“Every week on This America Life, we give you a theme, and several stories around that theme. This week: Cagematch For Integrity. Mike Daisey versus Ira Glass. Can two men reconcile what is and is not meant by “the truth?” Our story in two acts. Act one: Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory, in which a monologist is mistaken for a reporter, and uses artifice techniques to illuminate a very real problem. Act two: Retraction. What happens when your reporter is not really a reporter, and what the consequences of that are for all parties involved. Stay with us….”
I find this whole business, especially “Retraction” riveting. Glass and Co. use every passive-aggressive audio technique in the book, so great is their wrath. And Daisey sticks to his guns, for all the good it does him. Go listen to both parts, and then come back. Spoilers to follow, y’all.
What I love about this story–and why I want more–is you can pinpoint where exactly everything went wrong. Early in the saga, Daisey makes a horrible decision to obfuscate the origins of the piece. This is not a miscommunication, or a mistake. He does this willfully, with the only purpose being to hide the fact that not everything happened the way he said it did. You can say he did it out fear, you can say he did out of hubris. Whatever the motivation, it’s the worst decision he could have made. It’s a beautiful crystal parallax, this moment, because that one decision undermines any other decision he makes afterwards. Even his defense of “artistic license” falls apart in view of this moment, because Daisey didn’t choose to come clean then. When asked about contacting the translator, Daisey should have fessed up, and said “Here’s how you get in touch with her, but guys, remember, this is a theatre piece. I took some artistic license.”
What makes the story even better is that Glass followed up Daisey’s decision with an equally ruinous one. It’s almost Shakespearean, as the twin desires of these two men cause them to betray their common sense. Glass, at the very least, is free from the accusation that he made a decision out of fear.
Glass, when confronted with someone unwilling to submit to fact-checking, decided not to take it as the red flag it was (which he admits was a mistake). If TAL really is the bastion of journalistic standards they claim to be (which the Ira Glass who once ran prank calls and memoirs of encounters with voodoo in the same episode back in 1996 would no doubt find hilarious), then they should have submitted his story to the same scrutiny they would have for any amateur reporter. Considering how easy it was for Marketplace reporter Rob Schmitz to track down Daisey’s translator, the fact that Glass and Co. didn’t bother is particularly damning.
To TAL and Glass’s credit, they didn’t have to reveal any this, much less do devote a episode to how they failed their own standards. And they do show themselves as shouldering some of the responsibility. Both men saw how this could be powerful, popular episode of TAL (which it was), and that vision blinded them.
I find myself thinking about what separates Daisey from Mike Birbigila, Sarah Vowell, David Rackoff and David Sedaris, all of whom have presented presumably “real life,” accounts on TAL with some fiction massaging to make them funnier and more engaging. And I keep coming back to that moment, that decision Daisey made. Rather than being upfront about his art, he hid. He was ashamed of the fictional elements. He had no faith in the fiction, so he tried to pass it off as fact. Whether or not the work would have stood up as fabrication based in truth, is unknown. Because Mike Daisey never gave it the chance. He can puff up with pride about the power and emotional resonance of his piece of theatre now, but when it truly came time for his work to stand on it’s own as art, he crumpled.
The story of Mike Daisey versus Ira Glass is the story that goes on inside every artist’s head. Daisey made a decision because ashamed of the work he claims to be the most proud of. This apparent disconnect is something many artist feel, simultaneously proud of their achievement and painfully aware of how it fell short of our standards. At any moment, the jig will be up, and we’ll be called on how we’ve been faking all this time. Every artist has cagematch for integrity with themselves, every time they create something.
Not all of us will have the clear opportunity Mike Daisey had, to choose between shame and pride. But I think we can all see the consequences.