It’s been over two months since the public radio show “This American Life” published a retraction of one of its most popular episodes, but the controversy still rages on.
The episode in question contained portions of monologist Mike Daisey’s one-man show “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” which focuses on Apple’s production processes and Daisey’s experience investigating them in China. In March, “This American Life” retracted the episode, and Daisey made an appearance in which he admitted that he had fabricated some of the details.
Daisey will be performing a new monologue at Spoleto tonight at 8 p.m. After the June 3 performance of his now-modified “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” at Spoleto, Post and Courier contributor Leah Stacy tweeted: “I submit that @mdaisey is doing for theater what Nellie Bly did for journalism. Bravo, sir. Bravo.” Nellie Bly was a pioneer of immersion journalism who famously pretended to be insane in order to report on a mental institution from the inside.
Another Post and Courier contributor, Andrew Johnson, had a different response, tweeting: “Mike Daisey is a phenomenal performer. But after seeing the show, I can’t stop thinking about how much the TAL debacle undermined its power.”
The two journalists met to debate the matter. What follows are highlights from their conversation.
ANDREW: It seems like you really enjoyed Mike Daisey’s show. You even implied he could revolutionize theater. Don’t you think that’s a little hyperbolic?
LEAH: No. Nellie Bly did immersion journalism, and Mike Daisey is doing immersion theatre. I think anything that comes out of immersion, where you relay an experience, is really storytelling. Storytelling is done in both theatre and in journalism, but journalists in our society have more credibility. That’s why Nellie Bly saw results right after her articles were published. If Mike Daisey’s show is going to have the same effect, it might take a little longer. Do you disagree?
ANDREW: I think there’s no denying that Mike Daisey is a phenomenal performer, but I came away feeling like the “This American Life” controversy really hurt the power of the show. If you go in having listened to the retraction episode, that’s hanging over the entire piece. Any time he used the word “truth” or “lie,” I immediately questioned what he was saying. It’s not emotionally compelling anymore.
LEAH: I think you’re right about the controversy hanging over it. That was in the back of my mind the whole time. But even so, in the end I was emotionally moved. As a storyteller and as a performer he knows the moments to strike. He knows when to whisper and when to bring the lights down for maximum effect. But I can see how many people would be cynical going into it.
ANDREW: The surprising thing for me was that most of the show actually isn’t about his experience in China. A lot of time is spent on the history of Apple and how connected we are to technology and whether or not that’s a good thing. That part of the show is interesting on an intellectual level. The problem is that the emotional hook comes at the end when he’s talking about the people he met. Because six minutes of that material was cut after the controversy, there’s not that much left about him dealing with the Foxconn workers. There’s a segment where he’s talking to people in line at the factory and a segment where he meets with a union leader. That’s pretty much it.
LEAH: And the stories that they gave him. Not stories he heard directly from people who experienced them, but accounts from friends and co-workers.
ANDREW: Right. So not only has the emotional hook been condensed, but because of the controversy I’m also questioning how much I should believe about his whole experience. I really think he shot himself in the foot and hurt the emotional impact to a large extent.
LEAH: If nothing else, he’s discovering a new form of theater. This is a relatively new thing, having shows about technology that appeal to a geek who might never go to the theater and also an older artsy person who might not know how to text.
ANDREW: Yes, and it will be interesting to see how the controversy affects the reception of his shows in the future. You can tell at the end he’s trying to recover as best he can, which is why he adds that bit about how we shouldn’t just take his word on things, we should read the New York Times reports and do the research ourselves. He used the word “virus,” like we’ve been infected with this new knowledge and now we’ll never look at our Apple products the same way. The problem is that the “This American Life” controversy is a virus as well. Now I can’t look at his experience in China the same way. Both viruses are battling it out, and I’m not sure which virus will win in the end.
LEAH: Do you think the majority of people will feel that way when they see it?
ANDREW: I have no idea. Let’s imagine that the “This American Life” controversy never happened. Do you think socially conscious theater can ever make as much of an impact as hard journalism?
LEAH: That depends on where it’s coming from. If it’s Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times versus Mike Daisey and his show, the journalist with the reputation will make more of an impact. The interesting thing about Daisey is that he’s made a niche for himself in theater. His shows are like documentaries. They’re based on immersion, interviews and historical research, and in those respects it’s very much like journalism. I think he could do a lot with this and there’s a lot of potential for it to cause social and political change.
ANDREW: Do you think that the “This American Life” controversy will affect his future shows?
LEAH: I hope he learns a lesson from it and relies more on factual truth in the future, rather than embellished truth for the sake of theater. I think he can recover and go on to do some really powerful things.
ANDREW: I agree. I think “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” will forever be undermined by the controversy, but I don’t think that will extend to shows he does in the future. As long as he gets on stage with something new and implies, “This is my experience,” I think until we know otherwise we’ll choose to believe him. He’s said his new show on Wednesday will be about a trip he took from London to Istanbul and reflections from the past few months. What are you hoping to get from that?
LEAH: I hope he presents the audience with something really honest and vulnerable. I think you can bounce back from something like this controversy as an artist if you’re humble about it. In fact, that could strengthen his credibility even further. My tweets said not that the Steve Jobs show is doing for theatre what Nellie Bly did for journalism, but that Mike Daisey as a performer has that potential. Maybe not with that specific show, but in the future, who knows?
For more Spoleto news, follow Leah Stacy on Twitter at @LeahStacy. Follow Andrew Johnson at @WriterAndrew.