Yesterday was the unveiling of nationally-syndicated public radio show and world-renowned podcast This American Life's 460th episode, Retraction, detailing the inaccuracies of a previous episode that helped launch an international shaming campaign of Apple and the people who buy their products. The episode in question is built from the spine of theatrical monologuer Mike Daisey's recent stage show, centered around a trip he took to Foxconn, one of Apple's contracted manufacturers who put together our shiny toys, the iPad and the iPhone, in faraway China.
Daisey claimed all sorts of negligence in the stage piece, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, gleaned from his trip. It detailed abundant child labor issues, breakaway sects of workers bravely attempting to form a union, poisoned workers choking to death on horrible, inhuman gases they're subjected to. And the coup de grace, the story of a man whose hand was damaged while working at the factory actually uses his big ol' stumpy mitt on the iPad, as it took the white man from America to bring his own personal iPad over to show this poor man the product that took his hand (remember that part?). After touching the screen he looks at he opines to his translator, "it's a kind of magic!"
It's truly the Slumdog Millionaire of monologues, which no doubt helped lead to an unusually high download count for the podcast. Its influence was far-reaching, launching features and stories all over the place. It is one of the big reasons why contributor Alana Steinhardt came to The Inclusive to stop the love-fest in light of Steve Jobs death because of human rights issues like these. And he just died.
Obviously, all of the most interesting bits of this story are fabricated. The guards holding guns outside the factory never occurred, the poisoned factory workers he mentions do exist, but were from a factory a hundred miles away. Finally, the fact that he couldn't get back in contact with his translator for This American Life's fact-checking session. Later, she is revealed with a simple Google search.
This is great work done by Ira Glass and company (and their very kind brethren at Marketplace who allowed TAL to break the story on their own program rather than publicly hanging them out to dry) in what was essentially an effort to clear the good name of public radio. But what we're really listening for is the mea culpa, when Daisey saddles up to the microphone opposite Ira and confesses his sins as an audience sits, waiting to accept...pending on the apology itself, of course.
Some people never cop to anything. There are children who witness actively kicking another boy in the shins who refuse to ever fess up to doing any such thing, even though you saw it occur. Some people just aren't honest, especially when the possibility of success and money are dangled in front of you.
I understand why Daisey lied to Ira and his production crew in order to get ahead, thinking (hoping) that he'd just keep skating by. It's what happened with Stephen Glass. It's what happened to another, hopelessly poetic, Daisey monologue subject: James Frey, the author of A Million Little Pieces, a piece of literature that hovered much closer to "fiction" than "memoir", who ended up selling many copies of his book before paying up by letting Oprah giving him his own public shaming. Oprah Giveth; Oprah Taketh Away.
Instead, Daisey regrets putting his story in this journalistic venue because his version of "the truth" does not mesh with This American Life's idea of the truth.
I'm the main editor of a web magazine that slowly inches closer to full-on journalism who plies his trade writing fictional narrative screenplays. I understand exactly where the line of demarcation is between these two trades with disparate rules on credibility. In fact, it's of the utmost importance that when I relay my experience at a friend's friend's open mic, that I stick only to what happened -- to veracity -- so as to build a brand that people can trust when they see "The Inclusive" hovering over it. All you have in this world is your name, even on the internet.
What is truly galling is that while Glass went on the radio to defend the good name of public radio in the journalistic sphere, Daisey tried to turn a working creative's ideal into some sort of invincibility cloak, recklessly throwing around "the truth" as if sticking to a misappropriated term would somehow shield him while the cabin burned down around him. It doesn't.
The truth that Daisey refers to (incessantly) throughout the episode isn't the common definition of the word. The definition that usually greets us at the door when we "truth" comes knocking is veracity, that your statement is a factual account of something that happened and, in the best case scenario, could be supported by other evidence that validates this claim.
"The truth," with quotation marks that I hope are descendent of Plato, is something much more vague. The best way I've come to terms with it is such: "The truth" is something that any storyteller, singer, writer, artist aspires to, consciously or not. It is a universal "yes," an agreement that connects on a certain emotional or philosophical level with others to share in something real and essential through our human experience, expressed over any number of mediums.
It's that indefinable thing that makes you stop and stare at certain paintings in a museum without really understanding why; what makes you play that album over and over again; it's why the finality of shutting the back cover of a book is like closing a tomb...until you take a deep breath, flip it right back over, and immediately begin its resurrection with the title page. It's essentially the same idea as veracity, but governing a whole different set of unreasonable things that you can't exactly capture in words, only through feeling.
"The truth" that Daisey wants to tell of this story is how horrible conditions are for some people while we enjoy these shiny objects and wonder, "are our shiny objects worth our consciences?" The method in which he tells it, however, is inextricable from the auspices of veracity. It's a story not told through a play with fictional dialogue coming out of actualized, fictional mouths, but a monologue, culled from experiences to the very factories he witnessed first hand. Where in there is room for "exaggerations?"
This is not because Daisey is a malicious man. He just doesn't have the artistic integrity to try and earn real emotion from scratch. Instead, he throws a bunch of scaffolding around a sturdy emotional base of our own insecurities and exploiting them for his own dramatic (and monetary) gain.
The entire falsified experience is no different from one of those "Based on a True Story" exorcist films that come out near Halloween. They both operate on a simple fear that we have (you lose your sentience and are controlled by the devil) with the selfish storytelling technique that discusses our favorite subject: ourselves (...and it could happen to you!). They prey on our own guilt (save the children!) with a similar kind of storytelling device (do we really deserve all the nice stuff we probably deserve?).
The final slap in the face comes in the wretched, self-satisfying performance that is re-cut into this show. And man, against the backdrop of "this is all fakery" does Daisey's vocal stylings come off terribly. The elongated pauses to hammer.......beats.......home, the stuffy and nasal underpinnings in his voice that sound well-versed in crying out for attention over the years, the general tone of voice that most closely resembles the atrocious "douchey little vampire kids" (per se) featured in an episode of South Park. On every level conceivable, this work has failed. Miserably, grandly, publicly.
It's your job as a person, as a creator, to set up your own boundaries on your work before you put it out on the world. The burden does not rest on the audience to figure out how to differentiate upon what's real and what's fictionalized; that is solely in the hands of the creator. He or she has to be honest with the people who paid money to experience what he or she has created. Not only are these moves irresponsible of Daisey to blur the lines so fully (on stage or on the radio), it's disrespectful to his craft.
But I might be biased.