Mike Daisey still on track to return Apple show to D.C.


In this undated image released by The Public Theater, Mike Daisey is shown in a scene from "The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs," in New York. (Stan Barouh/AP)
March 21, 2012

Storyteller Mike Daisey apologized and defended himself over the Apple documentary scandal while he was speaking at a Georgetown University event Monday night. The Reliable Source reports:

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 blogging Monday, 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.

Although the Georgetown event drew a crowd, there are a few people who don’t want to see Daisey on stage , Maura Judkis reports:

Alli Houseworth, the former marketing and communications director of the Woolly Mammoth Theater, which produced “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” has called on other theater professionals to boycott Daisey’s work. Daisey’s monologue on the public radio show “This American Life” was revealed to be partially fabricated.

Houseworth, who now works as an independent arts consultant, wrote an op-ed for Arts Journal that urges theaters not to produce Daisey’s work until he apologizes to the audiences he deceived. She emphasized that when she was working with Daisey to produce the show about labor conditions in Apple factories at Woolly Mammoth last year, he insisted that “this is a work of non-fiction” be printed in every playbill. “This American Life” retracted its entire show about Daisey after they discovered that he fabricated details and characters, and did not visit all of the places in China that he said he visited.

Wrote Houseworth:

What Mike did was apologize to him, to Ira [Glass, of “This American Life”]. But he never apologized to us, and he never apologized to our audiences. In fact, what he did in his retraction interview was say, “I believe that when I perform it in a theatrical context in the theatre that when people hear the story in those terms that we have different languages for what the truth means.” My answer to that is that “This is a work of non-fiction” is pretty clear language. And how dare you, Mike, how dare you say to Ira Glass that the context in which the work is presented is different. All this time I thought you respected this industry, respected our audiences the very same, if not more than the audience of This American Life.

While “This American Life” retracted its episode about Apple, all is not well in China, Wonkblog writer Brad Plumer reports:

In recent months, Apple has endured a wave of criticism for the harsh workplace conditions in its Chinese suppliers’ factories. “This American Life” even aired a radio episode about Foxconn, the electronics manufacturer, based on a visit to Shenzen by performance artist Mike Daisey.

There was just one problem: A lot of what Daisey reported about Foxconn didn’t hold up under scrutiny. “This American Life” has now had to retract the attention-grabbing episode entirely, saying that it “contained significant fabrications.” Here’s a summary of what went wrong: Daisey never actually met underage factory workers in Shenzen, as he claimed, and he never ran across a man with a mangled hand. He also lied about meeting Foxconn employees who had been poisoned by the n-hexane gas. (The radio episode was based on Mike Daisey’s one-man show, “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.”)

So how much blame does “This American Life” bear? In the episode, the program claimed to have “fact checked everything that was fact checkable.” Here’s a transcript showing how show host Ira Glass tried to verify Daisey’s claims. It does sound as though “This American Life”’s producers tried to do their due diligence, but Daisey misled them at several points, including steering reporters away from his Chinese-language interpreter.

Naturally, this is going to get heaps of attention as a media story, as well it should. Fabrication is a mortal sin in journalism, and “This American Life” has conceded that it should have been much more skeptical of Daisey’s tale. “We didn’t think that he was lying to us and to audiences about the details of his story,” Glass said in a statement. “That was a mistake.”

But how much does this kerfluffle affect what we actually know about labor conditions in China? Let’s hear what Rob Schmitz, the Marketplace reporter who first caught Daisey’s fabrications, has to say: “What makes this a little complicated is that the things Daisey lied about seeing are things that have actually happened in China: Workers making Apple products have been poisoned by Hexane. Apple’s own audits (pdf) show that the company has caught underage workers at a handful of its suppliers. These things are rare, but together, they form an easy-to-understand narrative about Apple.”

Indeed, the media spotlight on companies like Foxconn has prompted Apple to hire an independent auditor for its Chinese suppliers, although, according to Schmitz, it will take some time to determine whether conditions actually improve or not.

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