“The Narrative Doesn’t End:” Mike Daisey, Truth, Art, and a Phone Call


Almost no one calls me in my office.  90% of the calls are my wife or a textbooks ales representative (poor souls- they are ever-optimistic.).

So, when the phone rang two weeks ago, I answered it very informally.  “Unh, hello?”

“Is this Jordi?”  I didn’t have time to realize I should have recognized the voice.  “This is Mike Daisey.”

Mike Daisey Performing

Now, some of my students doubted this phone call happened.  I can assure you it did.  Maybe Mike (Mr.Daisey?  Etiquette fails me) is even reading this as he assured me he read all 64 blog posts by 32 of you over two weeks.  And 100 last semester, I presume.  I wished he would have commented for their sake, but I also understand that engaging in 164 individualized exchanges in 2 semesters is a lot to sign up for (I get paid for it!).

The highlights of the conversation.

1) He wanted me to let my students know he did read their posts.  And he liked Gil’s use of a picture of Mike to “prove’ he is a “big, fat liar.”  I think Mike was sincere in being amused.

2) He wanted me to make it clearer that he issue an apology to his audiences and other stakeholders (theater people, journalists and human rights activists, especially).  You can read it here.  The LA Times, at least. noticed it.

He writes about “loosing his grounding.”

Here is the end of it:


I speak about truth because it is what I aspire to. All my stories, even when I’ve fallen short, have been attempts to experience the truth with my audiences.

I am sorry for where I have failed. I will look closer, be more patient, and listen more clearly.

I will be humble before the work.

I think some of you wanted more of a mea culpa from him then he offered (or was included) in the “Retraction” podcast.

3) I thanked him for both the the quality and the strength of the original The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs and for making that work available under a Creative Commons license.  For those who think he may have wanted somehow to get “more fame” from TAESJ to line his pockets, you need to know that he makes no money from others performing that work.

From his website:

In a groundbreaking move, after over 200 performances in 18 cities over 19 months, a transcript version of THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY OF STEVE JOBS was made available for free download in February 2012, and has been released under an open license so that it may be performed by anyoneanywhereroyalty free. It was a phenomenon, downloaded more than 100,000 in its first week, and to date has had over 35 productions, and been translated into six languages.

4) He offered to send me some links to other coverage of TAESJ and his apology. Still hoping to get it! 🙂

5) We discussed how Ira Glass and the other people at This American Life made their own choices about how to handle the problems with the original podcast.  I shared that I am frustrated by the attempt to equate Daisey’s problems (lies, exaggerations, or appropriation of 3rd party material as his own experiences) with the overall truth of the issues in the play, which include of course our own love affairs with Apple technology and also the lesser known history of Apple and Jobs.

6) I explained that the tech/no performance of “un/real and un/true: The agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” was a polyvocal performance.  We added various “interruptions” to the original script to bring many different viewpoints into  the performance including other reporting about Foxconn and Apple, an interview where Steve Jobs dismisses concerns at the factories (“They have swimming pools” he says, I think), a fragment from an 19th century mill girl in America with similarities to the problems in China, a Chinese scholar’s reaction, and so on.

Do I Agree with Ira Glass?

I think part of Mike’s concern was also that the way the student posts ended with “Retraction” podcast implies that it is the end of the story.  “The narrative doesn’t end there.”  I agree with him.

There are so many other issues and changes in the overall “story” of technology (all companies!), Apple, China, globalization, capitalism, consumers, and development and justice.  I won’t outline it all here, but just this week, I heard that Foxconn was going to open up its labor unions to freer elections.  Is everything “fine” now?  I don’t think so.  Progress is not an excuse for complacency.

Mike did not say directly, but I wondered if part of his concern was that the nature of the assignment (from his viewpoint, reading these blog posts) was that perhaps I sided completely with Ira Glass and the TAL producers.

Here is the short answer: no.

I was one of the people who worked hard to see the play still performed here last fall when there were understandable concerns about having it all (especially after dealing with Greg Mortensen).  But full credit to Pete Mackey, our VP of communications, who imagined that the original monologue AND the controversy around its truths and lies could be performed in a way that acknowledged it all.  Technology, justice, globalization, China, Apple in an engaging play AND the issues of truth, art, knowledge, and journalism all in one moment!  Yes, please!

Here is the longer answer:

Me, Teaching, Truth, and Social Construction

Look, when I teach, I try to be careful to leave plenty of “space” for student voices to come forth and express themselves.  I balance this with some healthy amounts of my challenging or engaging a student to develop their ideas more in speech and writing, to go deeper, to be more sophisticated, and to ask hard questions.  Sometimes, I reveal what I “really think” if I think it will provide new insight or will model a way of thinking.  Maybe I am too careful not to make my views clear.  Maybe I reveal too much of what I think.  Bucknell students like to know the right answer.  This is an ethics class after all.  Maybe I should be arguing for what is clearly ethical or unethical.

So maybe Mike thought, based on how I structure the blog posts, that I fully agree with “Retraction.”  Understandable.  But I do not.  My choices for how I structure the materials and assignments are about creating student experiences.

To have the full impact of the first podcast, followed by the impact of the retraction, followed by having to make one’s own decisions about what matters, about what is right or wrong in facts and in ethics, followed by having to grapple with who controls the narrative, followed by some uneasy reconciliation with this whole nexus of issues is a series of I think irreplaceable learning moments.

But I believe truth is situational and contextual.  This was the origin of the other poll question that many of you answered.   I am a dyed-in-the-wool social constructivist meaning that what we usually call “facts” are never universal and always have a history.  All knowledge is socially constructed.  This can perhaps make me seem like a naive relativist to some.  The Opus Dei priest who was an ethics teacher for one higher education class certainly thought so and so failed me on an ethics exam.  But I argued then and now that social constructionism does not mean “anything goes.”  Knowledge and facts still must meet criteria of accuracy or worthiness before they are accepted by that knowledge community.  The knowledge AND the criteria are themselves always a result of a social process of interested actors.  There is no position from which to step outside of our constructed existence and objectively measure facts as “true”or not.   But criteria and knowledge is the best we can do.  And we should always try to make them better, whatever our field is.

One result of this approach to epistemology is an inherent pluralism in knowledge.  Since there are many kinds of knowledge and many sets of criteria, what is good knowledge in one area may or may not be in another.  How we judge “correct” literary theory is different from “correct” civil engineering from “correct” sociology.

So did Mike lie in parts of his monologue?  Die he make mistakes or exaggerations  (yes, yes).  But did he LIE where lying is a deliberate act of  deception?  By the standards of journalism, yes.  By the standards of theater, no.  By the standards of utilitarianism, no if the amount of visibility raised far outweigh the cost of the lies.  By the standards of a social movement to humanize the global economy, no.

Is there an easy answer to the question? No.

What Constitutes the Truth?


What do you think that it means to be ethical?  This is the issue that is being called into question in regards to the Mike Daisey scandal.  Mike Daisey, a well-known author and performer, who has been publically ostracized by many because of his intent to deceive the American public with his monologue, The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.  In this one-man show Daisey performs a monologue based on his thoughts and experiences after visiting Foxconn, one of the main suppliers of Apple, based in China.  Daisey performed this monologue all over the country, in different theaters, to sold out audiences.  His story became a sensation and brought the issue of poor working conditions in sweatshops to the forefront of the American public’s mind.  And, why wouldn’t it?—Daisey’s performance is supposed to be a true account of his experience.  It even says in the program, underneath the title of the show, in all caps, ‘THIS IS A WORK OF NONFICTION’ (Huffington Post Article).  This, the world has come to discover, is false.  In fact, most of the monologue never happened.

This controversy began when Mike Daisey agreed to have his monologue aired on the popular radio show, This American Life.  Up until this point everything seemed to be going well for Daisey, as the entire American public was happily digesting every one of his lies.  However, he should have realized that his lies would eventually catch up with him, now that they were out in the world for anyone to fact check and disprove.  Well, that is exactly what happened.  After hearing Mike Daisey’s monologue on the radio, Rob Smitz—an American journalist living China, reporting for the popular radio show, Marketplace—began to question the validity of a lot of Daisey’s claims.  Because Smitz was a reporter living in China at the time, he knew what the actual Chinese culture and customs were like.  It is this knowledge that allowed Smitz to catch Daisey’s lies.

Most of the lies Daisey fabricated were not in fact, “fact” lies, but more “experience” lies.  In an effort to clarify his suspicions, Smitz, went out and found “Cathy”, Daisey’s translator for the duration of his visit, in an effort to clarify things.  After Smitz found Cathy, Daisey’s entire story began to unravel.  While Cathy, herself, was unaware of Daisey’s monologue, Smitz soon filled her in on exactly what Mike Daisey had claimed happened during his trip.  The first thing he asked her was whether or not Daisey’s claim that the security guards were carrying guns when they approached the gates of Foxconn was true.  Cathy tells him that there is no way that, that is accurate because it is illegal for security guards to carry guns in China.  Then he starts checking other basic statistic Daisey used with Cathy, such as how many factories they visited and how many workers they talked to.  All of Daisey number differed drastically from Cathy’s.  After realizing that his sneaking suspicion that Daisey was lying about some of the facts of his trip was in fact true, Smitz wondered what else was he lying about?  This was when the truth finally came out.

After questioning Cathy it became clear that most of the events Daisey claimed actually happened were exaggerated or completely made up.  Some of the most prominent lies were made in regards to the secret union of workers Daisey claims to have talked to; his conversations with workers who had suffered injuries from a dangerous chemical, n-hexane; and even arguably the most powerful moment of the whole monologue, Daisey’s encounter with the man whose hand had been crushed while on the job.

So where does this put us now?  This was not Daisey’s first publically performed monologue.  So what do you do when you discover that someone you thought you could trust, someone who was well known for his “honest” monologues, is caught lying?  Was Daisey’s behavior completely unethical or did he do what had to be done to bring this issue to the forefront of American conscious?  Personally, I think Mike Daisey is, to quote the prompt for this blog, “an unethical liar”.  I apologize to anyone that supports him, but there are better ways to get your voice heard then duping the entire country, and world for that matter.  I agree, sweatshops are an enormous issue that should and must be addressed.  It is logical that any behavior not condoned by U.S. values and laws, by U.S. companies, should not be condoned; however, I do not believe that this excuses Daisey’s lying.

But, not all American’s agree with me. In fact, Justin Snider, a reporter for the Huffington Post, suggests, “Were it not for Daisey, we—the general American public—wouldn’t be talking about Foxconn.” (Huffington Post Article).  This is true in some ways, although, other well-publicized cases, such as the Nike case, were already beginning to educate the American public on the horrors of third-world sweatshops.  It is not the fact that Daisey lied that really bothers me, it is how Daisey behaved after he was caught lying that made me question his motives.  What Daisey should never have done in the first place was to claim that his show was, without a doubt, nonfiction.  Yet, what was really the icing on the cake for me, was that even when he was caught blatantly lying, he tried to deny it.  This completely destroys his credibility in my mind, period.  He completely discredited himself and made himself look like a pathological liar when he was unwilling to come out and admit he lied.  It is not ethical to lie to society just to get the public to react the way you want them to.

One of the other questions raised by this scandal, is what constitutes art, journalism, or truth?  And who gets to decide this?  As a society we have created cultural norms that individuals reference when making decisions.  For example, truth in our society is defined as  the events that actually transpired and nothing more.  This does not include anything that has not happened.  Truth is absolute and irrefutable.  There is nothing that can change true events.  The study of journalism is based on this concept of truth.  Journalists, in the United States, are expected to only report actual, truthful events.  If they didn’t then how would the public know when they were exaggerating or telling the truth?  While this does not mean that journalism is completely void of biases, as biases are a part of human nature.  But journalists are expected to only report the facts, not an embellished version of what actually happened.  Therefore for Daisey to claim that his show was a work of nonfiction is ludicrous, and only makes every other reporter associated with him look bad.  Art, on the other hand, could be defined as one’s own interpretation of the truth.  Art is a form of self-expression, and does not prescribe to the same strict guidelines that both journalism and the truth do.  Daisey is an artists, not a journalist.  However, this does not change the fact that it was unethical for Daisey to claim that what he wrote/performed was true.  Just because he is an artist does not excuse his lying.  If he had been smart he would have appropriately cited his story as “based on true events”, not as a work of nonfiction.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/justin-snider/why-mike-daisey_b_1361270.html

iTruth: Truth. Lies, and Podcasts (Blog Prompt 3)


Blog 3 Prompt

What is truth?  Lies?  Who gets to decide?

Montage of Daisey and Jobs from New York Magazine

Now things get complicated.  You heard This American Life’s podcast focusing on Mike Daisey’s monologue-play and the issues it raises about Apple, China, worker rights, us as consumers, and globalization. Continue reading