Before a packed auditorium at Georgetown University, besieged performer Mike Daisey delivered a monologue Monday night in defense of his actions that used the words “truth” or “true” at least 12 times.
His message? He regrets that the scandal over his turn on “This American Life” has become a national obsession. “I am the news cycle,” he said, before noting that bad conditions continue to plague Apple facilities in China. ”How is that not the news cycle?” asked the writer and performer of “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.” “The truth of that story is very real.”
It was a great show: The guy who’d been outed for telling falsehoods of all sizes to his audiences and to the staff of “This American Life” got to lecture as an authority on truth. And to uproarious reviews, as well. When he finished his spiel, a substantial portion of the crowd took to its feet.
A storyteller by trade, Daisey spoke with the conviction of someone dying to set the record straight. He fretted that after he’d sat for four hours of grilling in the production of the retraction edition of ”This American Life,” just 15 minutes made it onto the air. In sincere tones, he repeated his apologies to “This American Life” executive producer Ira Glass and extended his regrets to his audiences and to journalists. He confessed to being “wrong” for having exposed the radio program to such risk. But “I can’t say it was wrong to air” the program, Daisey argued.
The pushback against the tarring he took on “This American Life” dipped into the details. Daisey said that he’d told Glass that the translator he’d misidentified as “Anna” was actually a composite of three characters. Addressing how he inflated the numbers of people he interviewed, he lamely stated that “numbers for me swell over time; I seem to multiply them by 2.2.” He said he did see guards with guns at the gates of the Foxconn manufacturing facility that makes Apple products. He said he did remember speaking to a 13-year-old outside the Foxconn gates. And he said he did remember the guy with the mangled hand beholding an iPad and saying that he’d worked at Foxconn.
When the man marveled at the iPad, the moment was not as dramatic an event as it is portrayed in his touring show, Daisey conceded. “That’s what drama is; it’s dramatizing,” he protested, to chuckles from the crowd.
The monologuist used the minutiae to build his broader case: “The essential idea is true,” he said. “If I wanted to make it up, I wouldn’t have gone to China” and would have stayed in his apartment — an approach that he called “easier.”
Credit Daisey for making the trip.
And knock him for his tendentious motivations in pushing his tall tales. Twice Monday night, Daisey lamented how the media work. He talked about how, in the spring of 2010, the story about suicides at Apple facilities just sort of fizzled out. The scandal just didn’t spread online the way he wanted it to. “What it became about for me was watching the story die,” said Daisey.
And again when he started doing his monologue before theater audiences, Daisey scoffed that he was working in “silence.” No one was picking up on the story, he said — despite the fact that he was promoting it onstage and off stage. “I cannot tell you how many tech journalists I talked to,” he said, joking that he’d often say that the makings of a Pulitzer Prize was at the gates of Foxconn. The New York Times would eventually hear his call.
“I just wanted people to hear the story,” he said.
Think about how many activists, agenda-driven journalists, do-gooders and idealists have shared the same frustration. Millions. Perhaps many of them, if given the opportunity, would do precisely what Daisey did — that is, cut several factual corners to ensure that their pet story reaches a large audience and that it’s riveting once it gets there.
The difference between all those people and Daisey, of course, is that they don’t have his skills. They can’t use narrative, acting, polemics — and some lies here and there — to manipulate a news cycle or two. Candice Davenport, a 27-year-old D.C. resident, said after the monologue that she’d felt a “little bit betrayed” by Daisey when the retraction hit the Internet. But after listening to his case, “It all made more sense,” she said. “He had me thinking about what’s more important — the facts or the truth.”