Hotseat: Mike Daisey

The controversy-courting monologuist professes love for an industry that has savaged him.

Mike Daisey is sucking up to the industry that pilloried him. After it emerged that he’d lied in an episode of This American Life about Apple’s factories in China, journalists raked Daisey over the coals. But now he has a new monologue called Journalism, getting its world premiere in Portland on May 21, in which he argues journalistic objectivity is a myth. With that in mind, here’s this journalist’s subjective opinion of Daisey’s record and of the phone conversation she had with him: He’s a skilled performer but a weaselly talker who spins like an iPod wheel.

WW: Give me a preview of your show.

Mike Daisey: It’s about journalism, which I think is one of the most important things. It’s something we don’t engage with in the theater, even though journalism is the framework for which all stories are told in our culture. Particularly, I’m interested in the myth of objective journalism, and how it weakens the structure of journalism because it doesn’t recognize how hard journalism actually is. It sets things up too easily for the system to not tell the stories that need to get told.

Your press release describes this as a love letter to journalism. In the wake of the This American Life scandal, you were ripped apart by a lot of journalists. Why are you now writing them a love note?
I really like journalism and I really like journalists. I may be in a period when not all of them like me back, but that’s fine. I don’t need to be liked. I think journalism is about the most important thing that exists. Without people making the earnest attempt to try and tell stories that penetrate what is actually going on, the underpinnings of what we think about as Western civilization start to fray.  
What do you see as the relationship between theater and journalism?
At their root, theater and journalism are connected by the fact that they’re both storytelling. They’re both the construction of narrative. They’re both at the root of human consciousness. And where they’re extremely different is, their rules and polarities are almost entirely inverted in terms of audience expectation. The default setting in the theater is that everything is a fiction. Journalism has the opposite orientation, where the assumption is that everything is true. It’s a very charged and dangerous assumption, because all storytelling involves omission, crafting, shaping.

With TAL, you’ve argued that you had a goal to effect change. What distinguishes your work from propaganda?
What distinguishes Wired magazine from propaganda? That [February 2011 Wired cover story about Foxconn] is a great example of framing and assumption. A writer went to China and never spoke to any workers. Omissions, as we know in the world of journalism, are not cardinal sins. They’re inevitable, right?

Omissions may be inevitable, but your fabrications were not.
Right, and it provides great cover that someone can simply omit something one doesn’t want to see in their story. It covers your bases if you want to write a story that leaves out things that would be disruptive to your worldview. 

Yes, omissions can be a problem. But fabrications are more destructive.
I’m not debating which one is more destructive. I just know which one is more pernicious and present and which one is acceptable and therefore happens constantly.  

Readers understand omissions are inevitable, but fabrications break trust in a different, more grievous way.
Another way of framing that is that readers don’t think about the omissions. Like if they were actually given an accounting of what’s been left out in certain stories, it might not be so easy. Like in the case of this Wired story.
I’m asking about your work, not Wired. Was your story propaganda?
I don’t know. It was definitely a monologue. It was definitely a piece of theater.
How did the scandal play out for you?
I’m very happy with where I am now. It feels really good to have apologized fully and completely over a year ago. I didn’t vanish, as people often do in these sorts of scandals when they’re not theater practitioners and they’re instead traditional journalists for whom this kind of a scandal would be a death sentence.

You weighed in on The Portland Mercury’s recent blog post about you? Why?
Probably because I drank some NyQuil. It was a terrible idea. One should never respond to Internet comments. It was the Mercury! Of course I regret it. It was kind of hilarious because they talked themselves into a fascinating corner. They said, “The very fact that you’re here shows how pathetic you are, because we’re pathetic,” which I just thought was the saddest fucking thing I’d ever read, because on some level I thought they might actually want to have a conversation. I have that delusion every once in a while that people want to have a conversation on places like the Mercury blog. 

SEE IT: Mike Daisey premieres Journalism at the Tiffany Center, 1401 SW Morrison St.,, on Tuesday, May 21. 7 pm. $25-$45.

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