It’s interesting to see the reaction to Mike Daisey’s significant fabrications on This American Life surrounding Apple and Foxconn in light of the reaction to John D’Agata making things up in his book About a Mountain. Significantly, Daisey seems to have been aware that what he did was not okay by journalistic standards, as he steered fact-checkers away from his lies, whereas D’Agata remains unrepentant and wholeheartedly admits that he made stuff up for his book.
Perhaps the various media employed have something to do with these different stances. I saw Daisey’s expose when it was a one-man show called “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” and it was pretty obvious that he was at the very least inventing encounters that didn’t occur. (I also found his explanation for how he, in six days, managed to get facts that accredited journalists hadn’t managed in months unbelievable and a little self-serving.) It was nonetheless an excellent entertainment with a good message, but I doubt I would have taken Daisey’s claims about Apple so seriously if they hadn’t been corroborated by New York Times reporting. I took it more of a fictionalization of true events than anything else.
I bet a lot of other theatergoers felt the same, but once the story entered the realm of radio and This American Life, which is generally considered journalism, it was immediately held to a different standard. The question for D’Agata seems to be one of genre as well, except that I have yet to see another person who interprets that genre of his work in the same way that he does.
Daisey has placed a statement about his performance on his website:
What I do is not journalism. The tools of the theater are not the same as the tools of journalism. For this reason, I regret that I allowed THIS AMERICAN LIFE to air an excerpt from my monologue. THIS AMERICAN LIFE is essentially a journalistic - not a theatrical - enterprise, and as such it operates under a different set of rules and expectations. But this is my only regret. I am proud that my work seems to have sparked a growing storm of attention and concern over the often appalling conditions under which many of the high-tech products we love so much are assembled in China.
While I appreciate Daisey drawing a distinction that D’Agata refuses to recognize, I still see some problems with this: first, it leaves the fact of Daisey purposely misleading This American Life fact-checkers unaccounted for. Secondly, and most importantly, it does not speak to the fact that in Daisey’s performance he effectively denounces journalists for not having the courage to get the “real” story from the Foxconn factory workers, at the same time elevating himself for his courage in talking directly to workers—we now know that those accounts have in fact been invented. Certainly dramatic license does not extend to insulting the individuals whose work you have taken from in order to create your own fabrication, while at the same time praising yourself for having more courage than they do for doing something you did not do.
And lastly, this opens the difficult question of how much fictionalizing is acceptable. One of the climactic points of Daisey’s show involves his poignant encounter with a Foxconn factory worker who has a mangled hand, made so while working absurdly long hours to create Apple products. We now know that Daisey in fact never met such a man. I could see Daisey taking some license in reconstructing this encounter—had it actually occurred—but to completely make it up seems much too far. In my opinion, it puts his show definitively in the realm of fiction, and at the very least Daisey should warn audiences that parts of his show are completely invented.
I think that, in the end, this episode points to why fictionalizing without making that fact explicitly clear is something that is never okay to do.