For the last week I have been vigorously involved in the defense of monologuist and playwright Mike Daisey in the face of public outrage over his fabrication of certain facts regarding Apple’s manufacturing practices, both in his solo theatrical play “The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” as well as his appearances and writings in various journalistic and quasi-journalistic forums.
It is apparent that there are myriad questions being conflated in this debate and the worst example, in recent memory, of an inability to see the forest for the trees. It is time to deal with each of these issues, separately, instead of drawing simplistic conclusions about their totality.
Is There Such a Thing as ‘Essential Truth’ Versus ‘Factual Truth’?
In the furious replies to my commentary on The New York Times, Slate and Reuters’ websites it was this question that seemed to annoy my detractors the most. I was accused of “goal-post moving” and told many different ways that there is no such thing as “essential truth”. This is indicative of a severe misunderstanding of how storytelling works. Virtually no play could ever survive a fact-check and it would be wrong to saddle playwrights with the same obligations as journalists. There is a reason that they are two completely different professions. It is not the responsibility of an actor or playwright to be factually accurate and journalistic standards do not and should not apply to theater.
By way of example I asked and answered:
“Shall we exhume Shakespeare's corpse, reanimate him and hold him accountable for how he misrepresented real-life figures? Facts: Julius Caesar wasn't half-deaf, Macbeth never conversed with witches and Richard III wasn't a hunchback.”
I was informed that a) Shakespeare did not claim his work was a non-fiction account b) that audiences knew it wasn’t all factually accurate; and c) that is was inane to compare Mr. Daisey to the Bard.
Point A: Alli Houseworth, the former Marketing and Communications Director at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington, D.C. where this play originated, has alleged that Mr. Daisey insisted the playbills state “This is a work of non-fiction”. If that is true, I will certainly concede that was a poor decision on Mr. Daisey’s part. Worse, however, is the decision on the part of any theater who chooses to produce his play without fact-checking such a statement. It is patently blind acceptance and, in my opinion, tantamount to false advertising on the part of such producers.
Point B: I would ask you to sample a cross-section of the English-speaking population and ask them each one thing they believe to be fact about the actual King Richard III. I can guarantee you most will mention the hunchback as though it were a fact.
Point C: I was not comparing Mr. Daisey’s ability as actor or playwright to that of Shakespeare. I was illustrating that our most celebrated playwrights have manipulated factual truth as a device to tell a story about an essential truth.
Which brings us back to the original question – is there such a thing as essential truth? Unequivocally, yes, it is prevalent in each and every artistic discipline. Shall we reject Van Gogh’s impressions of people and places because they are not necessarily factual representations? Michelangelo’s sculptures because there is no way to corroborate David’s real measurements? David Sedaris’ autobiographical accounts? Frank Langella’s portrayal of Richard M. Nixon?
Each of these artists manipulated or disregarded factual truths in the search to communicate essential truths to their audience.
I never moved the goal post, as I’ve always given carte blanche to the arts so long as they were not wrongfully libelous or slanderous in their representations. While certain factual truths were inaccurate, Mr. Daisey’s essential truth about Apple’s manufacturing practices is certainly valid. The New York Times has confirmed many of Apple’s abuses, in a journalistic medium and in accordance with proper fact-checking standards. Such reporting is the purview of journalism not theater. Also, should Apple truly believe he committed libel or slander they have legal rights available to seek redress. I doubt such a lawsuit will ever be filed.
Should Mr. Daisey’s Appearances and Writings in Journalistic and Quasi- Journalistic Forums Be Held to a Higher Factual Standard?
This is another example of blind acceptance by the audience and gross negligence on the part of the producers and journalists of his play, interviews and articles. Artists are not obligated to do anything. They create something, if they feel like doing so, and must be allowed the room to promote it however they please. It is clear that Ira Glass and “This American Life” asked Mr. Daisey to comply with journalistic standards, for which he was completely unqualified, and chose to produce that content on his word instead of performing the very fact-checking procedures to which they claimed to be obligated. Even more alarming, Mr. Glass actually had doubts about the validity of some of the facts and chose to go ahead anyway. Mr. Glass correctly apologized for this, though it seems rather ridiculous to accept his apology when he knew the original program was a betrayal of the very standards he chose to pursue. Even more disgusting is when the program chose to spend the majority of its retraction humiliating Mr. Daisey to divert the audience’s attention away from Mr. Glass’s own gross negligence as a supposed journalist.
Stephen Glass at The New Republic, was, as a journalist, the source in his articles when no others were available. Later, it was revealed he fabricated virtually all of his reports. It was correct to hold him to account for his disregard and perversion of journalistic standards because that was his industry, and I suspect that Ira Glass must’ve realized angry villagers would come after him with pitchforks if left to their own thoughts about what he did wrong.
Mr. Glass, a spectacular performance artist in his own right, was faced with the very tough situation of how to avoid being shamed off the air for such a flagrant disregard of what he himself stated was journalism. Clearly, his retraction has had the intended affect upon his listeners. Most now view Mr. Daisey as predator and Mr. Glass as victim.
Mr. Daisey admitted to fabricating certain factual truths and, compounded with his non-fictional framing, it is understandable why people felt misled. However, the actual standards and obligations fall on the presenter not the performer. Both gentlemen failed to present a fully accurate portrayal of the facts, but only one of them called himself a journalist.
Again, Mr. Daisey is using the tools of theater inside and outside of the performance venue, telling the essential truth about these events, not the factual truth. Nor is it his obligation to deal in facts outside of a court-room. Mr. Daisey is a playwright. Any appearance Mr. Daisey makes, anything he writes about the show, is merely publicity to get bums in seats and to further provoke readers/viewers to research how Apple created its products. A goal which he has certainly achieved. That can of worms is open.
Sadly, it was not just Mr. Glass who blithely assumed the factual representations to be true, but the listeners. So:
Should We Really Feel Misled About Factual Truths We Never Questioned?
It is appalling that we now accept something as truth just because we read it in print, saw it on television, or heard it on the radio. Have we truly fallen so far as to no longer maintain even a modicum of intellectual caution? I have long admired Mr. Glass’ program, but never presumed it was 100% journalism. Even when I do believe something has been fact-checked, ad nauseum, by an organization, I exercise healthy skepticism and further research the claims in other locations and I hope that others do the same.
We have, as a country, become profoundly lazy about how we receive information. We value speedy talking points and dubious statistical sources over actual rigorous engagement. Google is utilized more often as a safety net rather than one of many tools to be employed in proper investigation of an issue. Journalistic bars are set lower each day not only by Fox ‘News’ but many organizations on both sides.
I do believe in the obligation of journalists to fact-check every last piece of data so that we can have some trust in the information we’ve received. Mr. Glass and his program labeled their program as journalism and it is wholly incumbent upon them to fulfill that obligation. Of course we feel misled and we should, but Mr. Glass’ own manipulative performance in the retraction has obscured where the proper blame of misrepresentation should lie as well the real issue – the abuses of Apple.
The Forest for the Trees
The factual revelations in the last few months about Apple's abhorrent manufacturing practices have made people incredibly uncomfortable. We do not want to believe that we have contributed directly or indirectly to the oppression of others in the creation of our gadgets. This backlash against Mr. Daisey has less to do with debating the obligations of storytellers and more to do with our desperate search for a way to force Apple's worms back into the can and pretend they never existed.
In the last few weeks, Chris Hayes has had both Mr. Daisey on his MSNBC weekend program as well as actor and playwright Wallace Shawn to discuss his play “The Fever”. This is no accident. Mr. Hayes is rightfully bringing an issue into the fore that we struggle to keep hidden away: how are our possessions made and what responsibility do we have to ensure they are done so safely and fairly?
This is a question with which I have struggled ever since reading Mr. Shawn’s play over a decade ago. And I still fail at this. Even knowing about Apple’s practices, I use an iPhone, a Macbook Pro and I’m typing this on my iMac. And that’s only one organization.
Consider how with each passing year more and more of our work is outsourced, robbing our citizens of much needed jobs and allowing us such physical distance from the locations in which our things are produced that we ignore the blood, sweat and tears of those who make them.
Whatever you think of Mr. Daisey’s cry, I can assure you that the wolf exists.