The phrase “based on a true story” has become weak currency in the world of storytelling, and unfortunately it keeps getting worse.
The latest downgrading occurs at the hands of performer Mike Daisey and his falsehood-perforated theater monologue The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, about the exploitation of Chinese workers who manufacture Apple products.
Chicago Public Radio’s This American Life presented an entire episode this past weekend to retract and correct its very popular January show that featured Daisey’s now-discredited reporting. The entire program can be found here, and it’s compelling listening – even if you didn’t hear the original broadcast.
Daisey’s defense is that worker abuse in China is real and documented elsewhere, and he only made up lies about meeting abused, ailing, and underage tech employees because he wanted to create a personal connection for the audience that would make them care.
Except Daisey has undermined his own cause by introducing us to a new genre of storytelling: counterfeit truth.
Counterfeit truth, of course, is built out of the thing it’s imitating, just like counterfeit cash is made out of paper and ink. That doesn’t make it authentic, and authenticity is the intangible thing that makes it worth something.
Yes, you can build in various safeguards, but when you hand over cash, just like when you tell someone a true story, it’s the trust between the giver and the receiver that makes the exchange work. When that trust is broken… sorry, Mr. Daisey, but your money is no good here — and neither is your word.
If Daisey had not tried to excuse what he had done, had he acknowledged that he was wrong to have assimilated other reports as his own, and wrong to exaggerate what he did witness, he may have salvaged some credibility. (That’s what Ira Glass and the crew from This American Life did — boldly placing themselves in their own crucible as they publicly faced up to the mistakes they made in weakly vetting Daisey’s story. The show and its journalists emerged burned, but intact, and most of all, purified.)
Instead of joining them in facing down his own wrongdoing, Daisey shuffle-stepped, shuffle-stepped, shuffle ball-changed, shuffle-stepped right off a cliff as he danced around the right and wrong of what he’d done in a desperate — and fruitless — attempt to justify his actions.
During This American Life’s retraction episode, he can be heard saying he was sorry he presented his stage show as journalism on the program. But then the dissembling and qualifying began in earnest: “I believe that 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.”
If Mike Daisey’s goal is to make us throw our iPhones against a wall, I’m sure he came close to success as people across the country listened to his justification on This American Life’s podcast.
I’m sorry — different languages for what the truth means? Okay, it is perfectly legitimate in art and theater to exaggerate and fabricate and consolidate facts and events, but only as long as the audience knows that’s what they’re getting. There’s an unspoken contract with the viewer (or listener, or reader) and when that is deliberately misrepresented, there is no way to retroactively change that original perception.
By Daisey’s rationale, we all have a license to fib — as long as we do jazz hands.
Think about the implications of what he’s arguing; think about the contempt this suggests for his audience. Maybe he’s trying to convince himself, because I doubt he truly means what he’s saying, even if he continues to repeat it. To me, it sounds like he was simply grasping as he slipped over that cliff, and this flimsy argument is the sprig of grass his fingers clasped on as he plummeted into oblivion.
Can fiction contain truths? Yes, certainly. Great novels and plays are full of moments that reflect who we are, what we believe, and what we’ve experienced. Fiction is elevated by truth — but not the other way around.
In fact, sometimes a dose of truth — or its perception — is precisely what makes a work of art more compelling, even if the story is not true at all.
Remember that disclaimer before the film Fargo that claimed “This is a true story”? It definitely added a different tone to that Coen brothers kidnapping-and-murder saga, and when you found out later it was almost entirely made up, with a few real-life crimes serving as inspiration, well … doggone those Coen boys! They pulled one over on us. That particular lie generated no more controversy than a harmless prank.
Why weren’t Joel and Ethan attacked as Daisey is being now? My guess is because moviegoers were surprised to see that disclaimer in the first place. That statement broke the contract audiences assumed they had with the movie — namely that it was fiction. Sure, it made us watch the film in a different way, amplifying our disbelief at the events unfolding, but when we found out later we were right all along, that it was fiction, nobody was particularly heartbroken — except maybe those who thought they might be able to find the money Steve Buscemi’s character buried. Turns out, we were right all along — so we let the Coens have a pass for playing with our perception. They weren’t asking anything of us, or aggrandizing themselves. It was easy to let them off the hook.
Contrast that with one of the most famous cases of audience-trust subterfuge: James Frey’s drug memoir A Million Little Pieces, which lived up to its title when Oprah and other fans annihilated both it and its author when it was revealed to be a work of fiction. It had previously made Frey into a kind of hero, a survivor, which also roused reader contempt when it was proven to be false. That anger is dogging Daisey now, since his tale made him seem messianic, come to bring hope to the poor, exploited Chinese laborers.
Readers cared about Frey, they were moved and troubled by his story. They were outraged to find that trust betrayed. Plus, many of his readers were recovering addicts who saw inspiration in the tale. Perhaps some had been helped by the fiction they assumed was true; but we’ll never know how many lost hope when it turned out to be a ruse. The Coens played a trick, but Frey played a cruel trick.
Also, would initial passions for the book have been as strong if Frey had started out marketing it as fiction? Maybe, but the notion that it was “true” helped sell books and turn pages.
Think of it this way: Nothing about Milli Vanilli’s music changed when we found out Rob and Fab were a pretty-boy front. Those songs are the same now as when they won the duo a Grammy for Best New Artist in 1990. Somebody sang them; they exist. But you don’t hear Blame It On the Rain playing on any “Super Sounds of the ’90s” radio stations. The relationship people had with the group and their music was shattered because fans resented being tricked. It didn’t matter if the songs were any good (hey, there’s no accounting for taste). It’s just that nobody wanted to hear them anymore.
Mike Daisey also had a bond with his audience, and if he thinks they came in to his show prepared for fiction, he’s kidding himself. Again, Daisey’s currency with his listeners was the truth. Just because the truth isn’t expected of all storytellers doesn’t mean it wasn’t expected of him.
In his assessment of the Daisey debacle, The New York Times media writer David Carr wrote, “I am a longtime fan of This American Life, but I have never assumed that every story I heard was literally true. The writer and monologist David Sedaris frequently tells wonderful personal yarns on the show that may not be precisely true in every detail, but this was not a story about a family car trip gone bad.”
It’s easy to excuse a little varnish on a comedic personal story. Like what the Coen’s did with Fargo, there’s no harm in it. Cable news networks won’t be doing an exposé about whether the late Jean Shepherd, a radio storyteller whose autobiographical tall-tales became the film A Christmas Story, really truly shot his eye out with a Red Ryder BB gun.
Daisey was practicing a different form of storytelling — advocacy journalism. There’s an important place in the world for that kind of writing, but it is undermined by the kind of fabrications that Daisey dismisses so cavalierly as “shortcuts.”
Daisey claims that if you’re more outraged over what he did than you are about how Chinese workers are treated, “something is wrong with your priorities.” Yes, except corruption of journalism is a big deal too, and without trust in what we read or see or listen to, nobody’s reporting about important issues will be heard. To those of us who love stories, both true and fictional, this kind of behavior has to be thoroughly doused and trampled.
I feel bad for Daisey. I believe he cared about these Chinese workers deeply, so much that his passion carried him away. He’s like a cop who plants evidence on someone he believes in his heart to be guilty. Maybe the suspect is guilty, but now it’s harder to know. And Daisey’s arrogance in the glare of getting caught makes it increasingly difficult to empathize with him.
I wish he would fully own what he did, and just apologize without the qualifiers. Maybe he’d be surprised by the mercy he gets, but it’s hard to forgive someone who keeps denying he did anything wrong.
It’s getting a little late, and maybe I’m fooling myself, but I think there’s still time for Daisey to create a somewhat happier ending for his story.