Analysis: Mike Daisey meant well, but lost his way with 'Agony'
Seattle Times theater critic Misha Berson wonders, how could this smart, savvy artist get in such a mess? He should have taken a page from Spalding Gray's "Swimming to Cambodia," which succcessfully melded real events with personal experience.
Seattle Times theater critic
'Episode 460: Retraction'Listen to, or read a transcript of, the episode of "This American Life" that retracts Mike Daisey's segment at www.thisamericanlife.org.
Exaggeration. Embellishment. Fantasy. All common devices wielded by creative writers, from Homer on.
Monologuist Mike Daisey (who began his career in Seattle in the late 1990s) has often used artistic license in his solo spiels, including the hit diary-cum-cultural critique, "21 Dog Years: Doing Time @ Amazon.com."
Last week the radio show "This American Life" retracted a segment aired in January with Daisey, based on his piece "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs."
In a follow-up show broadcast over the weekend, host Ira Glass discussed his recent discovery that some aspects of Daisey's account of a trip to Shenzhen, China, were fabricated.
The substance of Daisey's monologue, about labor conditions in factories making Apple iPads and iPhones — underage workers, serious injuries, dismal dorms — has been verified by journalists and Apple audits.
But Daisey erred by juicing up his role as "reporter" — recounting interviews he never had, incidents that didn't occur. Now he's being slammed from the left, right and center as a fake and a fraud.
Knowing Daisey's work well, I wondered: How could this smart, savvy artist get in such a mess? Was it hubris? Overreaching? Some of both?
Daisey told Glass his story was entirely true, and intimated it in a slew of TV interviews. He screwed up by crossing a line.
But the lines between fact and fiction, news and entertainment are ever more blurred in our culture lately — take the "reality TV" shows edited into high drama, for instance.
Then there's Pablo Picasso's dictum "Art is the lie that tells the truth." (Daisey recently said his inventions were in service of "the bigger story," a larger truth.)
Therein lies the challenge of the activist artist. Daisey didn't stretch the truth to further a journalism career — as did Jayson Blair and other reporters busted for fictions.
Daisey, I believe, had altruistic motives. He was horrified his beloved Apple devices were made in such conditions. He wanted to spread the word, motivate others to care and protest, by doing his thing: telling an impassioned, funny, enthralling story. And the tale helped spur more interest in the issue, more scrutiny of Apple labor practices.
But he lost perspective in that heady role. If only he'd trusted his power as a messenger, and looked to the late Spalding Gray, one of his role models and a self-defined "poetic journalist."
Gray freely exaggerated aspects of his personal life in monologues. Yet in "Swimming to Cambodia," he ingeniously blended his experiences acting in the film "The Killing Fields" with eye-opening factual material about the U.S. wars in Southeast Asia. It was arguably his finest work, one that artfully appropriates historical facts into a personal saga, without twisting them.
Can Daisey gain perspective, reboot and make other topical pieces that are not written off as hoaxes?
I hope so. Currently he is responding to the flap around "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs" as an artist does: he is working it into the show.
Misha Berson: email@example.com