Mike Daisey Let Journalists 'Treat Him Like A Journalist,' Says Whistleblower

on March 21 2012 1:04 PM

By now, many are tired of hearing about Mike Daisey, the monologist who was exposed for fabricating elements of his show, "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs," which was excerpted by Public Radio International's "This American Life" in January.

But we may see a revival of the scandal this weekend, if it turns out Daisey concealed the then-pending "This American Life" retraction from producers of MSNBC's "Up With Chris Hayes," who appear to have unwittingly provided him a venue to establish his defense.

The International Business Times spoke to Rob Schmitz, China correspondent for American Public Media's daily radio program "Marketplace," who blew the whistle on Daisey's monologue after hearing the version that aired on "This American Life."

"A lot of the details I felt were just not true," Schmitz said of his initial response to the piece.

Among those was a claim that guards at an electronics factory in Shenzhen, run by Apple Inc. contractor Foxconn, were carrying guns when Daisey supposedly visited the site for a few days in 2010. Schmitz, who has been to Foxconn's factory, knew that guards were barred by law from toting firearms.

As has been widely reported, the story quickly unraveled after Schmitz easily tracked down Daisey's translator, a woman named Cathy Lee, who had no idea Daisey was planning a fact-driven stage show around his findings. "She thought it was research for fiction," said Schmitz, who spoke to Cathy and interviewed her for the "This American Life" retraction episode.

Daisey is now defending his fabrications by insisting his monologue essentially was presented as fiction, or at least a dramatization presumed to benefit from storytelling tools that obscured and embellished facts in the service of a so-called higher truth.

He was among a panel of four artists and journalists who discussed the intersection of their crafts on a March 10 broadcast of "Up With Chris Hayes," in which Daisey's stage show and the Kony 2012 viral video -- a charity's take on a fugitive Ugandan warlord -- were invoked as examples of cultural artifacts that simultaneously entertain and inform the public.

Did Daisey Willfully Mislead MSNBC?

According to Schmitz, Daisey's interview with Ira Glass for the "This American Life" retraction episode was taped more than a week before its March 18 airing. He believes the first interview took place on Thursday, March 8, which was two days before Daisey appeared on Chris Hayes's news-discussion program.

A request to "This American Life" for corroboration on the date of the Daisey interview wasn't immediately returned.

"Up With Chris Hayes" executive producer Jonathan Larsen addressed the retraction in a statement published on MSNBC.com last Friday, March 16:  "When we booked him to appear, we were not aware of the issues raised today by 'This American Life.' As it happened, various other events in the news at the time led our conversation to turn to those very same issues -- truth-telling in art or entertainment."

With the benefit of hindsight, it's easy to imagine that Daisey may have been practicing his upcoming defense during his panel appearance on MSNBC.

"As you get involved with ... a growing movement there becomes incredible tensions between the artistic experience on the stage, which is a story ... that exists to evoke human connections to our [electronic] devices to make us care," Daisey said on the air.

"Literally, even from [the monologue's] birth, there was no way to capture, frankly, didactic elements," Daisey added later. "There are limits, as a monologist, to what in that compressed time you can give people."

It should be noted that Larsen's statement says only that producers didn't know about the "This American Life" controversy when they booked Daisey. It doesn't address whether they were aware of the retraction at any time before March 16.

Hayes on his show did refer to the "This American Life" fact-check -- but a fact-check was done before the monologue excerpt aired in January. On March 16, the MSNBC host wrote on Twitter a message that indicated he was unaware of the retraction until then: "Seeing the news about Mike Daisey and struck by how uncannily prophetic our conversation was about journalism & truth."

Hayes also re-tweeted messages that were critical of Daisey.

Whether Hayes or MSNBC producers knew about the scheduled retraction in advance, questions remain about to what degree -- if any -- Daisey's pending crisis contextualized the discussion.

IBTimes was unable to reach Larsen to comment, but according to his publicist, the show will be giving a formal response this upcoming weekend.

"Up With Chris Hayes" airs separate, live programs on Saturdays and Sundays from 8 to 10 a.m. EDT. 

'You Only Tell The Truth By Telling A Few Lies'

It remains to be seen whether the MSNBC show's producers feel duped by Daisey. But at least one person who interviewed him -- prior to the original "This American Life" segment in January -- doesn't believe Daisey owes any apologies.

Author and broadcaster Andrew Keen interviewed Daisey for TechCrunch TV on multiple occasions in 2011. "After the 'This American Life' retraction story broke last week, my producer sent me an email saying I should be annoyed with him for lying," Keen said. "But I'm a big Mike Daisey fan and defender."

Keen said the he treated the interview as a performance, and criticized the backlash against Daisey as overblown. He characterized "This American Life" as a "priggish show, put on by prigs, listened to by prigs.

"I probably should be a little more disappointed with him than I am," Keen reasoned. "But he's a great performer. He's gotten this issue on the table; it's an important issue. And you only tell the truth by telling a few lies."

Keen believes that Daisey's work has been an essential part of the dialogue about labor conditions in China and has insisted that "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs" as well as news interviews with Daisey never purported to be anything more than an act.

"When you talk to Mike Daisey, you are talking to the media personality Mike Daisey," Keen said. "You're not talking to a journalist."

When pressed further about whether Daisey might have presented himself as a journalist even though he has never clearly identified as one, Keen said, "If he'd have written an op-ed in the New York Times and made those claims, then that is bad."

But Daisey did write an opinion essay in the New York Times, which the newspaper has since revised in the wake of the "This American Life" retraction.

"I don't think that's admirable in any way," Keen quickly responded after being told about Daisey's Times piece. "He shouldn't have done it."

Regardless of whether Daisey's actions were right or wrong, Keen feels that the monologist's place in the media landscape should be preserved, and that we shouldn't subject Daisey to a witch hunt.

"Audiences have to become more sophisticated," Keen said. "There are more and more hybrid, creative people in the economy. The old categories don't work anymore."

A 'Higher' Truth?

This echoes, to some degree, Brooke Gladstone's discussion of what she described as a ''truth in labeling problem" when she appeared Monday, alongside journalist Schmitz, on "The Brian Lehrer Show," on New York public radio station WNYC.

"I think the big problem with the story here is most of us understand that when somebody asserts that something happened to them, it did," Gladstone, who is host and managing editor of public radio's On the Media, told IBTimes in a phone interview. "Yet there are forms, such as theater, and essay and others that believe in a kind of 'higher truth' which is conveyed with more power by tweaking some of the details."

Asked if she felt Daisey was communicating such a higher truth in his partially fabricated monologue, Gladstone inverted Daisey's self-defense, saying: "It doesn't matter whether or not the thrust of it is true if the details are faked, tricked up and manipulated. In fact, it's terribly dangerous, because that enables a casual news consumer to console themselves with the idea that there is really no story there at all."

Which is exactly what Daisey has been complaining about. But in his view, he's not accountable for causing the public to lose sight of the more important issue -- the media are.

"Given the tenor of the condemnation, you would think I had concocted an elaborate, fanciful universe filled with furnaces in which babies are burned to make iPhone components, or that I never went to China, never stood outside the gates of Foxconn, never pretended to be a businessman to get inside of factories, never spoke to any worker," Daisey wrote Monday on his blog.

"Especially galling is how many are gleefully eager to dance on my grave expressly so they can return to ignoring everything about the circumstances under which their devices are made. ... There is nothing in this controversy that contests the facts in my work about the nature of Chinese manufacturing."

'It Makes All Of Our Jobs A Lot More Difficult'

Despite what Daisey would have audiences believe, there are serious journalists who have devoted their careers to reporting on conditions in China. Schmitz, who has spoken with workers in Shenzhen and who is planning more in-depth reporting relating to labor conditions in Chinese factories, believes Daisey has in some sense undermined the work of reporters who don't have the benefit of the storytelling tools Daisey uses to capture the imaginations of theater audiences.

"I and many other journalists and academics have invested parts of our lives in explaining China to the outside world, and for all of us, this is a big responsibility because China can be a difficult place to understand," Schmitz said.

"So it's hard to watch someone like Mike Daisey, who spent less than a week in China and who then returns home, seeks out the media and tells lies about what he saw, helping shape the public perception about China," he added. "It makes all of our jobs a lot more difficult."

Though Schmitz acknowledges that Daisey never said he was a journalist, he finds him accountable for allowing "journalists to treat him like a journalist."

Schmitz agrees with Daisey about the potential of the media controversy to overshadow the real story in China, but he isn't convinced that Daisey minds all that much that he is the source of the distraction.

"This is not about Mike Daisey and it's not about 'This American Life,'" Schmitz said. "I fear that the way the story is going to be told in the press is going to be all about him. And that's exactly what he wants."

What Schmitz wants is for more people to come to China and see the truth for themselves.

"I encourage you to come to China and speak to workers," Schmitz said. "When you get to the gates of Foxconn no one is going to be pointing a gun at you."