This Daisey thing keeps on rolling, not just because of This American Life and the controversy itself, but because it's kicked a crack into enduring questions about what makes good reporting and good theater.
(A few days ago, Daisey gave a talk at Georgetown University where he tried to explain what happened from his perspective, saying some of the lies were born when reporters and his director/wife for misunderstood what he had seen in China—assumptions he let slide for the sake of the show. You can read a transcript here.)
When Ira Glass and the cacophonous chorus condemned Daisey's lies about his experience in China—most egregiously during the fact-checking process for an episode of This American Life—he responded with this:
"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... but this is my only regret."
The "hey, it's just theater"/noble lie explanation doesn't sit well, even if you strip away all of Daisey's claims to veracity. On one hand, theater is, by definition, about making stuff up. At the same time, one rarely feels lied to by a work of theater.
Over on his blog, Paul Mullin—playwright and Stranger Genius Award-winner—gets to the heart of the conundrum. He talks about "watermarks" that theater (even documentary theater, like Mullin's "living newspaper" experiment in writing about the last days of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer) uses to flag when it's telling a truth and when it's telling the truth.
Spalding Gray, for example, used a masterful "watermark" in Swimming to Cambodia: "I’m not making up any of these stories I’m telling you tonight. Um… except for one. Except for the fact that the banana sticks to wall when it hits. That’s the only one. Everything else is true." Even if everything else weren't true, he at least lets us know he's slipping around on the facts for the sake of the story.
From Mullin's post:
When you reach the certainty that we paltry players are lying, you can begin to understand that we are actually telling the truth. Daisey could have easily entered this tradition. He could have done all the good works he claims to have hoped to have done within it. Instead he took the risk that selling fiction as non-fiction would get him further. It did. But he got caught. And now he’s run back into our house claiming sanctuary...
Here’s a simple rule of thumb about watermarks: a theater (i.e. the venue) cannot serve as a watermark; theatre (i.e. the work of art) must contain the watermarks that prove it false, and thus prove it true theatre. Otherwise you’re just some guy telling me a story and if you tell me explicitly that what you’re saying is true, I am likely to take you at your word... Mike didn’t want a watermark within a mile of any house he played. He wanted us to believe every word he charmed us with.
It's a stickier distinction than the simple "don't lie" rule of reporting—but it's a meaningful one. Mullin argues that the ultimate watermark is just having more than one person performing some staged interaction. Right away, we know we're in dramatized territory. One person talking is a little tricker, closer to lecture territory.