Mike Daisey and the Power of Witness

Mike Daisey

At first glance, it looks like there’s not much more to say about Mike Daisey’s recent unfortunate encounter with journalism. After real journalist Rob Schmitz found that his monologue The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs (developed in part at Portland’s Time Based Arts Festival in 2010) contained statements that Daisey had spoken to people he hadn’t and seen things he didn’t, the brilliant monologist was forced to recant (somewhat defensively) last month in an extraordinary and uncomfortable segment on the public radio show This American Life, which had earlier run excerpts of it. “Although he’s not a journalist, we made clear to him that anything he was going to say on our show would have to live up to journalistic standards,” said TAL host Ira Glass. “He had to be truthful. And he lied to us.”

After first raising the defense that journalism and theater operate “under a different set of rules and expectations” and “have different languages for what the truth means,” Daisey last week agreed to remove about six minutes of counterfactual material from his monologue.

“Things came out of my mouth that just weren’t true,” he admitted on his blog. “When I said onstage that I had personally experienced things I in fact did not, I failed to honor the contract I’d established with my audiences over many years and many shows. In doing so, I not only violated their trust, I also made worse art.

“When The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs is performed again in just a few days, it will have changed,” Daisey continued. “It will have none of the material called into question on This American Life, and nothing in the piece will break the rules I have developed over years with my audiences.”

Meanwhile, the real culprits — the inhumane Foxconn factories that make more than half the world’s electronics and their multinational corporate enablers, not just Apple but also Dell, Sony, Nokia and other tech giants — agreed to increase worker pay, reduce overtime and otherwise improve working conditions and safety. However, the company might also wind up moving the problem to Vietnam, with its even lower labor standards, or switching more operations from people to robots.

So that settles it, right? The truth is restored, the chastened perpetrator repentant, the scrutiny may have caused the company to clean up (or at least paper over) some of its more egregious abuses, and This American Life and other journalistic outlets will upgrade their fact checking regimes. As OAW’s Barry Johnson pointed out, as long as we keep our perspective on the relative demerits of Daisey’s sin vs. the corporate abuses he was trying to expose, those are all relatively happy outcomes.

But the resolution of this particular incident leaves one more question, and it transcends this episode. Why did Daisey, initially insist that he had actually talked to people he hadn’t? The answer tells us something much more important than last month’s imbroglio has thus far revealed.

Agony/Ecstasy is actually just the latest episode in a much larger story: the appropriation of witness, or, to put it another way, the fraudulent use of fiction disguised as fact. The roster of disgrace is long: Janet Cooke and the composite character she contrived in the Washington Post, resulting in the revocation of the paper’s Pulitzer Prize; Stephen Glass; John Berendt; the odious James Frey; “J.T. Leroy.” I’m not sure Daisey (who, in a somewhat eerie near-foreshadowing of the current controversy, actually explored with latter two writers’ alleged conflict between factual accuracy and storytelling imperatives in his 2006 monologue, Truth) belongs in that reviled company, since his statements did appear on stage in a theatrical context, and not in journalistic publications or a book mistitled as memoir.

It’s hard for Portlanders to stay angry at Daisey, since we saw him often at TBA events over the past few years — he’s hard to miss — and his intentions were noble, his persona sympathetic, his storytelling searing and powerful. Unlike the others above, he really is a theater guy who thrust himself unprepared into a journalistic milieu. That doesn’t excuse his mistake, but it helps explain it, and it makes his recantation, apology, and attempted expiation much more persuasive. Having admired several of his works, I’ll give him another chance.

Still, I couldn’t help but bristle at his initial response to This American Life’s accusations. Like most of these prevaricators, he first resorted to the cop out that via fiction, they could tell a greater truth. That fatuous rationalization that writers can lie their way to truth has been widely discredited, not least effectively by Stephen Colbert and his satirical concept of “truthiness.”

But it certainly wouldn’t have been less truthful to simply tell readers what was true and what wasn’t. When each of the writers listed above was exposed as misinformer, the question arose: why didn’t they just call what they were doing fiction? Why didn’t Daisey simply preface his monologue with a disclaimer like “this story is based on real events, but not every event mentioned here actually happened,” or say that others have reported Foxconn workers with twisted hands, hexane poisoning and other conditions, rather than claiming to have seen those symptoms himself? Why not call Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil or the discredited memoirs novels, instead of nonfiction? The writers could still use the same storytelling devices but clarify what elements were factual. So the solution to this problem is simple: disclose to readers what’s true and what isn’t. If you’re intentionally making a hybrid of fact and fiction, just tell your audience and call it a hybrid. That’s part of the implicit contract Daisey now understands he violated. So why didn’t he, and the other offenders, do that in the first place?

The answer is that in an age when so much of what claims to be real, from government propaganda to campaign commercials to Photoshopped images to Fox “news” (the original Fox con) to fake memoirs, the quality of witness is extraordinarily important. That’s why we worship the power of witness as much as we crave the power of storytelling. That’s why Oprah Winfrey was visibly angry at Frey — she felt betrayed. And that’s what Daisey belatedly realized when he cottoned to having “violated [audiences'] trust.”

None of those deceptive books would have sold a fraction of what they did had the covers called them what they were: fiction. That’s why the fabricators strive so assiduously to cloak their creations in the guise of truth. The perpetrators knew how desperately we crave the power of actual events, because so little of what we experience in our mediated world consists of verifiable facts. Like a copy of Action Comics #1, their rarity makes them precious, too, if not as much as their inherent value.

That value, at least in the utilitarian sense, is the usefulness of truth in determining our own decisions. We want to base our actions, whether they’re electronics purchases or votes or changing our own behavior (from reducing our carbon footprint to treating others in relationships better) on actual experience. One look at the fantasy world of the Republican primaries should be enough to send us fleeing back to reality, even if that reality means acknowledging and addressing (at some cost) human-caused global warming and other inconvenient truths. That’s really the basis of journalism itself: If we don’t know what’s real, we can’t make reality better.

And that’s why the branch of journalism called literary nonfiction at its best can be so powerful: it combines the power of storytelling with the power of truth. Which is why journalists resent Daisey, Glass and the rest most of all.

Truththumb

I have experience in both areas, having been in a theater company in college and written (unproduced) plays based on historical events, and also having earned a master’s degree in literary nonfiction from the University of Oregon, where we studied these issues and controversies. So I can appreciate the conflicting considerations, but I come down on the side of the journalists — which is to say, the readers, or the audience. Shortcutting fabricators devalue the hard work of real journalists like Kate Boo (who spent years in India reporting the story of her new book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity), Gay Talese, Joan Didion and my own mentor, UO faculty member and award-winning author Lauren Kessler, not to mention truth-slinging theater artists like Anna Deveare Smith and Lauren Weedman, who lied about a personal experience in a magazine article, and then turned that incident and her repentant stretch at a women’s prison into the autobiographical play Bust, which ran at Portland Center Stage last year. Talk about turning lies into truth!

I’ve also seen the misleading power of theatrical lies. I don’t think Peter Shaffer ever claimed that his play Amadeus was historically 100% accurate, but millions of people probably still mistaken think Salieri murdered Mozart, or helped him complete his mighty Requiem. As with Daisey’s imagined encounters, those scenes were dramatically satisfying though not literally true. And they oversimplify what was in fact a more complicated and interesting story.

In practically every literary non-fiction story I’ve ever written, I wished I could just make up the perfect conflict scene or climax — it would have made my job so much easier to be able squeeze reality into the dramatic unities of time and place, square the resolution with the dramatic complication, and so on. Instead, I had to laboriously try (and sometimes fail) to confirm accounts of events I hadn’t personally experienced, or use scenes that didn’t quite wrap everything up as neatly as I’d hoped. Usually that meant the stories ended a little blurrier, a little messier than they would have had I turned them into a novel or play, which I may yet do — with appropriate labeling, of course.

But in the process of reporting and crafting those complex stories, I also learned that the messiness of reality often revealed greater truths, truths that were less neat and easy than I’d wished — but closer to reality, and therefore more nuanced, more complicated — and more valuable. I think that’s what Daisey meant when he confessed to having created — in an attempt to make a better story — “worse art.”

That’s the thing about truth; as one of Daisey’s characters apparently didn’t say, at the climax of his undeniably powerful monologue: “it’s a kind of magic.” And that’s why artists, journalists and the rest must handle it with care.

2 Responses.

  1. redipen says:

    is this so different from Yes Men? and what about when artists make music, dance, theatre and everything in it is from real life, everything stuff that really happened and it’s patched together as non-linear image-building…?

    well, if it’s dead serious, heavy impact that’s driving civilization off the cliff, unfortunately in Portland it’s usually ignored – if it’s silly, Portland audiences can’t seem to get enough… in ‘Little Beruit’ (?) go figure…

    as for That American Life… if only the music were better

  2. Bob Hicks says:

    Thanks for stating so well why the Daisey episode matters. I tend to agree that his mistake was partly a matter of journalistic inexperience: art twists experience in ways that journalism isn’t allowed to, even though every journalist who stops to think about it understands that the facts chosen and the way they’re framed create a sense of reality that might seem significantly different with a different frame and the stress on other available facts. Yes: Be transparent. Just say what you know to be true and what you’ve heard but can’t verify from other sources and what intuitive leaps you’re making. The truth is slippery. We clean up quotes from sources who are speaking extemporaneously and throw in “uh”s and extraneous words as they compose thoughts on the fly. Usually that’s OK. But maybe sometimes we should just sacrifice the quote. That’s very different from inventing actions, even if the inventions make dramatic sense. Because although we call news reports “stories,” they’re not really stories in the way a fiction writer means the word. Persuasive argument is great. But it should be clear that it’s an argument, not a fact. And I suspect that Daisey will learn from this and become a better artist.

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