’ coverage.
This tracks with his reaction to last week’s revelations that he had invented material for Steve Jobs. He remains defiant, arguing that he wasn’t lying, only using dramatic license. “I'm not going to say that I didn't take a few shortcuts in my passion to be heard," he told Ira Glass last week. "But I stand behind the work. My mistake, the mistake that I truly regret is that I had it on your show as journalism, and it's not journalism. It's theater."
But the reason Daisey became a star is that he was seen—by critics and audiences alike—as much more than a theater artist. Daisey has in the past referred to himself not as an actor or playwright, but as a storyteller. The standards for truth in this form are not as stringent as they are in journalism, but Daisey clearly traded on his audience’s expectation that he was delivering accurate accounts, not inventing experiences.
Daisey’s defense is that he told small lies in service of a larger truth. But Apple’s labor conditions had already been reported on by the press and by human rights organizations. What Daisey brought to the table—and what made his monologue so gripping to so many—were precisely the details he fabricated: the details about the human victims, the shaking-hands of the workers infected by the neurotoxin N-Hexane, who he claimed to have met; his claim that he met workers who were 12, 13, and 14 years old. What was missing from the reporting was flesh and blood; real life examples, observed in person. That’s what Daisey gave us. And it worked, at least for a while. The Times’ 2010 reporting on Foxconn did not grab the attention of the general public. Daisey’s inventions did.