Yesterday evening, American monologist and author Mike Daisey spoke at Georgetown’s Lohrfink Auditorium in defense of his allegedly fabricated stories featured in an episode of National Public Radio show This American Life. The episode in question was devoted entirely to Daisey’s stories from a monologue called The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, about the exploitation of workers in a factory in China that makes Apple products.
Since the episode’s retraction on Friday, this is the first time Daisey addressed a public audience to defend and apologize for his alleged misinformation. After opening remarks by the Kalmanovitz Initiative’s Executive Director and Georgetown history professor Joseph McCartin (who quipped that recent events in Daisey’s work have “brought a whole new meaning to the term March Madness”) and Research Director Jennifer Luff, Daisey set out to explain his rationale to an audence of almost 400 people- confused and frustrated Daisey enthusiasts, labor activists, and people who, as Daisey put it, “had no idea what the hell was going on.”
The TAL episode, titled “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory” elicited widespread response— people protested outside Apple stores,and the questionable working conditions began to receive more attention—as Luff put it, “the power of Daisey’s story struck a nerve.” The night before the KI event, Daisey performed the last showing of his production in New York and received a standing ovation.
Yesterday, while Daisey apologized sincerely, he stood firmly by his work:
I cannot tell you how many tech journalists I talked to about this, I told them go, it’s your story. I was naïve, and I learned a lot about how media works. I wanted the story to live. I wanted it to reach people, I wanted it to touch them, and I wanted it to shake them awake. I didn’t do the right thing, but I think having that story in the air in front of millions of people was right.
He recounted his trip to China, and the methods he employed to get his stories. He asserted that he did not act as a journalist, but instead intended to find a story that he believes journalists were not covering. “The essential core is true. And that’s why it’s in the show. If I wanted to make shit up, I wouldn’t go to China. I would stay in my apartment in Brooklyn and make shit up. It’s easier,” Daisey said.
Daisey says that at the time, he was alone in his quest to reveal these stories. Nevertheless, he admits that he should have been more open about the nature of his sources. “I have a lot of respect for journalists…I never meant to mislead them about the story and the truth,” he said. “I’ll apologize again, I was wrong. But I can’t say it was wrong to air it.”
To explain his factual inaccuracies, Daisey blamed himself for getting caught in his own web of lies. “I would say things and they would just be wrong, and often I knew they were wrong when they came out of my mouth. Hundreds and hundreds of interviews over time made it difficult,” Daisey said. “But the truth of the story is very real—no one contests what is happening in Chinese manufacturing—nobody.” The audience applauded in response.
Daisey was invited by KI in November for a discussion on art in the context of the global labor struggle. After the TAL incident, the board of directors debated whether or not the event should still take place.
“We had very little time to think about it…we were so stunned by it that we felt like the best thing that we could do is give a Georgetown audience a chance to make up their own minds about it,” McCartin said. “We just have such respect for the traditions of the University to ask tough, honest questions and to handle wide open dialogue.”
Jean Michele Gregory, Daisey’s artistic director and wife, asserted that the story brought more good than harm to the discourse. “We’re all trying to hopefully bring more light into the world than darkness, and I think that some of the liberties he took in [the piece] did not illuminate as much as they could have, but overall more light was shown than wasn’t,” she said. “My allegiance is always with the truth. I’ve taught story telling before…and it’s an elastic form. It isn’t like journalism.”
Luff started the event by describing Daisey’s story as an opportunity to “reconsider the muckraking tradition,” likening Daisey’s work to Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Last night, Daisey’s compelling and at times hilarious recount became a storytelling experience of its own. “If I am naked, then I am free, because I am actually an independent artist. I have no one’s ass to cover, and I’m not afraid,” he said.