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.

Mike Daisey in The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs

Mike Daisey in The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs Photograph: Joan Marcus

Jessica Blank: It does make sense, but I think the ethical responsibility comes in when you acknowledge the fact that the thing that is being utilized to raise those questions are peoples’ real lives.

Taylor Mac: I guess I just don’t see the difference between if I’m playing a lily in a play that is dealing with a desire to be loved—I don’t see that as different from telling the story of somebody who actually has the desire to be loved, and somebody who’s being oppressed against. Again, I don’t see that as different.

Jessica Blank: I mean, I get you on a philosophical level, but in one of those examples, there is a real human being, and in the other one there is not.

Taylor Mac: But I guess what I’m saying is that there is a real human being in that flower that’s wanting to be loved because…

Steven Cosson: Yes, I’m with you philosophically, but say you had a coworker…

Peter Marks: But the flower’s not going to end up on NPR. That’s the difference.

Taylor Mac: I was like, I don’t know what I’m going to say, I don’t really make docudrama, and now I realize, I’m the antagonist! [Laughter] I’m making it exciting!

Steven Cosson: I’m pulling this out of my butt, but so there’s some coworker you have that you don’t like, her name is Sylvia Peterson, and she works at the Gap with you.

Peter Marks: So it’s true! [Laughter]

Steven Cosson: No, I’ve never worked at the Gap! In this town, where everyone knows Sylvia Peterson, you do a performance and you say, “This is an actual story,” and you convince the audience that it’s actually true, and you give a very compelling truthful argument—that you say onstage and off that it is true—that Sylvia Peterson beats her kids. And yeah, it’s a fiction, but there is a real woman named Sylvia Peterson who does not beat her kids, and you’ve convinced the whole town of Springfield [Laughter] that she’s a child-abuser. And the truth is just that she’s a gossip, or she steals your lunch out of the refrigerator or something, but you’ve convinced your community she’s a child-beater. And I think you can’t—I know that’s kind of ridiculous, and I totally agree with what you’re saying on a philosophical level about reality and art, but I will just say, I do believe that fundamentally, there are different ethics that come into play. They’re not set in stone by God, they’re whatever the ethics are, but there are some ethics…

Taylor Mac: That’s the key, right? Nothing is set in stone by God.

Steven Cosson: …ethics that a person has to figure out. And then you can debate them, and you can say, like, “I think your ethics suck.”

Jason Zinoman: I also am sympathetic to what Taylor says. You know, some of my favorite movies are horror movies from the ’70s, where the convention at the beginning was to say, “This movie was based on a real story,” like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre—and obviously, it worked, right? They were lying, and they regularly lied, and I loved it! I loved being fooled, I loved being deceived. But those movies have a name: exploitation movies. Now, they’re great, and I love them, and you won’t find me apologizing for them at all, but we think it has a different moral authority than an Arthur Miller play or The Exonerated.

Taylor Mac: But if Mike called this play agit-propaganda, everyone would judge it and not go.

Adam Feldman: Right. So this is the question. We’re going to go to Q&A with the audience in just a moment, but I want to throw this out, because I feel like the labeling… Look, all of us were disappointed and I think most of us would agree that Mike made mistakes along this process. And for those of us that like his work and who feel that his cause was important, it was a bit of an Eliot Spitzer or Anthony Weiner moment, you know? [Laughter]

Jason Zinoman: How’s that?

Adam Feldman: Because, you know, “We want you to succeed and we want this to work and then you go and do this stupid thing that pisses it away.” And so it’s frustrating, and you get mad at him, and I’m mad at Mike in many ways about this thing. But ultimately, I think it’s important…because there’s been this huge public shaming, this Cultural Revolution—you know, “Get out there, Mike, and talk about how you were wrong!” and the reaction about how we must be more assiduous in our fact-checking. And I worry about this because, for me, this is a crime of degree. There are a lot of gray spaces in here. We’re talking about the difference between memoir and reportage in ways that are very slippery even in the examples we’ve used tonight. Even the stories that This American Life—David Sedaris doesn’t get on before and say, “The following story is fictionalized”; he doesn’t! And the story doesn’t do that. And if he did, it would ruin the story. And if Sarah Silverman got up and said, “Okay, by the way, so I’m going to tell a bunch of jokes, but just so you know, they’re not really true,” then the jokes wouldn’t be funny! And I feel like maybe there’s an implicit contract, beyond what’s said on the air, that Mike is a theater artist and a playwright and not a journalist. And maybe instead of being a bad journalist who’s trying to pass himself off as a theater person, maybe he’s a theater person passing himself off as a journalist. Just throwing it out there, but at what time does his “performance of this play” stop?

Peter Marks: That’s the question, Adam, and I think we have to consider what happens going forward now. We can all luxuriate in our bile over this [Laughter], and it could go on and on and on, although that would be disgusting [Laughter], but what I think is that going forward, what happens? And I do think some of this goes to the question of what Mike does, and how much we allow him to go forward. If he becomes a shamed individual and a figure of fun, the was… I saw these Gawker, sort of amalgam pictures with him and Jayson Blair, and if we just turn him into a fabulist, if we just make a joke out of him, I think we lose an opportunity for him to tell us where to go from here. And I don’t think he’s lost the authority to do that. I mean, I heard him this week at Georgetown, and I took a totally different feeling away from that than Jason did. I think he was trying to understand what he had done and articulate it in a way that people could start to at least empathize with what he was trying to do. I mean, that’s part of the process of healing for him, too. That people want to stone him at this point is ridiculous.

Jason Zinoman: I don’t know why you’re talking about wanting to stone him. From a journalistic point of view, Peter, I’m surprised that you’re saying this…

Peter Marks: Not journalistic! He’s not a journalist!

Jason Zinoman: Woolly Mammoth stood by him, they’re still producing his play, I’m sure…

Taylor Mac: Yeah, but they knocked him at the same time—we stand by you, but we wish you hadn’t done it.

Jason Zinoman: Let me just finish what I’m saying.

Peter Marks: I think at this point, the fact that Woolly Mammoth is letting him do the show, and as you said at the very beginning, God, I don’t want to be the apologist for Mike Daisey, that’s not my job here. But you said at the very beginning, he’s an evolutionary kind of extemporaneous storyteller. Well, let’s hear what happens to the story now? I’m curious to find out. Maybe the problem is that an audience won’t want to. And that’s going to be a whole other thing.

Jason Zinoman: Or maybe more than ever. I would not bet against Mike Daisey making a comeback at all. At all. I’m sure he’ll be able to find places to play, and he’s talented enough to do many, many different things. The question is…I saw that Georgetown speech as a journalist, because the narrative he told was, this began because there were no journalists in Shenzhen, or the news cycle. In fact, in the way that we are talking about small lies for a bigger truth, and that point is the exact opposite. The media cycle did shift. The New York Times didn’t have a story every day, People magazine didn’t stop covering George Clooney and start covering China—he’s right! that’s a small truth!—but the larger lie is that many people have been, including a lot of foreign correspondents, who I have a lot of respect for. Then he says the reason he put lies in is because interviewers interpreted his show wrong, asked him questions, and he didn’t correct them. And then he ends the show, he actually ends the show, with another cri de coeur, saying, it’s okay if journalists vilify me, as long as they tell this factory story, which they’re telling. So I’ll be honest with you, I do have a more personal reaction, because I had this exact conversation with Mike a year ago, in which I patiently tried to express the journalist’s point of view. And we deserve criticism too, we deserve a lot of criticism. But that’s different than lying about how much we’ve done on this very difficult issue. And if in pursuit of that it hurts the credibility—I mean, if you read that Times exposé, that guy told a human story that was 100 percent true, that was checked out, that had real people, that was dramatic, that was powerful, that was moving, all right? And I know Mike respects that story a lot. If that story has less power—I’m a journalist, I’m a theater critic, but I’m a journalist—that would be a real shame. And I believe Mike Daisey thinks that would be a real shame.

Adam Feldman: Let’s go to questions from the audience.

Taylor Mac: Can I just say, really quick, I just wanted to say that [to Jessica] I didn’t see your play.…

Jessica Blank: [Laughs] I haven’t seen all his plays either!

Taylor Mac: But I think it’s freaking awesome that, no, I read good things about it. Her play actually changed policy, and that is something that not many people do.… [Applause] I just wanted to explain that and make it clear.


Audience member Mark Harris: I have a question for you [Adam], and it’s about your comment that his lies were lies of the memoir portion of this play, rather than the news portion. Two of the things that have been cited is that the guards outside the factory have guns and that there are 24-hour surveillance cameras in the dorms. To me, those aren’t memoir lies, they’re lies of reportage, and they’re also, to me, not lies in the service of a larger truth, because if you’re supposed to be inspired to understand the conditions of Chinese factories being terrible because guards have guns and cameras are on people, and then you find out that that’s not really true, what are you left with to understand? And I thought that those were lies to make his experience within the factory sound more awesome.

Steven Cosson: But he says now—this is where you get the he said, she said—he says that he did see the guns, he remembers the guns, he doesn’t know why the translator doesn’t remember the guns.

Audience member Mark Harris: Or any reporter who has ever covered this.

Steven Cosson: I’m just saying, it’s not totally…

Jason Zinoman: Say there really were people—it’s a small truth to a larger lie. If he asked any expert, they would tell him that in China, the military has guns, so it’s portraying them—even if they stole some guns and went out and held guns, it’s getting larger, it’s not interested in actually what’s going on in China.

Peter Marks: The problem is the whole piece is not believable—that’s the bottom line. The whole piece is discredited. There’s just no two ways about that.