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The public radio show “This American Life” this weekend admitted to significant errors in a popular piece documenting the manufacturing of Apple products in China. The piece in question was adapted from a one-man theater show about the topic starring Mike Daisey. We explore the blurry lines that divide performance art from journalism, and how the two are bleeding into each other in today’s media environment.
- Howard Shalwitz Artistic Director, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
MR. KOJO NNAMDIPublic Radio favorite "This American Life" hosted by Ira Glass caused quite a stir this weekend. On Friday, the show announced it was devoting a full hour to retracting one of its most popular stories ever. That story, "Mr. Daisey Goes to the Apple Factory" aired in January of this year and was an adaptation of monologist Mike Daisey's one-man theater show entitled "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs."
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAs you've probably heard by now, a China-based reporter who often works with Marketplace Radio heard Daisey's piece on "This American Life" and thought some of the material sounded wrong, concocted. So he contacted Marketplace, Marketplace contacted "This American Life" and the two radio shows each did some investigating. It turns out while much of what Mike Daisey says was true, much of it was not.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHe had adopted other people's experiences as his own, lied to some participants about who he was and why he was talking to them, and embellished other elements for storytelling purposes. Daisey says his big regret is not that he told the story the way he told it, it's that he agreed to put the story on "This American Life" and thus made it appear to be journalism. He says what he does is not journalism, and that the tools of the theater are not the same as the tools of journalism.
MR. KOJO NNAMDISo is it fair to embellish the facts to make a larger point? You can tell us what you think by calling 800-433-8850. Joining us in studio is Howard Shalwitz, artistic director of the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company here in Washington, D.C. Howard Shalwitz, glad to have you here.
MR. HOWARD SHALWITZI'm delighted to be here, Kojo.
NNAMDI"The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs" had its world premier at the Woolly Mammoth back -- when was that?
SHALWITZIt was in -- I have a note sheet here. It was in -- well, he did what he calls a birth performance in the summer of 2010. So, Mike had done his trip to China. And then he gathered notes. He did a lot of research about Steve Jobs and many other things. And then he just got -- we gave him a chance to just get on the stage and talk. And that event lasted three hours and he had one page of notes in front of him. He never scripts his material. So...
SHALWITZYeah, it evolved into a two-hour piece. And he toured it around the country and came back and did a finished version at Woolly in spring of last year, March/April of 2011. And then we're bringing it back again this again between July 17th and August 5th.
NNAMDII want to take a listen to part of this week's "This American Life" broadcast when host and executive producer Ira Glass asked Mike Daisey about the veracity of his story and the way theatergoers, including himself, Ira Glass and producer Brian Reed have perceived his work.
MR. IRA GLASSAre you going to change the way that you labeled 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 is really a work of fiction that has some true elements in it?
MR. MIKE DAISEYWell, I don't know that I would say, in a theatrical context, that it isn't true. I believe, though, 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.
GLASSI 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 the story was literally true, seeing it in the theater. Brian, who's seen other shows of yours, thought all of them were true. I saw your nuclear show. I thought that was completely true. Like, I thought it was true because you were on stage saying, this happened to me. I took you at your word.
DAISEYI think you can trust my word in the context of the theater and how people see it.
GLASSI find this to be like a really hedgy answer. I think it's okay for somebody in your position to say that it isn't all literally true. You know what I mean? I feel like actually it seems like it's honest labeling. And I feel like that's what's actually called for at this point, is just honest labeling. Like, you 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.
DAISEYI don't think that label covers the totality of what it is.
GLASSThat label, fiction?
DAISEYYeah. We have different world views on some of these things. I agree the truth is really important.
GLASSI know, but I feel like I have the normal world view. Like, the normal world view is, somebody stands on a stage and says this happened to me, I think it happened to them unless it's clearly labeled, here's a work of fiction.
DAISEYI really regret putting the show on "This American Life". It was wrong for me to misrepresent to you and to Brian that it could be on the show.
NNAMDIYou know, Howard Shalwitz, I just read a novel that read like a memoir because...
NNAMDI...a lot that took place in the novel was similar to the life of the writer himself. So I had to keep telling myself when I was reading the novel that this is a novel and not actually this guy's real memoir. Do you think that "This American Life" and Mike Daisey could have avoided this retraction if they had framed the piece differently?
SHALWITZYou know, it's hard for me to comment on what went down there because I only know about it what was on the radio. Sure, it does seem to me that they made an awfully big deal out of this event. But, you know, I can't really comment.
NNAMDIYou can't really speak for them. Did you ever think of "The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs" as a piece of journalism?
SHALWITZYou know, I think that the contexts are very, very different. And, you know, I speak of theater as art. Art is about subjectivity and journalism is about objectivity. Art, I would say, is about pointing to things and telling us what we should be looking at. And journalism is sort of about, well, what are we looking at? So they play very, very different functions and they have different cultures. And in a way I think that theater would be redundant if it followed the same rules as journalism.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. Do you see a distinction between performance in theater and a theatrical work that is presented as journalism? Do you make a distinction between the one state, so to speak, and the other? Call us and tell us what you think. 800-433-8850. You're standing by Daisey and his work, bringing it back to D.C. after its run in New York this summer.
SHALWITZYou know, I think that I'll almost always stand for artistic freedom and for supporting artist right to sort of create and frame their work in the way they seem best. I think that I'm, in general, I would wanna avoid any sort of knee-jerk reaction, oh, my God, everything we see on the stage has to be true. I think it is more complicated than Ira Glass suggests.
NNAMDIDid you have any qualms at all after the controversy? Did you revisit it and come to this conclusion?
SHALWITZWell, it's very challenging for me. Of course, I was taken by surprise as much as everyone else. And I would say that I’m still sorting out my own feelings about it. And I'm very eager to hear what your listeners have to say. I think one of our core values at Woolly Mammoth with respect to something like the decision to bring it back, is that we really want to put work on the stage which has a serious impact, which is about challenging issues. And we trust our audience to respond and think for themselves. And to sort of sort out fact from fiction. I mean, there's much more that I could -- I think this is a really important topic and there's a lot more to say about it.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. Did you plan on going to Woolly Mammoth to see Mike Daisey in "The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs"? Are you still planning to do that? What is your feeling about it now? 800-433-8850. Let's go to Nancy in Arlington, Va. Nancy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
NANCYYes. Hi Kojo. Years ago I interviewed documentary filmmaker, Frederick Wiseman for a piece I was doing. And in one of his films I saw something that I knew to be inaccurate. And I asked him, you know, your films are supposed to be the truth. What are you doing with this (word?). And his answer to that was, anyone who goes to see a film should know they're seeing a work of fiction, even if it's a documentary. And I'm wondering if that mindset doesn't also apply to Daisey's piece.
SHALWITZI think that's a really good question.
NANCYAnd I can take my comments off the air.
NNAMDIYou'll take your comments off the air, you said, Nancy, or on the air?
NANCYI can take them off the air. I can hang up and listen.
NNAMDIOkay. Just listen.
SHALWITZI think all of these different media have their own cultures and sort of rules. And I also think that each work of art makes it own sort of compact with the audience. I know that Mike does not call himself a documentarian. He refers to himself as a storyteller. And we never use the word nonfiction or any of that kind of language in our billing of the show. If you see the show in the theater it's very different from the snippet you heard on the radio. It's in front of a live audience. Mike dealt with many other elements, including Steve Jobs' rise, fall and rise at Apple and his love of Apple products. Mike's persona is almost like a walking exaggeration.
SHALWITZHe's a large man who uses a lot of profanity, is very, very funny, some weird combination of sardonic humor and melodrama. And his process is sort of crazy as well because he never scripts his work and it sort of evolves from night to night. So I think that, you know, all of these contexts are quite different.
NNAMDIWell, the New York Times writer, David Carr, says that when he listens to David Sedaris's stories on "This American Life" he assumes that they're not all 100 percent accurate, but the difference is that Sedaris is talking about his family taking a trip to the park and Mike Daisey is talking about a major economic issue.
SHALWITZI mean that's really what's going on here. I mean, "This American Life" is in some ways a radio drama show. And obviously both of these episodes were very successful as radio drama. But right when the stakes get higher in the sense of voracity, you know, I think rises, I think that's where this got into a little bit of trouble. This show had an evolving life from the theater into the real world with the death of Steve Jobs and the New York Times investigative report and Mike Daisey going on Bill Maher. And I think there's a very, very slippery slope there.
NNAMDIWe're talking, in case you're just joining us, with Howard Shalwitz. He is the artistic director of Woolly Mammoth Theater Company in Washington, D.C., where "The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs" was first performed by Mike Daisey. And Mike Daisey is coming back to Woolly Mammoth to perform there again. What's the date schedule for that (word?) ?
SHALWITZIt is coming back July 17 through Aug. 5. And I should say that the show has already evolved many times, because of changing circumstances, since it was at Woolly. And I suspect that this latest controversy will be gathered into it. I haven't had a chance to talk with Mike about it since everything that unfolded this weekend.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. How has it affected your plans if you are planning to go see it at Woolly Mammoth theater? Here is Dave in Alexandria, Va. Dave, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DAVEYes. Thank you for taking my call, Kojo. I just had a quick question and I'll take my answer off the air. Given that Mr. Daisey represented Steve Jobs by name and Apple by name in his act, I wonder is there any kind of legal ramification for him for having done that? I mean, he's basically depicted these people in an unfavorable light. Is there any kind of judicial ramification for him for doing that? Thank you for taking my call.
SHALWITZI don't really know. And I've been concerned about this myself. And, again, I haven't had a chance to inquire about it. I think it is important to recognize that in both of the "The American Life" episodes the New York Times report is basically corroborated. All of the workplace conditions that Daisey talked about, the substance of controversy, for those who didn't hear it, is about the degree of dramatic license that he took in depicting it. And departing from the literal truth of what he experienced in China.
NNAMDISparking conversation about important sociopolitical issues is one of your company's core values. Do you think that a theatrical work that's based in fact, but is not purely factual can have the same impact on an issue that a completely factual account does?
SHALWITZWell, I would say there's no question that Mike has damaged his credibility with a lot of audience members as a result of what happened this weekend. And I find it very unfortunate. So it's gonna be interesting to see how he sort of recovers from it. But I would say, Kojo, that just in terms of responses that we're getting about it from our email, I mean, Ira Glass said in the clip you played that he took the show as literal fact. But I know that many, many audience members did not. Many people who see Mike Daisey shows come out of the theater saying, oh, gosh, did even take that trip?
SHALWITZIt's so preposterous, the story that he tells. He had a previous show about a trip to some bizarre island in the South Pacific that you couldn't even imagine how he got there. He really did take these trips. And I think when I heard in advance about the "This American Life" episode my panic was that the translator was gonna say, Mike Daisey? Who's Mike Daisey?
NNAMDIHe didn't come here at all.
SHALWITZBut in fact, all of the substance of what he's talking about is still true. I don't mean to minimize the controversy and I don't mean to minimize the sense of betrayal that many, many people feel who took this show as a literal truth, but I do think that the storytellers' art is often one of exaggeration. And I think it would take a longer show than this one to sort of parse each of the exaggerations or fabrications of Mike's and decide, you know, which is okay, which isn't okay. I know that as an artistic director my position is that the playwright -- in this case Mike is both the playwright and the performer -- takes his or her own responsibility for that.
SHALWITZAnd I wanna support writers like Mike who put themselves out there in a dangerous and controversial way.
NNAMDIOnto Jen, in Washington, D.C. Jen, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JENHey, hi, Howard. This is Jennifer (word?). I'm a local actress here in D.C. And I wanna support what Howard says here. Just think for yourself. You cannot swallow what comes off of any radio station anywhere, any newspaper and moreover, a theater piece which is meant to be art. It is the personal responsibility to think for one's self. And if you don't you have no right to be irate that oh, this person told me a story, told me a lie. You walk into a theater moreover, you can't expect that what they're saying is the gospel truth.
JENThere is no truth. Truth is subjective. Art is subjective. And all of this anger and irateness coming from people is just absurd. And is evolutionary of all of the ridiculous spouting of nonsense and opinionated work coming off of the world of (unintelligible) …
NNAMDISo Jen, what you're saying is that when you hear a news broadcast on this station, when you see an article on the front page of The Washington Post you assume that it is incorrect?
JENNo. But I assume it's my responsibility to verify it. And how many examples of the lack of fact checking do we need to be hit over the head with before we say, well, you know, it was (unintelligible) …
NNAMDIYeah, but I have to protest. Most of us are not in a position to check facts in the same way that Marketplace, having a reporter in China was able to do. So we accept, to a large extent, what we are told by those news media that we believe or trust in.
SHALWITZI would say, though...
JENWell, then I would advise people to look at who is sponsoring the material being presented. Who are the advertisers?
NNAMDIOkay. Here's Howard Shalwitz.
SHALWITZWell, I was just gonna say I appreciate that and I appreciate the discussion about journalism. I think, again, I’m not qualified to talk about the rules of the journalism world, but I do think that theater creates a kind of time-out zone. And I think that we want audience members to view everything they see in the theater as art. And all that said, I got a very, very thoughtful letter from a professor at a local university over the weekend, saying, you know, supporting our decision to stand by Mike to the extent of bringing the show back this summer.
SHALWITZBut also saying that she felt that in this particular show the compact that he made with the audience demanded a higher level of voracity than now, it turns out, was there. I do know that I never would have seen it as my job, as an artistic director, nor do I really wanna be put in a position...
NNAMDITo fact check.
SHALWITZ...of saying to artists like Mike Daisey, oh, by the way, you know, is every single word in your show literally the truth? That isn't the history or tradition of theater. It's not...
NNAMDIThen we'd be talking about the former artistic director.
SHALWITZYeah, and I also think we'd create an atmosphere where we would squash an awful lot of the most important and most valuable art in our world.
NNAMDIHere is Gene, in Washington, D.C. Gene, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. I think Gene has a crucial question.
GENEI respect the theater's right to defend both free speech and artistic freedom. I think there's a question you're missing in your bending over backward to defend this particular piece of work. And that is whether there was a deliberate intent to deceive. And it's clear that the man who did the piece on "This American Life" was intentionally and consciously deceiving Ira Glass and, in that respect, was consciously and intentionally deceiving his audience on the radio. And that's not a theater. And whether or not Ira Glass is decided that he is presiding over a theater or journalism is something that would be interesting to hear him discuss. But in this case the author of the piece was simply lying.
SHALWITZI totally agree with that. I mean, I think that the jump from the theater to the radio was a horrible mistake. It was a mistake that Mike has acknowledged. It was a mistake that Ira has acknowledged. You know, they've both talked about opportunities that they had to pull the plug that they didn't take. And I honestly wish one or both of them had done that.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Gene. Here is Steve in Alexandria, Va. Steve, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
STEVEOh, hi, there. Thanks. I'm gonna take the opposite side of all of this. I'm kind of uptight about the whole thing. And I would say Kojo, you said that this was like a major economic issue. I would say it's humanitarian, as well. We don't really know what the working conditions are, you know, other than we know that there were some fabricated things. But the working conditions could be all sorts of, you know, all over the map. There was talk at the end of the Ira Glass show about an explosion that was, you know, not prevented. And then another explosion happened.
STEVESo I'm trying to say that there's working condition issues and what Mike Daisey has done -- and by Woolly Mammoth, you know, being content with putting him back on there, if he goes in there and says these things, it's perfect fodder for the Rush Limbaughs out there to say, oh, these people, you know, they're just (unintelligible) ...
NNAMDIWell, we're running out of time, Steve. Steve, we're running out of time very quickly, but what do you think, therefore, about the pieces that were done in The New York Times?
STEVEWell, we're assuming...
STEVEYou're talking about the pieces talking about the explosions?
STEVEWell, those are presumed because it's the New York Times and it's done by journalists. It's presumed to be real.
STEVEWhat I'm saying is Mike Daisey being a fantastic storyteller, which he is, everything's believable and I just hope Woolly Mammoth, if you do put it on there, please, you know, put something in there that says it's not to be taken literally or something because the other side, the Republicans or the people that are all about (unintelligible) …
NNAMDIOkay. We're running out of time. So allow me to...
NNAMDI...have Howard Shalwitz make the last comment.
SHALWITZYeah, I mean, I wish that I understood exactly the level of, let's say, dramatization or fabrication, it's a slippery slope between the two, when we first did the show so that I could have been part of a conversation with Mike about how that should be framed for the audience. And that's certainly something that we'll -- I think that's a really great suggestion when we bring the show back. I think, in a way, it's been reframed for us. So we'll have to address that question, but I wish we could have addressed it originally.
NNAMDIDo you know if after any of the performances you'll be having discussions with Mike Daisey after any of the performances?
SHALWITZUndoubtedly. Mike tends to talk for a couple of hours. So he's often exhausted, but I'm sure in this case he'll engage quite a bit.
NNAMDIHoward Shalwitz is the artistic director of the Woolly Mammoth Theater Company in Washington, D.C. where "The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs" with Mike Daisey returns in July. Howard, thank you so much for joining us.
SHALWITZGreat to be here.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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