Rachel Manteuffel works in The Post’s Editorial Department.
Mike Daisey is a fantastic storyteller, in conflicting senses of the word. He is so earnest and persuasive that you believe him even on those many occasions when he is telling you a lie.
Daisey, who has been at the center of a controversy involving no less than the elusive nature of truth, tried to defend himself Monday night in a talk at Georgetown University. By the end of the evening, he’d won me over with his self-effacing explanations. It was only afterward, away from his infectious onstage persona, that his argument began to putrefy.
Daisey was the author and voice of a captivating episode this January of the public-radio program “This American Life.” Based on his one-man stage show, the episode focused on deplorable working conditions at Foxconn, a vast industrial complex in China that makes products for Apple. And, as we all know now, important parts of that performance — which was ostensibly an account of a trip Daisey made to China — were embellished, synthesized or imagined outright. Ira Glass, the host of “This American Life,” did an excruciating retraction last week.
I feel for Daisey. I can imagine what it’s like to have a fascinating, surprising story to tell and to want it to be the most fascinating, surprising story it can be. I wanted to buy his explanation Monday, which was, basically, that facts can confuse an overarching truth; that imprecision is an excusable misdemeanor in the service of righting a grievous social wrong; and that an actor — even one presenting himself as an honest broker of facts — cannot be held to the same set of standards as a journalist. Daisey told the audience at Georgetown that when monologuing, he isn’t really himself; he plays the role of the guy onstage talking under the lights. Of course, he explained that distinction while onstage talking under the lights.
So there he was, onstage, using his skills to carry this argument along (and, disconcertingly, to anoint front-row attendees with spit from his sibilants; it is a disturbing habit for a man who makes his living with his lips, but not being in the front row I was willing to look past it). Daisey is great with his other persuasive tools — particularly his signature long pause that precedes a fact on which he wants you to linger, for maximum outrage. One such fact is that the sullen-looking Chinese factory guards carry . . .
. . . guns. It’s a sharp little moment, placing Daisey up against dangerous people who clearly have something to hide. Unfortunately that turned out to be . . .
. . . untrue.
Although Daisey still says he remembers guns, the evidence overwhelmingly is that there were none. Daisey told Glass that he was terrified, during fact-checking for the “This American Life” episode, that something would happen (presumably fact-checking) that would make the whole story, all of what he was trying to do, come unglued.
He is, essentially, terrified of his story.
He was terrified that the truth was what most truths are — a little messy and cloudy. That it would not be enough to get people to care. The job of an actor is to convince someone of something that is not true. You could see the trouble he had Monday, trying to be convincing about how it was actually okay that he had deceived us. The expectation for “This American Life” is truth, in which case the specifics are not incidental. The power of facts comes only from their truth, and when you manipulate that to make your audience feel a certain way, you are doing no more or less than lying. Each such act becomes a betrayal.
For example, up above, I wanted you to feel a vague sense of revulsion for Daisey, just as he wanted you to feel afraid of the guards with guns, so I made up the fact that he spits. He doesn’t — his mouth is as dry as his wit. See what I did there? Does it seem justifiable? Now, what happens when I promise everything else I wrote here is true? (Which it is — I promise.)
This brings me to the most emotional moment of Monday’s talk, when Daisey suddenly became very angry, or at least used the tropes of theater to display anger, pounding the podium and putting force in his voice. Abuses at Foxconn are real, he said. Where were the journalists who should be covering, it, he asked us all: Where were they?
Well, one of them, Rob Schmitz of “Marketplace,” another public-radio program, was reporting on some of the abuses that Daisey appropriated for his act. Lately, Schmitz has been working on a different project — trying to separate the truth from the falsehoods of what Daisey had claimed on “This American Life.”
In the end, Daisey was anxious to show that this hadn’t shaken him, that he hadn’t damaged his credibility or his craft, that he wasn’t afraid. So he opened the floor to questions. Only from the public, though, not from the media.
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