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It’s hard to decide what was more compelling, Mike Daisey’s two-hour one-man show, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, or the subsequent post-performance Q&A grilling from CBS’ Martha Teichner. But allow me to explain. In case you missed it, the controversy over this Spoleto show, by actor and orator Mike Daisey, began on This American Life last January. The NPR program aired portions of the acclaimed monologist’s exposé on corporate darling Apple’s production and human rights violations in China. The airing was a wild success, specifically in light of demigod-in-a-turtleneck Steve Job’s recent passing. In the piece Daisey, a master storyteller lays bare how his passion for Apple products was destroyed upon learning that the company’s Chinese factory at the Foxconn Zhengzhou Technology Park wildly abused employees. In the show, Daisey recounts his trip to China to see Foxconn for himself. There he describes a world in which workers are forced to put in to 12 to even 24 hour days manually crafting the beautiful pieces of technology first world consumers so adore. Their hands shake from the use of a poisonous cleaning solution called hexane. Nets surround the gigantic Foxconn building to prevent rampant suicides. There’s no such thing as overtime, and unions are a joke. It’s a horrific portrait Daisey says few Apple devotees know or care about.
With such compelling content as that, told in what can only be described as Roman newsreader fashion—spit out in sweaty fits of eloquent articulation punctuated with well-placed profanity—it’s no wonder Daisey’s show has been such a success both on the road and on NPR. Yet therein lies the problem. In March, Ira Glass released the following statement,
“I have difficult news. We've learned that Mike Daisey's story about Apple in China —which we broadcast in January—contained significant fabrications. We're retracting the story because we can’t vouch for its truth.”
Turns out Daisey had taken creative license, in some cases even conjuring up scenarios that never took place to piece together his work of dramatic gonzo-journalism. And last night Teichner called him out. “Why didn’t you want Ira to contact your interpreter?” she asked. “Because I knew she didn’t want to be contacted and I knew she’d say things happened differently,” Daisey admit. The veteran reporter was relentless, questioning whether Daisey regretted embellishing his story. “I’m sorry, I apologized, and that’s f*&$ing it,” he said. Which raised many good questions: Where is the line between storytelling and reporting? Where is the line between vetting a performer and losing sight of the intent of their original tale? And when is an apology enough?
Regardless of your thoughts on storytelling integrity, the truth is the heart of Daisey’s piece is accurate. As the New York Times has confirmed, Foxconn has violated workers rights. Apple has had to back peddle and submit to factory audits. And thanks to Daisey, and probably more so for the controversy, some of these issues are coming to mainstream Apple devotees’ attention.
In the end (of both the play and the interview), Daisey won the audience over. He may have made mistakes, but his humility and regret are sincere. And ultimately his spellbinding skills as a public speaker make him easy to forgive.
Photograph by Ursa Waz