Within the first 10 minutes of Wednesday's Washington D.C. performance of The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, Mike Daisey embodied the image I'd had of the man who lied to This American Life. "I've been doing this for a long time, it's a kind of professional blundering," he said before letting out a series of squawks while shaking his arms like a spastic bird. That is Mike Daisey: A big, loud, professional liar. And that moment was an almost too perfect summation of the reputation he has gotten himself over the last few months. So perfect one might think that line was an allusion to his scandal. Though, it was just one of many prescient moments written into the original script. At one point he tells his translator: "I am going to lie to lots of people." These are the types of things you start to notice while watching a noted fabulist perform his most notorious work.
Before going to see Daisey live, I had first heard his original monologue, like so many others, on This American Life, a medium that suggested his story consisted entirely of reported truths. At the time, for me, it provided data for blog posts about the horrid working conditions in China at Foxconn. I, along with everyone else, took it as truth. As we now all know, Daisey embellished, which in journalism means lied. Even though Daisey embarrassed himself on public radio and turned himself into an unreliable narrator, he is still putting on a version of the show without the This American Life lies, or so he says. On stage, however, it's not technically wrong to add in parts that didn't happen -- some might call it creative license. Knowing that, I went into last night's show hyper-skeptical.
"The Retraction" episode of This American Life handily details most of the lies we heard on the radio program, which only broadcast a fraction of the 2 hour performance. He fibbed about meeting a man with a mangled hand, for example. He didn't talk with underage workers. Many of those made-up bits were removed from the show. He doesn't mentioned the guards with guns because as Marketplace's Rob Schmitz noted, security guards in China don't carry guns. Other parts he left in, though. His translator told Schmitz the union workers they talked to never mentioned N-Hexane. "So you lied about that? That wasn’t what you saw?" Schmitz said to Daisey. "I wouldn’t express it that way," responded Daisey. "I would say that I wanted to tell a story that captured the totality of my trip." That part he left in.
Daisey is an incredible performer, who not only had the huge tech geeks on either side of me honking at his Steve Wozniak "autistic bear" impression, but also had a women to my left gasping during one anecdote. He also swears a lot in a big booming, at time screechy voice, which the D.C. audience found just shocking enough to laugh at. He is a great actor. The performance was most compelling when he discussed Apple lore and his love affair with the company's gadgetry. Probably because it is so believable that Daisey, an overweight white guy who wears Hawaiian shirts, would really be as big of an Apple geek as he claims. His dispatches from China, however, left me wondering. Did he really meet a Chinese hacker with a gold tooth? That's almost too cliched to be made up. Or, just cliched enough?
Daisey addresses his This American Life screw-up at least twice throughout the show, both in very Mike Daisey ways. First, while telling us to envision the giant cafeterias at Foxconn, he broke from the monologue, reminding us why we came. At one point he says: "I have a disgusting amount of control over the narrative," a clear nod to the fact that this is a Mike Daisey production, not a piece subject to fact-checking standards. But more directly than that, after telling us things we can never be sure did or did not happen, Daisey proclaims "But why believe me? I'm a noted fabulist," invoking a term oft-used to describe him. He then points to The New York Times's thorough reporting on Apple in China and NGO reports detailing Chinese working conditions*, which make his case for him. It's reminiscent of the apologies he made a few months ago, in which he hoped we would excuse his lying because of the greater good. Last night's disclaimer says: Even if I made up the whole thing, it's okay. It's a big footnote -- even for a stage performance.
*This post originally said Mike Daisey mentioned a recent suicide in China as well as Apple's own reports.