Master manipulator with nerves of steel.
I cannot recommend highly enough this episode of This American Life, in which Ira Glass and crew have to retract and apologize for an earlier show they did based on Mike Daisey’s one man stage play, ”The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.” The facts you need to understand the new episode, simply called Retraction, are in this New York Times story.
Quick summary: Daisey’s play is about terrible working conditions in Apple factories in China. It became a hit, raising awareness of the issue and adding pressure on Apple to improve those conditions. But it was based on a lie: that Daisey had himself witnesssed what he presented as the record of his experiences in China. In many cases he had not. And he lied to the producers of This American Life when they tried to fact check the play before putting excerpts of it into their show.
All of this becomes clear in Retraction, which is an extraordinary display of transparency in corrective journalism. (So listen! It’s an hour.) Daisey is interviewed for the show about his deceptions. And here is where I want to make a few comments on what I heard.
Daisey tells Ira Glass that he always feared this day would come. When it came, and he was asked to go on This American Life to talk about his lies, he only two choices.
Choice One: To agree to be interviewed and prepare to be stripped naked, on air, as a kind of cleansing act. You are revealed to millions of people as a bald-faced liar and a cheat about the things you care about the most, but by being ruthlessly honest and unsentimental with yourself, you stand a chance of coming out of it with at least some dignity. But if you cannot do that, there’s…
Choice Two: Don’t go on in the air. Let them talk about you and send a note with your regrets.
There is no choice three.
But Daisey took door number three, anyway. That’s the one where you say to yourself…
I’m a master manipulator with nerves of steel. I can talk my way out of this, out of anything. This is just another performance! And I am one of the great performers out there. Of course I will have concede ground, and that’s going to be embarrassing and painful, but I can also gain ground by winning people over to the greater truth beneath my deceptions. Which is… I care about this! Through the magic of theatre, I made audiences—big audiences, who love me—care! Now they care about something they damn well should care about! Ira Glass couldn’t do that. I did. The New York Times couldn’t do that. I did. Me and the magic of theatre, which is my love. I didn’t betray my love. I betrayed his love, Ira’s, and, yeah, that was wrong, but beyond that he has nothing on me. For I am a master manipulator with nerves of steel…
And what you hear in the show is this very performance coming part— before your ears, as it were. Ira Glass picks up on it right away. He realizes what Daisey came into his studio to do. And he permits a monstrously over-confident man to audibly disassemble himself.
This is what Daisey wrote on his website:
What I do is not journalism. The tools of the theater are not the same as the tools of journalism. For this reason, I regret that I allowed THIS AMERICAN LIFE to air an excerpt from my monologue. THIS AMERICAN LIFE is essentially a journalistic - not a theatrical - enterprise, and as such it operates under a different set of rules and expectations. But this is my only regret. I am proud that my work seems to have sparked a growing storm of attention and concern over the often appalling conditions under which many of the high-tech products we love so much are assembled in China.
The post doesn’t have a title. I suggest: door number three.