Here’s some facts:

  • Mike Daisey is a dramatic monologuist who traveled to Shenzhen, China, and created a successful one-man show based on the trip, The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.
  • The show details harsh working conditions in China at the Foxconn factories that make Apple’s iPhones and iPads.
  • Daisey performed a shortened version of the show, “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory,” for a This American Life broadcast in January.
  • Yesterday, This American Life announced that it was retracting the show.
  • It turns out that Daisey’s monologue, which seemed to document labor abuses firsthand, was full of fabrications, and that Daisey had lied to This American Life’s fact-checkers in the course of preparing the show.
  • Last night, This American Life broadcast and posted an utterly fascinating self-investigation about what happened and how it screwed up.

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Stories have consequences. Today, the most effective journalists find and tell stories that make a difference in the world.

All stories are shaped by their creators. The notion that anyone can just “tell a story straight” is a delusion. I made an effort just now, above, to tell the Daisey story neutrally in a handful of bullet points. But everyone who knows the story and reads this summary will have questions about what bits I put in and which ones I left out, why I picked certain words and not others. And by the end I couldn’t resist telling you how fascinating I thought the This American Life postmortem was.

So there’s no such thing as a neutral story. But there is such a thing as an honest story.

An honest story is one that makes a good-faith effort to be forthright about the circumstances of its own creation.

This sort of honesty isn’t a binary, on-or-off kind of thing. It’s a spectrum. Every story that professes to tell some truth has its own unique point on that spectrum. A story that told you nothing about itself would be deeply suspect. A story that tried to chronicle every infinitesimal detail about itself — what was I wearing as I wrote the above paragraphs? on what kind of computer? in what font? — would be unlistenable. (Though if you look back at some of the early work of Nicholson Baker, you can see what happens as a writer pushes the outer limits of this end of the spectrum.) So storytellers pick a place they’re comfortable with.

Mike Daisey, who has performed a piece titled “Truth” about fakers like James Frey and Stephen Glass and has hung the phrase “All Stories are Fiction” over a series of his own shows, has been pretty clear through his career that he plays around with conventional notions of “truth in storytelling” as he assembles his monologues. That’s his right.

But his obligation as a storyteller is to be honest with his audience and the world about what he’s up to. If you listen to the TAL retraction show, it’s pretty clear that he wasn’t honest with Ira Glass and the show’s producers — and, even more sadly, at this point he doesn’t even seem to be honest with himself.

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There are two interviews with Daisey in that follow-up show. In the first, Glass confronts Daisey and Daisey seems to be honestly grappling with the gravity of what he’s done. He admits that he never came clean with This American Life because “I think I was terrified that if I untied these things, that the work, that I know is really good, and tells a story, that does these really great things for making people care, that it would come apart in a way where, where it would ruin everything.”

In a second interview, a couple of days later, it sounds like Daisey has buttoned up his public persona, composed his talking points, and given up on being forthright: “Everything I have done in making this monologue for the theater has been toward that end — to make people care. I’m not going to say that I didn’t take a few shortcuts in my passion to be heard. But I stand behind the work. My mistake, the mistake that I truly regret is that I had it on your show as journalism and it’s not journalism. It’s theater. I use the tools of theater and memoir to achieve its dramatic arc and of that arc and of that work I am very proud.”

I’m sorry, that’s not the statement of a theater artist examining his soul; that’s the statement of a public figure doing damage control.

First, let’s dispatch this ridiculous “theater not journalism” argument (which is about as useful a discussion as “is blogging journalism?”). Theater and journalism aren’t separate or opposite endeavors. The New York Times front page is a kind of theater, and plenty of theatrical events are a kind of journalism. Journalism is an activity that theater artists — like filmmakers, authors, business people, anyone — can choose to undertake.

Did Daisey make that choice? This is pretty clear. Here, from the retraction show, Ira Glass reads from an email that a producer sent Daisey:

Ira Glass: “Being that news stations are obviously a different kind of form than the theater we wanted to make sure that this thing is totally, utterly unassailable by anyone who might hear it.”

And then you wrote back to him, you said, “I totally get that. I want you to know that makes sense to me. A show built orally for the theater is different than what typically happens from news stations. I appreciate you taking the time to go over this.” And so you, like, you understood that we wanted it to be completely accurate in the most traditional sense.

Mike Daisey: Yes, I did.

Ira Glass: You put us in this position of going out and vouching for the truth of what you were saying and all along, in all of these ways, you knew that these things weren’t true. Did you ever stop and think, OK these things aren’t true and you have us vouching for their truth?

Mike Daisey: I did, I did. I thought about that a lot.

Ira Glass: And just what did you think?

Mike Daisey: I felt really conflicted. I felt … trapped.

So forget the “theater not journalism” line. Whatever came before, Daisey knew that he was playing by the rules of nonfiction journalism once his show was going to be on This American Life. He knew, but he felt “trapped” — because he also knew that if he told the truth, he’d blow up all the success he’d built for his show and smash the spotlight he’d shone on Apple’s factories. He’d “ruin everything.”

So he lied. And he ruined everything anyway. Because the ruin was inevitable. It was sealed months before, from the moment Daisey first told his tales to a crowd without forthrightly labeling them.

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Live theater is a means of sharing a story. Those stories can have varying degrees of truth — documentary truth (“fact”) and deeper truth (“meaning”). If you stand on a stage and say that you traveled to Shenzhen and got in a cab with your translator, and “Then our taxi driver takes an exit ramp, and he stops. Because the exit ramp stops. In mid-air,” your listener has a reasonable expectation that these things happened that way — unless you explicitly label them differently, unless you say, somewhere: “This is a work of fiction.” Or, “I’ve built this story out of parts that are truthful but I’ve also messed with a lot of the details.” Or something like that. If you don’t do so, and then later, the translator tells the world that this stuff didn’t happen, you’ve discredited yourself.

The temptation to round corners, to retouch images, to make a story flow better or a quote read better, faces every creator of nonfiction at every single moment of labor. And we all do it, all the time. We do it by varying degrees. We slice out “ums” from quotes. We leave out material we deem extraneous. No matter how much we verify of the facts that we think are salient, we can never verify everything.

But there are some compasses we can follow and some precedents we can observe. We don’t create composite characters (see: Janet Cooke) — or if we do, we explain exactly what we’re up to. We don’t say we’re reporting from one city when we’re sitting in another (see: Jayson Blair). We don’t simply invent stuff because it makes such great copy (see: Stephen Glass). We don’t invent a fake persona because it “makes people care” (see: Amina Araf).

The distinction between cosmetic changes and substantive fabrications is relatively easy to make. Storytellers get into trouble when they start to write themselves blank checks to “improve” on reality because the ends (in Daisey’s case, “making people care”) justify the means (in Daisey’s case, making shit up).

Journalism and activism can coexist. Activists tell great stories and journalists are often proud to see their work have an impact on the world. But the moment you decide that “making people care” is more important than telling people the truth, you’re announcing that you’re more of an activist than a journalist. The creators of the Kony 2012 video that went so spectacularly viral, for example, are plainly activists, not journalists. That’s why their video, while achieving some real good, has also come under such criticism.

Theater can do journalism; it can do activism; it can do anything. What it must do first to do any of these effectively is to establish some kind of trust: “I trust that you’re going to entertain me well.” Or “I trust that you’re going to tell me something true about our lives.” Or “I trust that you’re giving me important information about the world.”

The problem with the Mike Daisey story is that he broke trust repeatedly: with his subjects, whose stories he manipulated in service of “making people care”; with his audiences, whose faith in his reliability he abused; and with the This American Life crew, to whom he lied because he was afraid that his whole enterprise would unravel.

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From the early 1980s to the early 1990s I wrote at great length about issues of honesty and truth in autobiographical solo performance. (I once tried, unsuccessfully, to sell a book on the subject.) I interviewed and reviewed artists like Spalding Gray, Lily Tomlin, Eric Bogosian, and Anna Deavere Smith. But I never met Mike Daisey; by the time he started his stage career, I’d become a technology writer. Still, we’re Facebook friends; as a former theater critic, I’ve always been interested in his work, and we’ve got some mutual connections. I never saw his Apple show in the theater. I did listen to the This American Life episode he recorded. It was extremely powerful stuff.

But I also recognized, even before this whole firestorm erupted, that there was something almost too perfect about it. The images — gun-brandishing goons at the factory gate! workers with assembly-line-mangled hands! — fit our images of what such images should be. The authenticating details authenticated with a kind of precision that, in my own several decades of reporting and editing experience, I have never stumbled upon in nature.

Daisey’s story felt too shaped. Storytellers always face this temptation. When I spent three years hanging out with a software team to tell their story, there were a hundred different ways I could have tweaked their tale to make it better — to make readers care more, and to sell more copies of the book I’d go on to write. Sometimes I wish I had. But I like to sleep at night, too.

Daisey, I think, probably began giving in to this temptation a long time ago as he began telling autobiographical stories. And that’s exactly where we all feel most entitled to fudge. Our brains are always rewriting our own personal narratives anyway; if we change some details to make a better yarn, who are we hurting?

But with this Apple story he has fumbled on a gigantic scale, and it’s very clear who he has hurt: the workers in China whose welfare he used to justify his fictions. The big New York Times series on Apple in China has raised no equivalent concerns over accuracy, yet the whole enterprise of raising consciousness among Apple customers about its labor practices is now tarred by Daisey’s failure.

At the same time, This American Life has done itself proud in presenting its own retraction without excuse, chronicling its effort to get to the bottom of what happened, and laying it all out for its audience. Editors, ombudsmen, publishers take note: This is how it’s done.

And, Mike Daisey, you still have an opportunity to redeem yourself. Do what you do best: Create a monologue about all of this. Throw away the talking points. Examine yourself and what happened. Make it a cautionary tale.

And, yeah, tell the truth. I think you do know what that means. Don’t worry: It’ll make a great story as is — no need for embellishment.

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Further reading: