Saturday, March 31, 2012

Truth and Theatre

Introduction: (You can read this in an Ira Glass voice if you like).

I haven't posted for a couple weeks now. Part of it has been the day job. Part of it was a nasty cold that has left me drained at the end of the day. And part of it is this particular essay.

I regularly write entries for this blog that do not see the light of day. I tend to over-think things sometimes, and I find that, in covering everything, my argument spreads out into a fine, thin film and my central points get lost. Or I put it off and then find that the rest of the world has moved on and everything than can be said, has been said. But this particular piece has been hanging fire for the better part of two weeks, and I need to get it out of the way so I can talk about other stuff. Because it tends to get into a subject I've already been talking about a lot - the nature of truth in threatre.

So I have a presentation in a standard three-act structure. Act One: An Opportune Death. Act Two: The Wheels Come off. Act Three: Lessons are Learned. And I'm going to try to cover the facts of the case without getting too deeply into the weeds, because some people know a lot about this already, and a lot of people may have caught something in passing. Further research, as I have discovered, is always encouraged.

So. We begin.

Act One: An Opportune Death

I'm a fan of monologist Mike Daisey. I've talked about him a number of times in this space, most recently in a review of The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, in which he weaves the history of Apple and our own technofetish impulses for new toys with his own experiences in China, talking with the workers about the oppressive and dangerous work making those toys. It was a dark piece, a political piece, a strongly emotional piece. And it was great theatre.

And great theatre does not stay in the theater. For most plays, the house lights come up and the crowd shuffles out and the cleaning crew preps for the evening show. Great theatre can stay with you days, weeks, and months after you see it, but for most of us, the impression fades, it is added onto the rest your life experiences, and everyone passes on to the next thing. Another group may be enraptured, or you can go back to rekindle the experience, or sometimes the work is photographed for a small shadow of its previous glory. But theatre, even great theatre, can fade over time. And that could have been the fate of The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.

Except a very strange thing happened - Steve Jobs died. You may have read something about that.

It is not strange that Mr. Jobs passed on - such in the nature of all things mortal. But rather what happened next was strange, almost theatrical. There were obituaries and eulogies and that apotheosis where the mortal is raised to godhood. And people looked around to find someone who knew about Steve Jobs and could speak eloquently about him and Apple, and found - Mike Daisey.

Mike Daisey, who has been talking about Jobs and Apple and the factories at Foxxcon, where the toys are made under armed guards and oppressive conditions. Underage workers and maimed employees. Daisey had met with workers and heard their stories and came back and told about his experiences and built a bridge between consumers and producers. He did interviews on his experiences. Op-ed pieces. And he got a lot of attention on This American Life, from WBEZ in Chicago, which excerpted parts of his Chinese sojourn for the show, then fact-checked him at the end of the program. They checked out the stuff they could, and found out that yes, there were accidents and yes, there were long hours and labor law violations and the like. Underage labor exists, though cases are not as common as Daisey indicated. The idea that the show checked out Daisey's statements, then presented what they found, strengthened Daisey's arguments. It was pretty impressive.

But here's the thing. It turns out that what Daisey said on the stage, reproduced on the radio as journalism, wasn't quite .... accurate. Or truthful. To be frank, he made stuff up. He lied.

Act 2: The Wheels Come Off

The nature of the lie is layered - yes, he went to China. Yes, he talked to workers. Yes, workers in the major factories work bone-crushing hours in repetitive actions. Yes, the official unions are government controlled. Yes, we aren't aware who the elves are that are making our toys. Yes, to get in, he posed as a businessman.

This American Life factchecked Daisey's piece, as I said. They asked for his translator's contact info. Daisey said it was no longer valid, and besides, he changed the translator's name for the piece. The radio show took him at his word (other things checked out) and ran the piece.

But then, a reporter from ANOTHER NPR show, Marketplace, an "Old China Hand' thought there were some things in the report that didn't add up. Yes, there were worked injured by hexane, but they were in a plant far away from the ones Daisey visited. The idea of unionists meeting in a Starbucks sounded odd. So this journalist started digging. He found the interpreter, the one Daisey said could not be located. It turns out she did have the same name as Daisey had reported. And she disagreed with a lot of the interactions that Daisy claimed to have with the workers.

But there were no armed guards. He did not meet with hundreds of employees at the gates, but rather only fifty or so. He may not have met with someone who worked there underage, but it was unlikely. Some of the facts were right, but the interactions were wrong. And that's a problem.

This American Life chose to pull the original show, which was one of their most popular, and to run a retraction, because what they said was the truth was suddenly suspect. And they didn't just run a retraction at the bottom of the blog on a Sunday morning, they did an entire show on the retraction, including interviews with both the Marketplace reporter and with Daisey himself, in all its uncomfortable glory. Its good reporting and good radios - go give it a listen.

Act 3: Lessons are Learned

In the weeks since the revelations there has been a great lamentation and rending of garments about this, a strange form of kabuki dance in which people a shocked, simply shocked, that a writer misrepresented himself. But the story feels more nuanced than at first blush and several of the actors involved are acting out of character.

Marketplace, the way the script it supposed to work, should have sprung this on TAL with an expose that shows up and challenges their facts. Instead, they offered what they learned to TAL and gave them the chance to break the story on their own. That's nice, but its not normal.

TAL, were it a traditional media company, could have stonewalled (we stand behind our sources), then, when overwhelmed, squeaked out innocuous retractions and then redesigned their site, so that the offending piece mysterious would go down the memory hole. They instead did ANOTHER show on their mistake.

And Daisey himself could have doubled-down in the best media tradition, and thrown his translator under the bus. Of COURSE she disagrees with me, she's in a country committing all these labor abuses! Reduce it to he said/she said, which makes the media believe things are balanced. Instead, he admits to some sins, stands by his badly-damaged word on others, and seemed to be honestly trying to figure out where things went wrong. In the end, he apologized on his own blog.

It seems almost precious in the modern media world. We have a media where daytime talkers and morning shows go off at length with obvious falsehoods, pounded into believable shape through continual repetition. Where political candidates will tell blatant lies, get called on them, then go off to their next speech to tell the same lies again. Where a lot of reporting is pressured by time constraints to little more than rewriting press releases and canned interviews filtered to the speaker's talking points and the audience's expectations. And here we have a passion for finding out the truth. In the wake of these revelations, there seems to be a lot of pearls being clutched by a lot of sensible souls.

And here is what it boils down to. Much (but not all) of what Daisey said about conditions in these factory towns was true. Much (but not all) of what Daisey said about his own role is false, or at least deeply questionable. And the moment when everything went south was when he stepped out of the theater and onto a larger stage, treating his creation as reality.

And here's the personal connection, which has stalled me for two weeks. In my own reviews of the Seattle Rep this season I found myself coming back to the nature of truth, and the trustworthiness of those on standing on the boards.Humor Abuse was a one-man memoir. How to Write a New Book for the Bible goes into detail on what happened and what didn't - what was memory and what was nudged one step closer to believability by quoting from the author's diary. I Am My Own Wife deals with the question of an unreliable narrator, yet leaves the audience curiously beached. Red featured real-world painter Rothko doing real-world Rothko things and saying real-world Rothko quotes, but is a construct, the pacing and lines shaped for the purposes of presentation.

Yet regardless how they acknowledge the presence of the truth, they do bend it, and because it is theatre, that bending is accepted. That there were no modern clocks to strike the hour in ancient Rome does not weaken Shakespeare's Julius Caesar one wit. Ditto Hamlet attending a university founded 700 years after his time. The membrane grows thin when you hit a monologue, a play in which the writer is portraying a character with the same name, you tend to believe that this is the truth. But I've also read a lot of Hunter Thompson, and I doubt the everything reported about the adventures of Hunter Thompson, writer, written by Hunter Thompson, writer, is absolute truth. It does not stop stop the enjoyment factor, though I would hesitate to quote him in an argument.

It is a weird dualism that perhaps lies at the heart of art, writing, and theatre - the ability to lie, or misrepresent, or alter, to get to greater truths. This particular season has scraped up against this basic fact a number of times, and now my concerns have spilled out over NPR about at which point it turned from being art and into being a sin.

And I feel no closer now than when I've begun. I've targeted examples, and planted a few markers, but they are markers in a soft and shifting sand. This is one that won't go away for a while for a while.

More later, without a doubt.