Jewish Journal

A journalism masterclass from Ira Glass (thanks to Mike Daisey’s fabrications)

by Jonah Lowenfeld

March 18, 2012 | 1:42 am

Ira Glass of This American Life giving a lecture at Carnegie Mellon University in 2006. Photo by Wikipedia/Tom Murphy VII

For anyone who hasn’t already heard about this weeks’ episode of This American Life (“Retraction”) that retracts and debunks many of the details presented in an earlier TAL episode (“Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory”), I won’t rehash too much of it here.

In addition to learning that Mike Daisey, whose monologue performance piece, The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, was excerpted to create that first TAL episode, is a big fat liar, what we saw today was a major distinction between journalism and theater.

But it’s not the one that Daisey wants to focus on. For him, the main difference is that journalists aren’t allowed to make stuff up for the sake of a good story, while folks in the theater can.

I think the most interesting difference is to be found in the reactions of those in the journalistic profession to the radio show’s screw-up as compared to the reactions of the theater world to the revelations of Daisey’s fabulism.

For journalists, this week’s TAL episode was a pitch-perfect illustration of what to do when you mess up. In one hour of radio, TAL host Ira Glass owned up to his mistake, gave a platform to one good and resourceful journalist (Rob Schmitz) to show how he sniffed out a fake story, interviewed Daisey—with an amazingly deft touch but without pulling punches—to allow him to try to explain why he lied about having witnessed things he did not witness and why he still thinks what he does is okay in theater but not in journalistic outlets, and then brought a New York Times reporter into the conversation in order to hammer home the point that, despite Daisey’s fabrications, most of what he said about the factories that make Apple products in China is true.

That’s the—nuanced, multifaceted—journalistic response to the revelation of fabrication.

But the theatrical response? Daisey’s response appears to be winning the day—which is effectively a shrug of the shoulders, a statement that says, “This is how we do it here,” and a turning inward, away from the rest of the world. The previously scheduled shows of Daisey’s show at the Public are going on, and he will reportedly be performing at theaters across the country, too.

Indeed, by saying saying that his one mistake was taking his monologue onto This American Life, Daisey is effectively saying that the stage, where he reaches hundreds of people in a night, is the only place that can support his brand of performance. The platform through which he reached tens (if not hundreds) of times more listeners, meanwhile, is somehow too strict in its definition of what is or is not true to support a performer like Daisey. 

I’m a fan of This American Life—and a journalist myself—so I’m curious what the theater folks have to say about this. Specifically, I wonder what the effect on other theater professionals is if Daisey’s vision—that theater is allowed to lie in order to tell a greater truth—is allowed to stand.

Doesn’t he risk making himself and all those who employ similar methods—artists like Anna Deveare Smith, David Hare, Erik Jensen and Jessica Blank, to name some of the better known ones—less able to participate in a conversation about real events going on in the real world? Did a guy who few had ever heard of before this January just ensure that most won’t ever hear from him again?

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