The stories of Mike Daisey and Jason Russell have become entwined for a number of reasons. Both of them dominated headlines last week. Both men used a bit of theater, masqueraded as real journalism. Both of them cut corners in their endeavors, falling for, as Forbes magazine calls it, “the viral allure of the almost true.”
But both men have something else in common. As storymakers, both Daisey and Russell overtook the very story they were trying to tell.
Daisey’s story goes like this. In January, he appeared on the public radio program “This American Life,” delivering a monologue about awful working conditions at the Chinese factories that make Apple products. It was an excerpt from his play “Mr. Daisey Goes to the Apple Factory,” but it was presented to the show as fact.
Last week, Public Radio International, which distributes “This American Life,” learned that the story “contained significant fabrications.”
On an hour-long retraction of Daisey’s story, “This American Life” host and producer Ira Glass interviewed the monologist about why he lied. Daisey told Glass:
“I think I was terrified that if I untied these things, that the work, that I know is really good, and tells a story, that does these really great things for making people care, that it would come apart in a way where, where it would ruin everything.”
But now it has come apart. “Mike Daisey” is a top-trending term on Google; a term like “Apple Factory conditions” is not. The news stories published since Friday have all focused on Daisey as storyteller, Daisey as theater-maker, even Daisey as “liar”. Few are focusing on the story Daisey hoped to tell — about the conditions in Apple’s factories in China.
“By lying, Daisey undermined the cause he purported to advance. That’s the real scandal,” the Atlantic magazine’s Max Fisher writes.
Jason Russell, a co-founder of the nonprofit Invisible Children, has found himself in an uncomfortably similar position to Daisey’s.
After making the very viral film “Kony 2012,” which has now been seen by millions of people, Russell came under the microscope like he never thought he would.
The film received support from President Obama, celebrities and public figures such as New York Times columnist Nic Kristof. But it also came under attack. Ugandans who saw a screening of the film threw rocks at it. Those who specialized in the region accused the nonprofit of oversimplifying the problem to its detriment. Some said it had stretched the facts.
Invisible Children responded to the criticism with a follow-up video. The nonprofit said the film was simply “an entry point,” arguing that the issue had been simplified on purpose. It encouraged watchers to go deeper to learn about Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony.
But as the criticism continued, filmmaker Jason Russell seems to have unraveled. On Friday, a report broke that he had been detained and hospitalized after San Diego police found him running through the street in his underwear, screaming and pounding his fists on the sidewalk. His wife, Danica Russell, said in a statement: “Because of how personal the film is, many of the attacks against it were also very personal, and Jason took them very hard.”
On Monday, the conversation about Kony 2012 is continuing in a steady stream, much as it has since the video was released in early March.
Yet almost all of the conversation is about Russell, the storymaker, not Joseph Kony, the man whose story Russell wanted to tell.
In an attempt to move the conversation back to the story, Danica Russell wrote in a message to supporters: “We’ll take care of Jason, you take care of the work.”
Update, 2: 45 p.m.: In a bizarre twist of fate, it appears Mike Daisey discussed Jason Russell and his Kony 2012 video on the MSNBC news show “Up with Chris Hayes” last week. On the show, Daisey argued that there was a role for “emotional storytelling.” Watch the video here.