Sometimes, we here at Digital Trends have strong opinions. And when that time comes, we take to the Internet and fight. Check out our inaugural debate series, and this week’s topic of choice: the controversy surrouding Mike Daisey’s recount of Foxconn. Read on to see staff writers Jeffrey Van Camp and Andrew Couts go head to head.
I think it is both art and implied truth. Mike Daisey created a one-man show where he tells the story of a personal trip he took to China to visit Foxconn factories, and several horrifying and disturbing things he witnessed on that trip. It was a real trip that he actually took and never says it isn’t true. He talks from his perspective about his experiences. Because of this, people seeing it in an audience have the assumption that it is true and he’s not making it up. A theatrical audience might assume that he has written his story to sound fluid, embellishing with adjectives, but they don’t believe he’s outright lying about things to the degree that he did. He made up entire encounters. Many of them.
This was not billed as a piece of fiction. It was billed as truth. Mike Daisey’s play could have been just as effective if he would have admitted that some encounters were imaginary and told the truth, but he decided to cut corners. He has said that he wrote it to get people to be outraged about the working conditions, but perhaps he should have stayed another few days and found some truth to be outraged about instead of lying. That’s sloppy, irresponsible, and wrong.
And that’s before he began airing his play on “This American Life” or appearing on talk shows discussing his experiences as fact.
There are two distinct realms of reality to this situation, and the value of truth — even the meaning of truth — are different in each. The first realm is that of the theater — the space occupied by Daisey’s play, The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. The second is the realm of journalism, which includes the now-infamous “This American Life” episode, as well as any talk show, or news article for which Daisey agreed to take part. In the former realm, Daisey made liberal use of his dramatic license to convey to his audience the contrast between the beautiful Apple gadgets we all love, and the sometimes ugly effects their production can have on the people who make them. I believe Daisey is entirely justified in fabricating anecdotes to convey the message — the truth — that he wants to convey: that nice things we enjoy have a human cost. I don’t believe he has any obligation to reveal that part of his act is made up. I don’t think his play would be nearly as effective if the literal truthfulness of it became a talking point.
The problem with Daisey’s story lies elsewhere. Rather than remaining tactfully vague on the literal truthfulness of each tidbit of his play, Daisey allowed himself to be seen as a veritable authority on Apple’s business practices, and on the plight of Chinese Foxconn workers. He should have remained a playwright only. And his failure to do so — to lie to Ira Glass and “This American Life” producers to come across as such — is his only sin.
Just because you perform on a stage does not mean you are automatically given a pass to lie to people. Yes, Mike Daisey is free to deceive us all, and he has, but in that play he didn’t just lie about his own life, he outright lied about large political and business issues that are happening right now. He used real names of real people including his translator, as well as real factories. By actually going on a trip to China and writing a first-person narrative about it and then discussing it in promotional appearances and during the performance as fact, he is misled people. Perhaps you believe that is OK to do during a play, but it is still lying to an audience to get them to think what you want.
Mike Daisey is a writer. He knows how he could have conveyed a story like that and made it truthful, but he took the easiest way, which was lying about details.
There are certain circumstances where doing what he did would be fine, but he willfully treaded into journalistic territory during that play and happily doubled and tripled over on his lies during countless interviews. That is wrong, and I don’t believe you can separate Daisey from the man he portrays on stage. Even if you can, do you really think that people coming out of that play didn’t believe he met a Foxconn worker who had his hands blown off? I’d venture that almost all of them believed him, or believed he was trying to tell a true story, dramatically.
Daisey was telling a true story dramatically! Children do work at Foxconn plants — as Apple has admitted. And people most certainly do suffer terribly injuries because of the production of iPhones and iPads, or any other industrial job — to suggest otherwise is itself a deception. Yes, he presented these truths in a fictional context, as countless artists have before him. Was every detail of Daisey’s trip to China true? No. And we agree that he should not have purposefully presented those details as such on “This American Life”; by doing so, he transformed himself from a playwright into a journalist, which is the root of this controversy, and his one and only error. (Not to mention that the presentation of Daisey in this way was also the error of “This American Life”.) For many people, that grievance may be the only facet of this story that matters.
But for me, it is vitally important to defend the right of artists to take dramatic liberty, and to bend the facts to evoke the appropriate emotion on important matters — even when a piece of art pretends to be a work of journalism. Hunter S. Thompson, for example, blended fiction and journalism all the time, in even more absurd and factually incorrect ways than Daisey. (See Thompson’s reporting on the 1972 presidential campaign as a prime example.) And yet, he’s heralded as one of the greatest American writers of the 20th Century. Were he writing today, I suspect our literalistic culture would shun him as a hack, just as it is doing now with Daisey.
That said, my point is not to defend Daisey as an artist, nor his ironic sell-out to present himself as a journalistic authority on Apple and Foxconn in an attempt to promote his play. My point is, however, that we do a disservice to both the truth and the moral makeup of our national character by disregarding Daisey and his message in its entirety simply because he fell victim to the devil of self-promotion.
Well, I’m not going to get into Hunter S. Thompson; that’s another debate. Daisey’s work is somewhat like Gonzo journalism, but Thompson did a lot of drugs and readily discussed and admitted that his work was partially, well, who knows – he was on a lot of drugs. He even changed the names of his characters.
Mike Daisey didn’t change names. He fed off of this controversy. According to an AllThingsD piece, it says “this is a work of non-fiction” right in the PlayBill for The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs as well as quotes from him answering questions about his experiences.
After the world found out he was lying, he’s been saying that we are all using him as an excuse to “return to denialism.” The guy is in denial. Daisey’s lying has undoubtedly hurt his own cause a bit, but the whole world hasn’t suddenly started thinking manufacturing in China is fantastic. They just think Daisey is a liar. The New York Times and others were researching this before Daisey’s one-man show ever came out and have continued to issue major reports quite recently.
There is more than enough truth in this situation to write a factual 90-minute script. If Daisey fell victim to the devil of self promotion, it was when he was writing. He officially began lying from the moment he first performed that play, and to more than 70,000 people all across the country in the months since. Each one of those people paid him $75 o $85 dollars for truth and he served them lies. A “work of non-fiction” should not be fiction. All those horrible things may have happened to workers in China, but they weren’t workers Mike Daisey ever met or had the right to pretend he knew or understood.
You may not want to get into Hunter S. Thompson, but his work is a good example of a similar situation. And he didn’t always change names. For instance, he once wrote an article for Rolling Stone that said ’72 Democratic presidential candidate Ed Muskie was likely hooked on a Brazilian drug called Ibogaine. None of it was true; he made the whole thing up. And this was an actual journalist talking about an actual candidate. Thompson made damning fabrications — just as Daisey did. In the case of Daisey, however, the realities of his story are true, even if the details are not. But if you want to disregard this comparison because Thompson was “on a lot of drugs,” fine.
In terms of Daisey billing his play as “a work of non-fiction,” that’s true. He did that. But as I’m sure you remember, the Cohen brothers famously said that Fargo was “based on a true story,” even though it wasn’t. Obviously, that’s entirely different, one example with far fewer moral gray areas, but the point is that simply changing the context through which a piece of artistic work is viewed — even if that means duping your audience — is neither new nor ethically bankrupt.
The difference between us is that you want Daisey to be a journalist. You want his play to be a work of non-fiction. I, on the other hand, want him to be a playwright. And I am perfectly fine with the fibs he tells in The Agony. What I think was a mistake was that he coerced the press to portray him as a journalist first, and a playwright second, when he should have skipped the former altogether. That doesn’t mean that he had to tell his audience that, hey, some of the details in this play might be changed for dramatic effect. He absolutely does not have to do that, and his play has no less value because he didn’t. Your idea that art must live by the rules of journalism is far more dangerous and damaging to our culture than anything Mike Daisey ever said.
No, Mike Daisey isn’t the only person doing this. Many industries have a long history of not caring about the truth. Like you said, Hollywood abuses what it honestly should do with “based on a true story” as well. That statement is used for almost every film these days, it seems, but very few of these stories are very accurate. The Social Network has some huge issues itself because its screenwriter (Aaron Sorkin) simply didn’t care about the actual people he was writing about. If you choose to create a film or play that is based on real events, especially those that are happening now or recently, and bill it as truth or “non-fiction,” then yes, you should work hard to keep it accurate to the story. We don’t always know all of the details, but when there are facts, there should be a strong attempt to adhere to them. Absolutely.
Mike Daisey himself says this on his blog: “…story should always be subordinate to the truth, and I still believe that. Sometimes I fall short of that goal, but I will never stop trying to achieve it.”
I agree with him. He has fallen short, and apparently so did Hunter S. Thompson if he’s blatantly lying and attempting to pass it off as truth, though I’m not intimately familiar with his whole body of work. I don’t think the world is any worse now that we know that Mike Daisey lied, or that art has somehow been harmed. Mike Daisey could have said anything in the damn world about Apple or talked about Steve Jobs literally shitting on Chinese workers for all I care. All he had to do was not put “non-fiction” in the playbill and pretend it actually happened both on the stage and off the stage. A work of art does not live in a vacuum. Just inserting the words “I imagine” before one of his lies may have been enough. He didn’t want that. He wanted people to think he was a bit of a journalist and an artist, if just for this show. But he failed to live up to one end of that.
Why are artists not allowed to say that something is non-fiction, even if it’s fabricated? Because it offends people? Because it’s misleading? The simple fact that Daisey’s work is a play, not a press conference, should tell any reasonable person that the details may be embellished for the sake of storytelling — especially in an era when Hollywood uses similar tactics so liberally. If you take playwrights or screenwriters at their word, and assume that everything they say in their stories is literally true, then that’s your own fault. As I have repeatedly said, Daisey was wrong to portray himself as an authority in the press. He crossed the line when he verified his story as fact to “This American Life.” But he has every right to say that his play is a work of non-fiction as a way to frame the narrative. Now, there’s certainly room for debate on whether or not his monologue fails as art because of his half-truths and exaggerations. But to say that art must abide by rules — especially the rules of journalism — is one front I cannot concede.
Who do you agree with — or who best proved his point? Sound off in the comments.
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