Review - Mike Daisey & This American Life: Yes, But Is It Journalism?

About ten years ago, Tommy Tune was starring in an Off-Broadway revue; a nightclub-style act he had been performing in Las Vegas. I hadn't seen the show yet, but one night I was browsing through a theatre chat board and read a comment by someone who had just seen a preview. The writer was very excited to report about one of those special moments the audience witnessed that night that could only happen in live theatre.

Part of Tune's show was a question and answer segment with the audience. After some of the expected queries about his career, there was a woman who asked if he remembered her. She said she took classes from him years ago and, after shyly admitting having a crush on the teacher, he invited her to come up on stage with him and he partnered with her on a basic soft-shoe routine. After the audience was sufficiently charmed by the spontaneous moment, she returned to her seat and the show continued.

You know what happened next, right? Another reader on the chat board posted that the same exact thing happened at a different preview performance. Subsequent posts made it apparent that the woman was a plant in the audience and her appearance was a regular part of the show.

By the time I got around to seeing the production myself, I think it was safe to say that most of New York's theatre community was aware of the bit. (If I were the bolder sort, I might have been tempted to raise my own hand and, if called upon, ask if Mr. Tune remembered me from his dance class before the assigned actress got her chance.) But I noticed something interesting in the way Tommy Tune would introduce the segment. I don't recall his exact words except for one important one. He told us that when he would do his show in Las Vegas he would always have an audience Q&A and that he thought it would be fun to "recreate" that for us here in New York. Sure, if you had no idea that there was a plant in the audience you probably just assumed this would be an actual Q&A, but that word "recreate" served as a safety net against accusations that Tune was deceiving the audience. Whether you noticed it or not, you were given fair warning that you were about to witness an artist's interpretation of the truth, not the truth itself.

See, that wasn't Tommy Tune up there on the stage talking to the audience. That was the on-stage version of Tommy Tune performing in a show. And whether the artist you're watching is a stand-up comic, a singer/songwriter or an actor discussing his or her own career, you must never ever assume the complete truthfulness of their art. The facts aren't always entertaining without some tweaking of the details.

We've come to expect a bit of dramatic license to be used in historical drama to streamline the proceedings and allow the creatives to make their subjective points, but sometimes an artistic presentation is so lacking in theatricality that we might be tricked into confusing it with journalism.

Take Mike Daisey, who has established himself as a premiere storytelling monologist dealing with social and political issues through a series of shows based on his own experiences. In If You See Something Say Something he described his visit to the site where the atomic bomb was tested. The Last Cargo Cult dealt with his trip to a remote Pacific island to observe the relationship between the indigenous people and the relicts of World War II that were abandoned in their home.

His performances all follow the same format. Daisey sits at a desk throughout the evening, talking extemporaneously from his notes. Since he does not work off of a prepared script, and he tends to revise at will, no two performances contain the exact same text. It may seem a little too real to be theatre, but it is.

Since the summer of 2010, Mike Daisey has been performing The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, a piece that describes his observations at the Foxconn Technology plant, the city-sized factory in Shenzhen, China, where iPads and iPhones are manufactured; detailing working conditions so harsh that nets had to be placed outside the factory's windows in order to stop employees from committing suicide by leaping to their deaths.

He had just begun preview performances of his first New York engagement of the show at The Public Theater when Steve Jobs passed away, prompting eulogies that described the Apple co-founder as one of America's great visionaries. Then, shortly before performances of his return engagement commenced (it ends this Sunday), a New York Times story seemed to confirm Daisey's findings by reporting on working conditions at Foxconn. ABC News then brought cameras into the factory and spoke with workers.

This past January, the public radio program This American Life, aired a 39-minute excerpt from The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. However, in this statement released today, the program's host and executive producer, Ira Glass, retracted the episode, stating that Daisey had lied to him during the fact-checking process:

Some of the falsehoods found in Daisey's monologue are small ones: the number of factories Daisey visited in China, for instance, and the number of workers he spoke with. Others are large. In his monologue he claims to have met a group of workers who were poisoned on an iPhone assembly line by a chemical called n-hexane. Apple's audits of its suppliers show that an incident like this occurred in a factory in China, but the factory wasn't located in Shenzhen, where Daisey visited.

In response, Daisey has written in his blog:

What I do is not journalism. The tools of the theater are not the same as the tools of journalism. For this reason, I regret that I allowed THIS AMERICAN LIFE to air an excerpt from my monologue. THIS AMERICAN LIFE is essentially a journalistic ­- not a theatrical ­- enterprise, and as such it operates under a different set of rules and expectations. But this is my only regret. I am proud that my work seems to have sparked a growing storm of attention and concern over the often appalling conditions under which many of the high-tech products we love so much are assembled in China.

Personally, I have no knowledge of the conversations that went on between Daisey and Glass regarding the context in which The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs would be presented on the program - as a journalistic piece or as an artistic expression - so I won't comment on that.

However, I will say this about Mike Daisey's work in general. I cannot recall ever hearing Mike Daisey refer to himself as Mike Daisey during the course of a performance. The lights go up, and he's there talking about the matter at hand. There's no, "Hello, I'm Mike Daisey and this story I'm about to tell you is all true."

As far as I know, Mike Daisey does not appear on news programs to discuss these issues, outside of appearances as an artist who is presenting a show. As far as I know, Mike Daisey does not give lectures on the subjects in his shows. He appears in stage as an actor, whose performances are directed by Jean-Michele Gregory, and at the end of each performance, like any other actor, he takes a bow. These are not the behaviors we generally associate with investigative journalists and I don't believe his theatre work should be held to the same standards.

For centuries, artists have alerted the public about injustices throughout the world, but we'd be better off if their passionate pleas were taken as a call to inform ourselves of the facts and not take their subjective creativity as the whole truth.

I'll admit it. I was sucked in by the power of Daisey's storytelling and was willing to believe everything he said. But now that I know that some of the things he described were not his own eyewitness accounts, I'm not going to say he lied to me. I ask that an artist's work be creative, imaginative, passionate and engaging. I'll seek out objectivity and accuracy from journalists.

Photo of Mike Daisey by Joan Marcus.

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