Old News, New Start

Mike Daisey looks at journalism.

Mike Daisey looks at journalism.

“This is not an apology,” Mike Daisey told a crowd of 500 journalists and theater people (or, he said, so it seemed because “this is Portland”) last Tuesday night. “This is a performance.” And public apologies, he noted, make for bad theater.

As it turned out, while  Daisey’s theater has often invigorated journalism, his new monologue, “Journalism,” didn’t make for great theater, either, at least not in this early incarnation. But it points the way forward for the recently disgraced storyteller, and that’s something we can cheer.

While it lacked an explicit apology—which, Daisey noted, he’d made months ago—“Journalism” did include much else: a confession, an appraisal of  the state of journalism and (and surprisingly for someone raked over many coals by them in the past year) praise for journalists, some affectionate jabs at Portland, and more. However, it worked only intermittently as a performance, and its value really depends on knowing about what Daisey kept calling “the scandal” —his public disgrace last year at having been found to have fabricated some of the more compelling moments in his 2010 monologue, “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” partially developed at Portland’s annual Time Based Art Festival. Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, which runs TBA, also booked this week’s hastily arranged appearance at Portland’s Tiffany ballroom.

Daisey’s familiarity with Portland contributed to “Journalism”’s slow start. While he spoke vigorously, with little evidence at first of being chastened by his difficult last year (except for a single elliptical and intriguing reference to being “suicidal”), Daisey’s frequent (and sometimes affectionately disparaging, in best Portlandia style) references to Portland attitudes and events (including the vote over fluoridation) felt like so much throat clearing. Despite some chuckle-worthy laughlines for the locals (“ah, Portland, how I’ve missed you”), that section will doubtless be shorn in later performances, if he gives any.

So, too, should Daisey’s decision to use the local media’s previews of this show as an example of how journalism necessarily presents only a selected slice of reality—what Daisey and literary types call a “frame,” and journalists term the “angle” of the story—which came off as either resentful or pedantic. It didn’t help, given the context, that he got a fact wrong, insisting that the Willamette Week preview was written by a young staffer with no theater experience, when in fact WW’s Rebecca Jacobson, who wrote the preview, is in addition to being a young staffer actually the paper’s theater editor (and formerly one of mine). Such a device could certainly give a local hook to each performance, but here it went on much too long for the point it made.

Truth through storytelling

It’s no surprise that Daisey used his own experiences to make his points. That’s how he rolls. “Journalism” is built around three experiences: his childhood creation of a school newspaper (made entirely at home on an early Apple computer with dot matrix printer); the Apple/China story scandal (which he shorthanded as The Scandal); and his subsequent auditing of New Yorker writer Lawrence Weschler’s graduate course in journalism at New York University.

The eighth grade newspaper incident, which culminated in a ridiculous footrace with an offended subject of his reporting (the school janitor), apparently is included to show both Daisey’s longtime interest in journalism and also how it has the ability to tick off its subjects even if (in his recounting) there was no reason to take offense. But again: lots of words expended to make a point that’s not so important to his larger argument, and too long to make good theater. In fact, maybe the fact that “Journalism” seems so much like an argument is why it failed to amount to convincing theater. At his best, Daisey’s works can be both.

That argument rests on Daisey’s connection between his own experience in The Scandal and journalism’s current existential crisis, in which more information outlets and magazines exist than ever before while the institutions, like newspapers, that can do the most good for society, are collapsing thanks to an archaic business model and other causes.

In Wechsler’s class (“the first time I’ve been in a class that I’m in the curriculum of”), Daisey learned about the glories of the golden age of The New Yorker and other long-form journalism. He bemoans its decline, in an age when we need that kind of extended storytelling to address pressing social concerns including some he ticked off: Bradley Manning’s persecution, wiretapping of journalists, and of course Daisey’s major subject of late, corporate global capitalism’s exploitation of workers. The major criticism he unleashed is one that major American media deserves: offering fealty to corporate masters rather than everyday readers. Daisey noted that the percentage of stories that cover labor issues—that is, what most Americans do for a third of their lives—amounts to a tiny fraction of the business-oriented stories.

None of this will surprise journalists or even most civilians. “I love journalists,” Daisey declared, with evident sincerity, but “the one place they can’t look is how they do what they do.” (Given the subject matter, I should note here as elsewhere that I was doing my best to write down Daisey’s words as he spoke them, but I may have gotten a few of them wrong in my haste. What appears in quotation marks does represent the gist of what he said, however.)

But if anything, journalists may gaze in the mirror too much. Conferences, books, and journal articles (the work of writers such as Robert McChesney, Noam Chomsky or the group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, just to name a few more prominent critics) teem with critiques of journalistic shortcomings, including those Daisey recounted. Here again, “Journalism” comes off as old news.

The misty-eyed affection for old time newsies (Daisey advertised the monologue as a “love letter to journalism”) is somewhat surprising, coming from a victim of journalists who discredited his original monologue and remain his fiercest critics. In fact, it was the enforcement of old fashioned journalistic standards like fact checking and insisting that journalists, y’know, not make stuff up, that snagged Daisey’s transgression.

Mike Daisey

Mike Daisey

More sinned against than sinning?

Daisey seemed to want to cast himself as a victim of journalism’s recent troubles—the need to inflate stories beyond the facts and shout ever louder in order to be heard. And he’s right that until The Scandal hit, earlier journalistic reports about the exploitation of low-level tech workers and other disempowered laborers, part of the business model of globalization, had failed to generate much action, though plenty of outrage.

In Daisey’s view, contemporary journalism’s failures led him to commit “the sin of pride, the sin of not believing in the story.” He worried, he said, that if he told a story using only the facts and his own considerable theatrical art, his story would fade like so many of its predecessors had, and again, nothing would change for the workers whose plight he was chronicling. So he embellished (“I decided to lie”), knowing (so he insisted) that he’d eventually get busted, and sure enough, he did.

This confession was the most compelling moment of “Journalism” and not coincidentally, the most vulnerable and least defensive. Daisey’s right, and it’s a sin committed by so many disgraced journalists and other writers from Stephen Glass to Jonah Lehrer to James Frey and the whole despicable rogues gallery. We journalists must have faith in the truth, because it’s so powerful to our readers, and when we violate their trust that we’re telling it, we betray them as well as ourselves.

That’s what’s really missing from Daisey’s confession. He acknowledges the gravity of one sin—lack of faith—but not the other one: the act of betrayal that followed it, lying to his readers, and then the listeners and fact checkers of This American Life.

In reducing the world of those affected by The Scandal to journalists and theater artists (“is everyone here either a journalist or theater person?” he asked. “It’s Portland so it’s possible”), callous capitalists and exploited workers, what’s left out is the crucial player: the audience, the readers, the people who trusted Daisey, one of the great storytellers of our time, and found their trust betrayed. People like Daisey who betray our trust are the victimizers, not the victims. And ultimately, of course, by betraying our trust, Daisey harms himself and  by destroying his credibility.

Maybe this wasn’t the place to talk about all that, though, because, after all, as Daisey assured us at the outset, this wasn’t an apology. But by leaving it out here, “Journalism” comes off as blaming the victim. And by wrapping himself in a noble motive (trying to counter journalism’s neglect of labor exploitation), Daisey’s explanation for his misdeeds starts to sound more like an excuse. He even speculates, probably correctly, that The Scandal, by drawing so much attention to the subject, might have actually achieved his purpose, because coverage of those important issues has gotten demonstrably better over the past year, as corporations have been forced to promise to adhere to stricter labor standards. Happily, Daisey never goes so far as to claim that this welcome end justified the unethical means he used to seize the spotlight.

Regardless of whether he considers himself a theater artist or journalist, when Daisey says he went somewhere and talked to people and all the rest, he’s committing journalism, and needs to follow its primary ethical rules, especially the most important: Don’t make stuff up. Though he never says so in so many words, “Journalism” suggests that he gets that now.

This journalist believes Daisey when he says he was acting out of noble motives, as his earlier body of work demonstrates a real and sincere regard for his subjects, including the Chinese workers who were and remain victimized by multinational corporations. I believe that he sincerely regrets his sin (at least the one he allows himself to see), and I admire his public confession and earlier apology.

And I’m cheered at the ending to “Journalism,” in which Daisey informs us that, maybe to expiate his sins, he’s going to do what he must do: keep working to tell these important stories, henceforth presumably unvarnished. He’s heading to Bangladesh to glean truths amid the rubble of the collapsed building that exposed so much exploitation and corruption that’s endemic to the cruel conditions our corporate colossi have created for the people who make their products. He just gave two more monologues in Seattle and British Columbia, and in September, he begins a monthlong series of monologues in New  York.

Road to Redemption

So “Journalism” may be less important for what it is now than where it takes Mike Daisey. It’s a necessary stop on the road to redemption. We’re all defensive when we make mistakes and get caught, and it often takes time to be able to really see ourselves and our mistakes with the perspective that only time can bring. Daisey may not be all the way there yet, but he’s too smart not to get there eventually. Making the flawed “Journalism,” which really needs a complete re-think and rewrite, may have been what he needed to get as far as he has, since that sort of storytelling is how Daisey explains the world, including the part he’s involved in.

There’s really no point in asking for more self-flagellation from Mike Daisey. He’s now publicly and sincerely, if incompletely, confessed and apologized, and to ask more—stop hiding behind good intentions and others’ failures—seems vindictive. And judging by his performance, he does seem genuinely humbled, which is a good thing. He’s recognized that he can’t hide behind the theater curtain—that reality has enormous power, and when you invoke it, you better be telling the truth, or no one will trust you again.

And that would be a shame, because Daisey’s justified denunciations of the depredations of global capitalism and the deceptions of corporate media are spot on, and deserve as big an audience as they can get.

He got one last week; despite short notice on a rainy Tuesday night, his usual no-frills bare stage (except for a table and glass of water) presentation, Daisey drew half a thousand listeners and an a warm ovation. Anyone who can generate that kind of response on a rainy Tuesday night despite short notice and his usual no-frills bare stage (except for a table and glass of water) presentation certainly has found a way to connect with audiences in a different way than traditional media do.

That’s why we need Mike Daisey and his often moving way of telling insightful, important stories, of putting a human face on absurdities and injustices great and small. Theater needs his sense of moral outrage and his willingness to address urgent social issues, rather than simply navel gazing.

And journalism needs him, too; many of the profession’s ills are self inflicted, and Daisey’s admirable sense of moral outrage and often compelling use of theatrical and narrative techniques to tell these stories in compelling ways can be part of the cure, if he can win back our trust.

I hope he does, and then a few years hence, he can rewrite “Journalism,” with a new ending, about how the prodigal bastard child of theater and journalism, once so vilified by journalists, ultimately helped save their profession. That would be the kind of earned happy ending I’d love to read, one he won’t have to make up.

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