Sunlight Shining Through Cloud

Breaking The Faith: The Daisey Disaster

Posted on: March 18, 2012

Mike Daisey is a monologist. He’ll stand before an audience for ninety minutes and tell stories. Upon leaving the theater, you’ll likely feel that you received the value of your ticket and then some. He engages you; speaks to issues you care about; informs you; motivates you. Many of his works can be seen on YouTube.

His most recent work, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, tells of Daisey’s experiences in China as he collected anecdotes from factory workers who make Apple products. He paints pictures of Gestapo-like guards, slavish conditions, horrendous injuries, sardine can-like living quarters, suicides, underage labor…all in the name of the iPad, iPod and iPhone.

This stage presentation was so compelling that it attracted the attention of Public Radio International’s This American Life who asked Daisey for a 40-minute version of the story for presentation on that NPR show in January.

I heard it. And then I listened to the rebroadcast a day later. And then I listened to the podcast. This was activist storytelling at its very best.

When the show’s host and producer Ira Glass Tweeted last Friday about a problem with the Daisey show, I was curious, but thought initially that some journalistic technicality had been discovered and TAL needed to do a ‘mea culpa’ in order to maintain its integrity. TAL would never air such a thing without rigorous vetting: standard operating procedure (and an audience expectation) for the show.

The problem is that Daisey lied his way through the vetting process, and TAL did not fact-check his assertions adequately. It then aired a show on NPR that was packed with fabrications.

To its credit, This American Life devoted its entire hour, this weekend, to an illumination of the problem. The program included an extensive interview with Daisey, asking the tough questions in the way I would’ve asked them: ‘Did you lie about…?’  Most telling were the long periods of silence during which Daisey considered the way in which he’d spin his answer. Glass was an excellent surrogate in this situation: he confronted Daisey boldly; he told Daisey that he felt lied to.

It should never have come to this.

No NPR listener expects journalistic integrity when Garrison Keillor launches into his tales of Lake Wobegon. The place doesn’t exist in reality, and we understand that the characters so lovingly portrayed are composites of people we might very well know if they weren’t fictitious.

Such is not the case with This American Life. As Glass, himself, explains, listeners should expect his show to adhere to the same journalistic standards as any other NPR program: complete truth – verified.

I fault Mike Daisey for lying to TAL. I do not fault him for this debacle. He is an artist who pretended to be a journalist in order to gather material for his performances. He then stitched disparately-gathered information together to suit his purposes. 

The real fault belongs to This American Life. Ira Glass manned up and accepted responsibility for airing the program. You could hear him thinking that no one would ever believe him again. You could hear him feeling like he’d failed a sacred trust.

He did.

Now we listeners have to wrestle with forgiveness. Do we discard our relationship with a program we’ve loved for seventeen years, or do we figure that its producers have been sufficiently – and publicly – punished? I’m leaning toward the latter, though I will admit that it will likely be a while before my anger subsides.

1 Response to "Breaking The Faith: The Daisey Disaster"

Thanks for presenting this “story” so objectively.

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