Truth in Theater: The Mike Daisey panel

Mike Daisey's The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs set off a charged debate at the Public Theater. Here, for the first time, is a full transcript.

The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs at Public Theater

The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs at Public Theater Photograph: Kevin Berne

Peter Marks: When I saw The Exonerated in Washington, there were huge numbers of walkouts in the theater, and I think they were mostly Justice Department lawyers [Laughter], even though clearly that had a point of view. I wonder if, going back to what Adam mentioned, was this a crime of labeling? Is that what we’re really talking about? Is the fact that if he had not crazily demanded that the program say, “This is a work of nonfiction,” leading us all right down a misguided path—is that really the big problem?

Jessica Blank: I think so. In the days after this broke, I was involved in, as we probably all were, many Facebook debates about this [Laughter], and initially I was making the argument that the mistake happened when the interface with This American Life started to happen. And then I had missed, when I saw the play, I had missed in the program the page that said this is a work of nonfiction, and somebody alerted me to that, and I was like, “Oh, well, then that’s a different story.” I think it is a crime of labeling, and it goes back to this contract question. As you said, this kind of work exists on a broad spectrum. There are all different kinds of permutations, and I think the important thing is to be explicit with your audience about what it is that you’re doing, how much of it is fiction, how much of it is composite, how much of it is actually the words that real people said, and fact-checkable, etc., and to stick with that. And honestly, I think this piece would have had the exact same impact that it had, and done the beautiful work it has done in the world, without him having to claim that it was nonfiction. Because the larger issues that he gets at, which are really the important thing here, are all unassailable. The only part of it that’s fictionalized is what he saw with his own eyes.

Steven Cosson: Sorry, can I jump in on that? I think I agree with you that it would have been a very powerful piece, and I don’t know what’s accurate and what’s not accurate, and there’s things that Mike says are accurate which the translator says are not accurate, so I’m not going go there, but I do think there are some similarities between Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair and some of these other prominent blurry, truthy moments, where the culture comes down on it really hard because a piece has really risen to some prominence, and the particular aspects of the story that have really fueled that prominence are the facts in question. Because I think one of the biggest shocking things that I walked away with was, I mean, my God, Mike just went there and stood at the gates and met a 13-year-old child laborer. And clearly there’s this huge story that the rest of the world’s journalists are so completely lazy, because they didn’t even just walk up to the gate and write the kids.

Taylor Mac: That’s awesome—that’s awesome if he made that up. That’s awesome! [Laughter] I haven’t talked to anyone who agrees with me on this [Laughter], but I feel that there is a contract that you have with your audience, and the contract actually is not what everyone is assuming it is, about ethics and truth, but actually that you will do whatever you can, whatever your power is, to make their experience feel valid, and to inspire them to then dream the conversation forward and the culture forward. And if that means I have to lie to my audiences, I will butt-faced lie to them. I will make up everything—I will tell you I’m telling you the truth while I’m lying to you. I don’t care! [Laughter] And that is my contract that I have with my audience—is that no matter what, in this room, we all have to believe what is happening right now. Or I at least think that, yes, that we have to believe what’s happening! So I think these are tools that we use as theater artists and I actually don’t believe that docudrama—no, that’s not true—I don’t believe that nonfiction theater exists. [Laughter]

Steven Cosson: I just want to ask one question, which is, have you ever done a work where you’ve convinced the audience that something is true, and you’ve lied, and that lie has real-world consequences that affect other people?

Taylor Mac: What do you mean by “real-world consequences”? Like my family? Or…

Jason Zinoman: Like labor standards. This is, I think, where this conversation should go now. Cause this is no longer about that distinction. Mike Daisey’s argument now—what he said at Georgetown—is that he’s done more good than…that the small lies were worth it because he’s done all this good in raising awareness of Chinese labor standards. If this is the question, then we need to examine how much good he has done and how much bad he has done and what casualties there are. And today I happened to do some reporting on this. [Laughter] And I’d like to share. This is my homage to Mike Daisey. In yesterday’s newspaper—I doubt anyone else subscribes to this paper, it’s called The People’s Daily; The People’s Daily is the Chinese communist government’s mouthpiece—there’s an article in yesterday’s paper, that the headline is “U.S. Media’s Report on Chinese Sweatshop Extremely Irresponsible.” Now the fascinating thing about this is that the take of this writer is not that Mike Daisey is some unique character who lied to his audience; this story quickly pivots to making the point that this is generally true of Western journalism’s treatment of Chinese labor conditions. It says that it’s based on stereotypes of their culture; it has an expert, who they quote, which is something that Mike doesn’t do. If journalism’s credibility, including The New York Times’ recent exposé, is damaged by this work of art, that’s significant. Who else’s credibility was damaged? Today I called up two people from Human Rights Watch, who dedicate their lives to this issue. This isn’t something they’re dabbling in. (Mike said at Georgetown he didn’t care about labor issues until he started doing this.) Both of them said this piece undermines their work. A person who specializes in China, okay, who couldn’t care or be more passionate about Chinese labor conditions, says, “Look, Chinese government is now going to say, what we do, you can’t trust.” So if you’re sacrificing the credibility of journalists, sacrificing the credibility of people who are human-rights workers, is it worth it? And then the question becomes—the narrative that Daisey is now telling us is fascinating to me, and it’s focused on journalists. And this is where my original reaction, which was a sort of sadness, turns into something else. Which is that his story now, the reason he embellished, is because he went to Shenzhen and there was all this attention, newspaper articles, and then the media cycle ended, and there was no more, and he said, “No one was talking about these issues. This story dies in the West. ” And then he says, according to The New York Times article in 2012, he says, “I set the emotional landscape for that New York Times exposé to land.” I see no evidence that that’s true. Second of all, just do a Google search. I discovered in 1996-97, the Daily Mail did a huge exposé of Foxconn, which led to concrete changes. In 2010, the Times did many, many stories on this. I called up my brother, who’s a historian who focuses on Vietnam. He says that there’s a massive amount of scholarship—academic—every university has 12 people working on China. And the labor conditions, the critical take on labor conditions, he said, isn’t incidental: It’s at the core of what they do. And he sent me…I didn’t even know it exists, there’s a Google Scholar. I printed it out, there are articles for days on this. You can say, “Oh, well, that’s obscure, nobody’s [paying] attention. Mike Daisey went on Bill Maher." Well, one of my brother’s students went to a Nike factory in Vietnam. He found out—he had leaked a document that had a similar situation of labor conditions. Nike let him in, completely changed—he worked with The New York Times, and change happened. In Mike Daisey’s Georgetown speech, he makes an argument about change. He says if you change the metaphor, that’s how activism happens. I think that’s bullshit. I think there’s people here who really did make change and their change is dependent on credibility and trust, not on money or power. It depends on money and trust. And what really bothers me… I enjoyed Oskar Eustis’s statement, and it’s very different then Woolly Mammoth’s statement. Woolly Mammoth’s statement was, “When Mike Daisey made his trip to China, the U.S. was barely focused on the appalling conditions for China workers.” That’s not true—academics, Human Rights Watch—that’s not true. Then he says, “We blithely ignored the fact that China, that Apple”—I would be offended if I had spent my life doing that. Then he says, in a passive voice which I find offensive, “Letters were written, stories reported, and Apple actually committed to revealing a list of suppliers, investigating these supply chains”— implying that Mike Daisey did that, when actually, it was after the Times exposé came out and did it. At the end of the day, my last point is that one thing theater people and journalists share is a belief of importance of language, and you learn in plays, whether by Caryl Churchill, Edward Albee or David Mamet, how imprecise language can be very powerful and deceptive. And what I hear from Woolly Mammoth and Mike Daisey—they sound like characters in a Pinter play. That upsets me.

Adam Feldman: Just to play devil’s advocate for a minute—not that Mike Daisey is the devil, which I don’t think he is.…

Taylor Mac: Yeah, I mean can we all just agree that this is the guy that, you know, is trying to do good things in the world?

Jessica Blank: Yes. Yes.

Adam Feldman: I think we can agree on that. Also I think we can agree that, anyone who’s seen Mike’s work can agree, that he is a superb storyteller and artist. I’ve admired his works for years. He’s an extraordinary playwright and performer, and those things have not been in contention. But I want to make a few distinctions, or just bring up some possible counterarguments there. [Jason] said that it’s too bad, because the monologue would have been as effective some other imaginary way. I’m really not sure that’s true. And I’m not sure these articles and these journal studies and the rest of them would have been effective—with the popular culture in mind—as this was. But things people were moved by in the story were some of these fabricated details: were the child, were the old man with the broken hand, were the workers who had been poisoned by n-hexane. It’s not that these people don’t exist, by the way, it’s that they didn’t exist in Mike Daisey’s encounters. So what we’re talking about, really, is a part of the story is fictional, but that part is the memoir part.

Jessica Blank: That’s right.