I am a huge fan of This American Life. I think what I love about it most, aside from its brilliant choices of subject matter and the literary quality of its auditory reporting, is that the reporting almost feels like storytelling, in that the reporters share so much of themselves and their experiences in reporting on their subjects. I really feel like I get to know these reporters as much as I get to know the stories that they report on. Ira Glass and his staff seem like trusted friends to me. When I put my headphones on and listen to their episodes, I feel like I’m checking in on my pals as they share their adventures, insights, and what they learned from their experiences – as well as keeping myself intimately informed on American topics I care about.
I suppose that is why the producers of This American Life (TAL) felt comfortable airing Mike Daisey’s excerpt of “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” last January, and accepted Daisey’s account without fully scrutinizing the writer’s content for accuracy
. The manner of the presentation is so familiar, it could have easily been a very artistic submission of This American Life’s, save the live interviews with key subjects of the story.
For those of you who have not already heard about it, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” is a heartfelt monologue written and performed by Mike Daisey. In it, he both praises and condemns Steve Jobs and Apple
for the wonders that they brought into the world and the lifestyle and conditions in which the Chinese workers bring forth these masterpieces of technology. It is very moving, and its real intent is to make up close and personal our own contribution to the problem by buying these products without caring about where they come from. You can download the actual monologue all over the web. As TAL accounts, over 42,000 downloads took place of the actual monologue, as well as of the episode that features Daisey’s story. In fact, it is the most downloaded episode of TAL that the show has ever enjoyed.
This morning, I listened to my weekly podcast of This American Life. What a painful, sad experience. If you have not heard it yet, it is entitled, “Retraction.”
Ira Glass (who I love, by the way; his voice reminds me of a friend of mine from high school) introduced the week’s show, which he usually does; however, from the first, he clearly was not happy. He immediately explained his tone by letting us know that, for the very first time in This American Life’s history, it had to issue a retraction for falsehoods reported in January of 2012.
Ira Glass of This American Life giving a lecture at Carnegie Mellon University in 2006. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Glass rightly begins by acknowledging his and his staff’s mistake. They should not have rested on the word of an artist defending his work; they should have done the due diligence that they have always done for every story.
However, they were lied to, and they were lied to deliberately and with premeditation. Daisey got most of his facts right about the state of the workers in China, but he embroidered the tale to the point of outright fabrication when it came to meeting key people who served as living examples of the conditions in the factories.
That is not the problem. Daisey is an artist and a writer – not a journalist. He cannot be held accountable for accuracy in an artistic piece; the point of art is to magnify and clarify through means other than pure exposition.The problem is he did not disclose this basic truth to Glass and the others at This American Life when they specifically told him that their medium required absolute accuracy. In fact, he outright lied about it and said everything in the piece was accurate.
When they first re-interviewed Daisey, he was clearly shaken to the core with his own sense of guilt and the weight of his transgressions. Daisey’s pauses between Glass’s questions, pauses that sometimes lasted up to seven or eight long seconds, were absolutely gut wrenching. Finally, after trying to dance around the truth like an awkward politician, Daisey admitted that he was terrified to tell the truth about the artistic license that he took with his monologue in the beginning, because Daisey was afraid that the journalists would “out” him.
Glass, when he interviews someone, always seems “comforting” to the interviewee, as if he were just resting his chin on his hand, his elbow against a lunch counter, and sharing a cup of coffee, a laugh, and a tissue with someone who needed to get something really important off his or her chest. Today, Glass sounded clearly hurt and confused and expressed a genuine sense of betrayal as he pointedly did the job that is his art and life, the job he should have done two months prior: crosschecking the facts with the account as issued by Daisey.
After going through a list of newly-realized inaccuracies in Daisey’s reporting, Glass pointed out to him that, after the TAL piece in January, Daisey acquired all sorts of interviews with other journalistic outlets, that the monologue went viral on the internet, and that Daisey repeated and repeated the same lies multiple times, as if to imply that Daisey used TAL to launch his own fame and to keep perpetuating his fame with the lie. I myself remember Bill Maher’s interview with Daisey on his show, Real Time, the week after the TAL piece aired. I cannot imagine Maher is too happy at this moment. I love Bill and value his mission, but he can be very impatient and unyielding at times…
“You understood that we wanted it to be completely accurate in the most traditional sense,” Glass concludes, after pointing out detailed e-mail dialogues between Daisey and TAL that show the extent of Daisey’s duplicity.
“Yes, I did,” Daisey admits.
“You put us in this position for going out there and vouching for what you were saying…” Glass’s tone is that of awkward confrontation, the way one might approach a loved one who had been in charge of something precious and threw it inexplicably in the street. He obviously does not want to hurt Daisey with his interrogation, but at the same time, he has to regain the integrity of his and his staff’s own art, and more, he himself feels wronged. “…and all along, in all of these ways, you knew that these things weren’t true. Did you ever stop and think, ‘Okay, these things aren’t true’ and you have us vouching for their truth?”
Daisey pauses. “I did. I did; I thought about that a lot.” There is another pause.
“And, just what did you think?” Glass gently presses.
“I felt very conflicted. I felt…trapped.”
Glass asked if he was worried that he would not run the story because of its inaccuracies, or if TAL would run the story as an expose of how inaccurate the monologue was, and Daisy admitted to the latter.
“Quite honestly…” Daisey stops here, and admits to Glass he cannot bring himself to say what comes next. “My nerve failed me. I just stopped talking.” After TWELVE seconds of excruciating dead air, Daisy mutters, “I can’t say it…” Then he just goes for it. “After a certain point, I would have preferred the first option (that TAL would kill the story).”
He admits that he worried all the time that he would be found out, and even admits that he wondered about the wisdom of admitting all this to Glass at this moment in time. “I’ve been sick about it. But, I know that so much of this story is the best work I’ve ever made.”
After a few more minutes of unhappy discussion, Glass said, “I have such a weird mix of emotions about this, because simultaneously, I feel terrible for you; and also, I feel lied to. And also, I stuck my neck out for you. I feel like…I vouched for you, with our audience, based on your word.”
“I’m sorry,” Mike says sadly to Ira, and you can almost see both men looking down, talking into the floor, unable to look at one another. Maybe that’s not how it really was, but that’s how it sounded to me.A few days later, Daisey called Glass and requested time for further explanation. Glass thought he was going to take the time to explain what really happened. Unfortunately, Daisey tried to take the time to vindicate his work by defending the medium of theater instead. Instead of fleshing out his side of the story, Daisey simply stated and repeated that he regrets presenting the work on TAL, that TAL is not the medium for his work, that his work is a work of art, and that he stands by his work. Glass expressed astonishment and frustration, that he thought Daisey had requested the third interview in order to explain his untruthful actions. The listener (me) gets the sense that Daisy used Glass’s show once again to achieve his own ends. Both men, who had achieved a modicum of understanding just three days prior, ended up on opposite sides of the issue. Daisey’s credibility slipped further from the audience, and the integrity of Daisey’s work further deteriorated. It was clear that Daisey failed to embrace the larger lesson of the experience as he slipped further into denial.
I think, personally, the stripped-down truth is that his presentation on TAL in January was Daisey’s big break. This American Life is highly regarded and respected within media circles and with the public. Glass made certain of that year after year. With that kind of exposure, Daisey could really make an impact with his piece, both in the health of his career and in drawing public attention to the plight of Chinese workers at the hands of American corporations. The story was semi-fictional, but the integrity of his intent was solid.
Daisey made the perennial mistake that so many people make in the same situation: he didn’t trust the work to stand on its own merit, so he lied to protect the story. Then, once the publicity snowballed on the back of his falsehood, it came down around his ears. Finally, he failed to fully embrace the impact of his actions, impotently standing by his art piece and dismissing his own lack of integrity as irrelevant.
This is a key truth of magic for any Artist: the more integral a work is to correct a tyrannical wrong, the more integrity has to reinforce the magical working. If one sets his or her mission to right a wrong, one has to be impeccable in their word and deed in order for it to succeed. If the work is good, then one has to be just as good to back up the work.
That is hard and on the surface, unfair. Tyrants don’t have to be truthful. In fact, their product is based on their deceptive practices and their lack of ethical consideration as to the effects of their product. Tyrants have a clear goal and a clear intent, and that intent accepts and includes lying and manipulation to succeed in their work. It’s much easier to be a tyrant than a hero.Still, that is the lesson. The hero’s journey is always a journey for one’s soul, as well as to achieve the success of a mission. It is never an easy journey. Pain always ensues, or there wouldn’t be growth of the soul. The real mastery is to embrace one’s own failings, accept them, and evolve past them by embracing the punishment of the tyranny you are trying to vanquish. Because, when you do, there is no ground for the tyranny to stand upon. There is no separation of hero and villain. There is just Truth.
I’ve been on a China rant for over twenty-five years now, since my teachers and friends in undergraduate school woke me to the raw facts of just how the Chinese government abuses human rights, and how little America cares about that. I’ve watched two and a half agonizing decades of American relaxation of trade restrictions with China, until it became so impossible to boycott Chinese products that my own integrity broke to guilty muttering of the truth of the horror as I purchased my cheap shoes at Payless.
When I first heard Daisey’s story, it reignited the old passion, and its ensuing popularity reinforced my commitment to right action and right purchasing choices. The monologue had me hoping for truth and justice again.
I still hope for that. What happened does not diminish the truth of the situation. Unfortunately, the artist becomes the message so often in these things.
I understand. I’m not a journalist; I just occasionally play one in Blogland. I’m a writer, and I myself prefer the creative medium to the non-fiction medium. Non-fiction is a pain in the rear end to me, to tell you the truth. I hate checking everything I write. I’d rather just use my creative license to beguile you into understanding my message. That doesn’t work in Blogland, though.
I’m also of Irish descent. There’s no storyteller that can exaggerate and embroider the truth to make a point like an Irish storyteller. I’ve been guilty more than once of telling a tale over a pint or two that grew in dramatic presentation until the original story was practically unrecognizable by the end. I’ve had to retract my enthusiastic accounting of certain events here there and everywhere a time or three.
So I understand Daisey’s poetic license. I really do. It can and is very useful in an artistic medium. But I’ve learned the hard way, as Daisey has now learned: As a parent of a cause, you have to stay strong for your creation, or your creation will die under manipulative scrutiny that the tyrants arrange and the betrayed public that began to believe in your work. Again, the tyrants will never have to worry about that. Hypocrisy is part of the tyrant’s toolkit, as well.
Ira Glass knows this. He knows, in revealing Daisey, that he condemns the monologue’s message to that damaging scrutiny. But he also knows that if he doesn’t, his own creation will fail as well. Glass stays true to the mission, despite the fact that it pains him to do so. As a journalist, Glass cannot trust anything or anyone. He has to verify everything. His mission demands it. So he and TAL paid the price and admitted to the guilt of airing a false story for the first time in its 17-year history. Glass’s crime was a crime of trust. Daisey’s cause was Glass’s cause, and that kind of trust in a comrade in arms can blind anyone to obvious flaws.
I can’t find egregious fault with anyone in this incident. Everything that went wrong was agonizingly human. The intent and the cause are just, and it takes great men and women to bring such causes into fruition. People become great through mistakes. How do you learn to do the right thing in the right way when the only examples of right that you have are ideals? No one human has ever executed a flawless victory.
So be forgiving and kind to our friends Mike, Ira, and Bill over at HBO. Keep in your hearts their shared mission to bring justice and fairness to all.
With Much Love and Optimysm,