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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

"Scrupulously Honest about Our Dishonesty"

Posted by on Wed, Mar 21, 2012 at 11:03 AM

The Stranger
  • The Stranger
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.

You can read the whole thing here.


Comments (16) RSS

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Fnarf 1
The thing is, what Daisey does has no meaning or value unless it's also journalism.
Posted by Fnarf on March 21, 2012 at 11:05 AM · Report this
bhowie 2
This was the best take on the matter I've read so far--Mike Daisey as Jimmy McNulty:…
Posted by bhowie on March 21, 2012 at 11:15 AM · Report this
What utter bullcrap and nonsense; Daisey was performing a service by once again focusing attention on the exploited workers in China, working for the profit of the elites there and multinationals based in America.

Ira Glass has never done any actual journalism and wouldn't know it if it bit him on his butt!

NPR, PRI, APM, CBC, BBC is about bullcrap, and one can listen to them over a 24-hour period without ever, ever hearing any actual nonfiction and content.

NPR is first and foremost about story-telling, that is the why and how they escape ever verifying the facts and telling the news.…
Posted by sgt_doom on March 21, 2012 at 11:19 AM · Report this
Me thinks Apple addicts protect their dealer.
Posted by ratcityreprobate on March 21, 2012 at 11:34 AM · Report this
Will in Seattle 5
Which part of He's not a Jounalist don't you hacks GET?
Posted by Will in Seattle on March 21, 2012 at 11:39 AM · Report this
bleedingheartlibertarian 6
@3 : you should read Ira Glass's bio before you go shooting your mouth off about his relationship to journalism.
Posted by bleedingheartlibertarian on March 21, 2012 at 11:40 AM · Report this
pg13 7
When you act in the manner of a journalist and make the claim that what you're repeatedly saying is true (and that action should be taken in reaction to what you're saying, based on it being true)...then you really can't hide behind the "But, I'm no journalist" defense when someone actually checks to see if what you're saying is true...and it turns out that it's not.

And, as far as "watermarking" goes, there's a difference between the Cohen Brothers putting a "This is based on a true story" in front of "Fargo" (which wasn't) and Errol Morris. Daisey was pretending to be Errol Morris while shoving truth into the woodchipper.
Posted by pg13 on March 21, 2012 at 11:49 AM · Report this
Will in Seattle 8
@7 tell me when he gets a Press Pass.

Until then, you just sound like Faux News harping on his birth certificate.
Posted by Will in Seattle on March 21, 2012 at 11:57 AM · Report this
pg13 9
Did Mike Daisey claim what he said was true?
Did it turn out not to be?

Call it whatever you want, WiS...but it means he's a liar. And it's hard to take liars at their word.

(And if I wanted to wage a battle of false equivalencies with you, I'd say that a more apt comparison would be comparing Mike Daisey with those Breitbart-sponsored fools who claim to have tricked ACORN and Planned Parenthood. "It's all performance art" after all. The only way your birther comparison would work would be if the birthers were right.)
Posted by pg13 on March 21, 2012 at 12:06 PM · Report this
@6, no you're not getting the postmodernism of @3. @3 is "story-telling" about Glass, because he was "performing a service by ... focusing attention on" how NPR "is about bullcrap" because it is "first and foremost about story-telling".

That is, it's okay for @3 to tell stories to illustrate how NPR is bad because they tell stories, which is what Mike Daisey is doing, but Daisey is good. In the end, it amounts to a sophisticated Foucaultian critique of the subjectivity of "truth". Or he's deeply confused, your pick.

(Seriously, @3: NPR is bad because it presents "stories" as journalism. But Daisey is good because he presented a story as journalism? Really? Ok: is NPR good or bad for allowing Daisey a forum to present a story as journalism?)

@8, Daisey specifically agreed with Ira Glass & TAL that his work would be presented and received as journalism, knowing that it did not meet the standards of journalism, and then lied during the fact checking process. None of this is up for debate.
Posted by Ancient Sumerian on March 21, 2012 at 12:17 PM · Report this
katrat 11
Thanks for bringing in the Paul Mullins post: it is indeed terrific!
Posted by katrat on March 21, 2012 at 12:35 PM · Report this
Ever since I first saw David Schmader's "Straight," his one-man show about his experiences at a gay-conversion retreat, I've been curious as to how much of it was literally true. Loved the show, and wouldn't feel cheated if I found he made it all up (this comment is not intended as a gotcha), but I've long wondered.
Posted by gkb1963 on March 21, 2012 at 1:38 PM · Report this
Irena 13
I'm nitpicking, but Mullins' distinction between theatre and theater is silly. Theatre is the British (and Canadian) spelling for both the venue and the work of art; theater is the American spelling. To pretend the different spellings are attached to different meanings is pretentious.
Posted by Irena on March 21, 2012 at 3:30 PM · Report this
David Schmader 14
12: Hello! "Straight" started as an essay in The Stranger, and this version was journalistically factual.

But then I took the Stranger essay and did a new type of work making it into a show, and was then able to use 'the tools of the theater' (which for me meant futzing with chronology to streamline things, making composite characters, inventing shit, etc.)

And once I made the leap from essay to theater, I knew i couldn't present what I was doing as journalism or as factual truth on a news program. (Though, given the opportunity, it might've been tempting, especially if I were as evangelically inflamed as Mike, which I'm not, thank God.)

Posted by David Schmader on March 21, 2012 at 4:22 PM · Report this
Clarification much appreciated, DS! One detail I vividly recall from "Straight" was that your roommate at this retreat (your mentor assigned to oversee and guide your de-gaying) looked like Brett Favre. I'm going to continue to assume this was a nugget of pure truth, just because I enjoy imagining sharing a room with a guy who looks like Brett Favre.
Posted by gkb1963 on March 21, 2012 at 4:51 PM · Report this
David Schmader 16
Well, now that so much time has passed, I can tell you that it was LITERALLY BRETT FAVRE.
Posted by David Schmader on March 21, 2012 at 5:25 PM · Report this

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