For Mike Daisey, the show apparently must go on.
The once-acclaimed storyteller — now under fire for fabricating key parts of his scorching monologue about the lives of Apple’s factory workers in China — kept a long-scheduled appointment to speak Monday night at Georgetown University.
“This is my first scandal,” he deadpanned to a nearly packed 400-person auditorium. “As they say, if you’re going to go, go big.”
Daisey noted that since Friday, he’s seen himself compared to various plagiarists and fabulists. “James Frey is an [expletive],” he said, but “now, apparently, I am his friend. We’re all going to get together, Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair. . . . We won’t believe each other because we all make up crazy [expletive] stories.”
His mere appearance seemed to settle part of the debate underlying the controversy — the “is-it-theater-or-is-it-journalism?” question. Journalists caught up in scandals? They hide their heads, lie low for a while, sometimes forever. But show-biz folks make a point of getting back out there, ASAP, with a contrite, yet winking, appearance on Letterman or “SNL.”
Daisey is nothing if not a showman. After public radio’s “This American Life” ran an hour-long “retraction” and dissection of Daisey’s “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” which he had adapted for a January broadcast, he carried on with his final performances of the same show at New York’s Public Theater this past weekend. (And got a standing ovation, CNET reported.) He’s still on track to return the show to D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre this summer. He was even back to bloggingMonday, rather indignantly. (“You would think I had concocted an elaborate, fanciful universe filled with furnaces in which babies are burned to make iPhone components”)
On Monday night, Daisey’s speech was part repentant and reflective, part grandiose and self-justifying. Although he hates how the scandal cycle demands formal apologies (“It becomes the story: ‘Daisey apologizes’”), he said he wants to apologize to “This American Life” host Ira Glass. “I put him in an untenable position. I made a decision to say, ‘I think this is bigger than my career or your career.’ ” He promised to make a “full accounting,” footnote-style, of his show.
But he also exalted his show’s message: “If it had not gotten out, it wouldn’t have set the emotional landscape to allow that New York Times story” — a serious investigative piece on Apple factories — to have the impact it did. “The show was built as a virus. It got out there, and then the Times picked it up, thank God.” As with the best storytellers, you sometimes can’t tell when he’s self-deprecating and when he’s self-aggrandizing: “I never thought of this as journalism,” he said, “because I didn’t realize [going to China] would be thought of as such a provocative act.”
Daisey was brought to Georgetown by the university’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor to discuss “art and the human voice in the global labor struggle.” The lecture was scheduled in November, and there was never any discussion of canceling after last week’s furor.
“The context for this speech has changed quite radically,” Jennifer Luff, the center’s research director, admitted to the audience while introducing Daisey. She argued that the monologist is part of a tradition of “muckraking” like Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle,” which horrified readers with its fictionalized look at slaughterhouses, inspiring food-safety and labor changes — a genre open to abuses, she noted.
Daisey acknowledged the blurry “theater or journalism?” of his work. He said he “wanted very badly to break out of theater . . . to change things. . . . I always thought of the monologue as a weapon.” But he indirectly blamed journalists for steering his work-in-progress into the realm of fabrication. When the show hit it big, he said, reporters made uninformed assumptions about how much he had researched: Instead of correcting them, he’d let them believe he’d actually gone inside these factories, for example. And then the stories took off. He let a reporter assume that he’d met a victim of hexane poisoning — a detail that the director (his wife) then insisted become part of the play.
“It would have been so much more open to admit, no, I’m a moron . . .” Daisey said. “It’s such a rookie mistake.”
Commentary: Mike Daisey argues ‘the essential idea is true’, 3/19/12
Read earlier: ‘This American Life’ cites ‘fabrications’ in documentary on Apple suppliers, 3/16/12
Read related: Mike Daisey was annoyed by ‘This American Life’ vetting, 3/19/12