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.