Chuck Ross

Connecting the Dots Between Steve Jobs, Ira Glass, Truth, Fiction, Theater and ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’

Mar 22, 2012

The favorite entertainment of my grandfather on my mother’s side was the movies. I don’t remember ever seeing him read a book or a magazine or a newspaper, but he adored the movies. Especially Westerns.

My grandfather was a serial entrepreneur, and I think he particularly liked Westerns because so often they portray the individual vs. everyone else. And he liked that there were good guys and bad guys and not a lot of gray.

When I was eight he took me to the movie that’s been my favorite Western ever since: “The Magnificent Seven.”

Then, when I was ten, we saw “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” It’s a John Ford Western, penned by James Bellah and Willis Goldbeck, and starring two Western icons, Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne, with a hugely entertainingly nasty Lee Marvin as the bad guy. The movie is about a topic that’s garnering a lot of interest today — bullying. It also included one of the most famous exchanges in movies:

Person A: You’re not going to use the story, Mr. Scott?
Mr. Scott, a newspaperman: No, sir. This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

Actually, a newspaper, in the West or anywhere else, should be in the business of printing the facts, not the legend. Such is the journalistic endeavor.

This subject has been in the news of late because one of the truly great showcases of journalism around, public radio’s “This American Life,” was bamboozled but good recently by one Mike Daisey. Daisey is the author of a theatrical monologue titled "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs."

The monologue is about Apple and the Chinese workers who make its products, and abuses these workers have suffered making the millions of iPods and iPhones and other Apple products that so many of us love. Daisey has repeatedly said that the piece is non-fiction, based on what he saw on a six-day trip to China.

“This American Life,” in turn, did a show about the abuses Daisey claims he saw in China. And “This American Life” is not the only journalistic outlet to feature Daisey and his claims of abuse of Chinese workers in Apple’s employ. He’s been on TV news shows, other radio outlets and even wrote an op-ed piece in The New York Times about the abuses he said he saw.

But another reporter, Rob Schmitz of public radio’s “Marketplace,” investigated and found out that Daisey has been lying, that he didn’t actually see a number of the abuses that he said he saw.

This revelation, in turn, caused “This American Life,” and its venerable host, Ira Glass, to devote an entire show to how the program, which bills itelf as a journalistic endeavor, was bamboozled.

That show, titled “Retraction,” was posted on “This American Life’s” website on March 16, 2012, and is one of the most compelling hours I’ve heard lately, and I urge you to find the time and listen to the entire show — click here to find it.

Most fascinating on this show is Daisey himself, and his various rationalizations. He finally apologizes to Glass and the show’s listeners, as he admits that not all of his material meets journalistic standards of truth.

At the same time Daisey is adamant that even though he’s billed his monologue in the theater as non-fiction, because it’s done in the theater, it’s OK to fudge there.

In other words, even though he says to theater audiences that his piece is documentary, not docu-drama, that’s OK, because they are theatergoers and the truth is more elastic in that setting.

Ira Glass wasn’t buying it. Here’s an exchange between Glass and Daisey from the “Retraction” episode of “This American Life”:

IRA GLASS: Are you going to change the way that you label this in the theater, so that the audience in the theater knows that this isn’t strictly speaking a work of truth but in fact what they’re seeing really is a work of fiction that has some true elements in it.

MIKE DAISEY: Well, I don’t know that I would say in a theatrical context that it isn’t true. I believe that when I perform it in a theatrical context in the theater that when people hear the story in those terms that we have different languages for what the truth means.

GLASS: I understand that you believe that but I think you’re kidding yourself in the way that normal people who go to see a person talk — people take it as a literal truth. I thought that the story was literally true seeing it in the theater. Brian [Reed, a producer on ‘This American Life’], who’s seen other shows of yours, thought all of them were true. I saw your nuclear show, I thought that was completely true. I thought it was true because you were on stage saying, ‘This happened to me.’ I took you at your word.

DAISEY: I think you can trust my word in the context of the theater. And how people see it —

GLASS: I find this to be a really hedgy answer. I think it’s OK for somebody in your position to say it isn’t all literally true. … I feel like that’s what’s actually called for at this point, is just honest labeling. … [Y]ou make a nice show, people are moved by it, I was moved by it, and if it were labeled honestly, I think everybody would react differently to it.

DAISEY: I don’t think that label covers the totality of what it is.

GLASS: That label — fiction?

DAISEY: Yeah. We have different worldviews on some of these things. I agree with you truth is really important.

GLASS: I know, but I feel like I have the normal worldview. The normal worldview is somebody stands on stage and says, ‘This happened to me,’ I think it happened to them, unless it’s clearly labeled as ‘here’s a work of fiction.’

Daisey clearly feels that at this point Glass is badgering him, and just repeats something he said earlier in the interview: “I really regret putting the show on ‘This American Life’ and it was wrong for me to misrepresent to you and to Brian that it could be on the show.”

Interestingly, at least one of Daisey’s colleagues in the theater agrees with Glass’ point of view on this. This comes from a post by Alli Houseworth on ArtsJournal.com that was posted on March 19, 2012:

“In 2010 I worked at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, when ‘The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs’ was ‘birthed’ at the theatre, and the following spring was the marketing and communications director who worked on the show at Woolly. Today, as an independent consultant, I write as a former marketing director who is no longer bound by the public statement of her institution in this matter, and what I would like to say is this: Mike Daisey, you should be ashamed of yourself. And to members of the American theatre: we should be disappointed in ourselves too.

"For months and months four major non-profit organizations across the US (Seattle Rep, Berkeley Rep, Woolly and the Public Theater [in New York City]) worked to put ‘The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs’ on the stage, bringing the story we all felt was so enormously important — a story Mike told at least me time and time again was true. He insisted that ‘This is a work of non-fiction’ be printed in playbills.”

Later in the post Houseworth writes, “So to the producers of the American theatre, I urge you to boycott this work. Boycott Mike’s gorgeous, amazing piece of theatre that is based on a true story. Boycott it until you get the apology that you deserve and do not ever, ever re-mount it or produce a work of his again until you know for sure what is true and what is not so your audiences are n
ever ever misled again. Stand by your desire to uphold the truth and value of art, of what you work so enormously hard for day in and day out, until you get an apology from the man who calls himself one of you, who is our field’s ‘leading man’ in the fight for theatre as truth and activism. He let us down and we deserve better.”

Houseworth’s post brought lots of impassioned response on both sides of the issue.

Commenter Kent disagrees with Houseworth and Glass, and wrote, in part:

“Hmm. I understand that you are upset and feel betrayed by this very public admission of wrong doing, but I think this reaction borders on the hysterical. Mike is not wrong that the context of the theater changes the equation of the way the facts were presented. If you think there aren’t equivocations and fabrications in other works of documentary theater you’d be wrong. Plays like The Laramie Project and Fires in the Mirror may not make stories up, but they do edit, arrange, and structure themselves to create a point of view, sometimes a point of view which may make a real person look foolish or wrong headed, when they aren’t. This is also a form of ‘truthiness’ for lack of a better word. Additionally, journalists such as Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe often fabricated or changed elements of their work to make a better story. David Sedaris, also a ‘This American Life’ contributor has been caught hyperbolizing his stories regularly, and Ira Glass has never retracted a single one of those.

“Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not apologizing for Mike’s behavior and I find the whole event more than a little embarrassing for the theater and the form. I also understand that there are huge differences between David Sedaris creating a story out of his life and Mike Daisey claiming he met people he didn’t. But the point still stands: context does indeed matter. Is it an article of faith that everything you see on stage is true? Ira Glass certainly seems to think so, but I’m not so sure. Someone is writing a point of view and that means that other points of view are not represented. By definition it can’t be journalism.”

Counters a commenter calling herself or himself “Bewildered”:

“>no one holds theater to a journalistic standard

“I keep seeing defenders of Daisey equivocating when it comes to this ‘journalistic standard’. Yes, Daisey’s work was in the theater, but he explicitly labeled it ‘non-fiction.’ Does ‘non-fiction’ mean ‘truth’ only if you’re a journalist? Does it mean ‘mostly truth’ if you’re a regular person? Does it mean ‘whatever I want it to mean’ if you’re an artist? You don’t have to be a journalist to understand that it’s wrong to go on TV, to go on the radio, to write an op-ed for the New York Times and tell stories about what you saw with your own eyes, when you didn’t see those things with your own eyes.

“Just to clarify, many of Daisey’s critics are not primarily objecting to his theater performance. We’re primarily objecting to his insistence that the performance — an artful mingling of his own experiences and imagined experiences based on things he read in the news — is classified as “non-fiction”. More than that, we’re objecting to his continued insistence in media outside of the theater (newspaper, TV, radio) that he really saw these things. He didn’t.

“Each time he wrote an op-ed/went on TV/was interviewed was an opportunity for him to disclaim: ‘remember, I’m not a journalist, I’m a performer, we all have different languages for truth, etc.’. Isn’t it odd that he waited until he was caught red-handed to remind us of this fact?”

Hey Daisey, I was telling all of this to an agent I was having lunch with the other day. Or maybe I wasn’t. No matter. Here’s the point. He, or she, whoever this person was, thinks you’d be great on a reality TV show they want to build around you. Man, you’re gonna love it. Please, call me. This debate wouldn’t happen there. It’s reality TV, my friend, and trust me, the only thing real about it that anyone cares about is the ratings. In reality TV, the director only shouts “Print” not after he has captured the legend, but only after he’s got the legend behind the legend …


  1. I read this column with special interest because the I was suspicious of “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” from the minute I heard about it.
    While Chuck makes excellent points as usual, he leaves out the most troubling aspects of this fraudulent stage play: it’s not just that key “facts” turned out to be fiction, but elements that are partly true are blown out of real-world context by nonstop histrionics.
    Much of what we know about adverse worker conditions at Foxcomm and other Chinese plants comes from Apple itself which, ironically, is the industry leader in solving these problems. Mike Daisey’s prosecutorial tone suggests that Apple can unilaterally solve these problems, which is just not the case.
    Daisey’s shameful insistence that his shrill performance be labeled as non-fiction is self-righteous nonsense. It’s just plain stupid defend these distortions on abstract artistic grounds.
    Chuck’s comparison to “reality” TV is apt. It’s just a matter of time before our industry pays the price for the many excesses of that genre.

  2. Great article on a great subject! Many problems are related to communication and unless the desire is to confuse or mislead, one should communicate as objectively as possible. If they still insist on subjectively distorting it, well, then that’s the other half of the problem isn’t it?

  3. My grandfather and father also likes to watch movies instead of reading magazines or comics. The same goes for me. 🙂
    “Harold” for brosse à dent électrique 

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