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Mike Daisey: Fabulist or Truthsayer?

by John Killacky

This article also appeared in the Burlington Free Press.

Theatrical storyteller Mike Daisey returns to Burlington on March 31, when he performs at the Flynn, co-presented by the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts and the UVM Lane Series. He and his work, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” have been much in the news lately. I write this on behalf of the Flynn and Natalie Neuert, director of the UVM Lane Series.

Daisey’s monologue focuses on a trip he made to a factory in China where Apple products are manufactured. His performance details the inhumane working conditions and the toll on workers creating these products.

This critically acclaimed work just completed an extended run at New York’s Public Theater, and Daisey himself has been featured in dozens of newspapers, television, and radio programs. With all of Daisey’s media attention, as well as investigative reporting by the New York Times, Apple recently committed to monitoring workplaces and improving conditions.

This past weekend, Ira Glass of This American Life retracted a critical report he did on Apple’s suppliers that was built around Daisey’s monologue featured on Glass’ popular public radio show two months earlier. Glass accused Daisey of embellishing his performance narrative and lying to him as they tried to fact check particulars.

Rob Schmitz, NPR’s Marketplace correspondent in China, agreed that there were discrepancies, but stated, “What makes this a little complicated is that the things Daisey lied about are things that have actually happened in China. Workers making Apple products have been poisoned by hexane. Apple’s own audits show the company has caught underage workers at a handful of its suppliers. These things are rare, but together, they form an easy-to-understand narrative about Apple.”

Glass agrees that much of the information in the monologue is true, “corroborated by independent investigations by other journalists, studies by advocacy groups, and much of it has been corroborated by Apple itself in its own audit reports.” However, he was justifiably outraged that Daisey pretended he witnessed all of this first hand.

Daisey defended himself on his blog, saying, “My show is a theatrical piece whose goal is to create a human connection between our gorgeous devices and the brutal circumstances from which they emerge. It uses a combination of fact, memoir, and dramatic license to tell its story, and I believe it does so with integrity … the tools of the theater are not the same as the tools of journalism.”

However, Daisey apologized to Glass, “It was completely wrong for me to have it on your show. And that’s something I deeply regret.” He also expressed his regret that “the people who are listening, the audience of This American Life, who know that it is a journalism enterprise, if they feel misled or betrayed, I regret to them as well.“

With the two Burlington Free Press articles about the controversy (“Radio’s ‘This American Life’ retracts Daisey’s Apple story,” March 17, and “Truth in storytelling,” March 20) and the This American Life show last weekend, we have received calls and emails as to whether the Flynn and UVM Lane series plan on canceling the March 31 performance of Mike Daisey’s “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.”

We are not canceling the show. In fact, we look forward to presenting it and having a considered moderated conversation with the audience afterward for which Daisey will join us.

Did Daisey make mistakes? Yes. Does this invalidate him as an artist? Come and decide for yourselves. Clearly the themes of this storyteller have resonated widely. An essential role for arts organizations is to create a safe space for this type of discourse. Join us in the conversation.

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