NEW YORK (AP) - Mike Daisey, a burly man who makes a living telling stories, has found himself in the middle of a storm of controversy _ put there by his own words.
The performer had to admit Friday that much of his latest monologue, in which he describes iPhones and iPads being made in Chinese sweatshops, is a mix of fact and fiction, something he failed to point out during a media blitz promoting his critically acclaimed piece.
“It uses a combination of fact, memoir, and dramatic license to tell its story, and I believe it does so with integrity,” Daisey said in a statement posted on his website. He did not answer questions sent to his personal email account and his publicist did not return request for comment Saturday.
The firestorm started after Ira Glass, the host of the popular public radio show “This American Life,” aired an interview in which Daisey acknowledged some claims in his one-man show “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” weren’t true, and Glass said he couldn’t vouch for the truth of a Jan. 6 broadcast based on the show.
The New York Times, The Associated Press and dozens of other media and entertainment outlets, from MSNBC to Bill Maher’s show on HBO, also were misled.
The revelations are unlikely to halt scrutiny of Chinese factories that make Apple products since news outlets including the Times have reported dangerous working conditions there, including explosions inside iPad plants where four people were killed and 77 were injured.
But Daisey’s career, which had been hot, is likely to take a hit and some of his older monologues might get a second look.
“If he had only chosen to actually utilize what theatre allows you to do _ which is to transform fact into something that retains an emotional truth,” said Howard Sherman, a former executive director of the American Theatre Wing and a respected arts administrator and producer. He didn’t see Daisey’s show but said he thought it might “call into question people who do this in the future.”
Daisey is just the latest artist to apparently get tripped up by the truth _ joining a list that includes James Frey, who admitted that he lied in his memoir “A Million Little Pieces,” and Greg Mortenson, who is accused of fabricating key parts of his best-selling book “Three Cups of Tea.”
The controversy raised once again the question of the artist’s role in society and what his or her responsibility is to the truth. And has Daisey ultimately hurt or harmed the very people he was trying to help?
Terry Teachout, chief theater critic for The Wall Street Journal, called Daisy a talented artist but said the episode was “unforgivable,” and Peter Marks, the critic for The Washington Post, tweeted that Daisey’s “zeal seems to have gotten the better of his judgment.” Chris Jones at the Chicago Tribune suspected Daisey “was seduced by the glare of attention.”
Daisey, who performs his monologues seated at a desk and using notes, has previously tackled everything from dysfunctional dot-coms to the international financial crisis. A movie has been made of his monologue “If You See Something Say Something,” and in a weird twist, he did a 2006 show called “Truth” about how art and fact mix. In it, Daisey admitted he once fabricated a story because it “connected” with the audience.
Daisey told Glass he felt conflicted about presenting things that he knew weren’t true. But he said he felt “trapped” and was afraid people would no longer care about the abuses at the factories if he didn’t present things in a dramatic way.
In an interview with the AP last year when his show was first in New York, Daisey’s passion for humane treatment of Chinese workers was evident.
“Artists are people who are called to action,” he said. “If they’re not active then they’re probably asleep.”
Daisey’s work, which combines personal insight, historical digressions and gonzo journalism, has propelled him across the world, from the South Pacific island of Tanna to the site in the New Mexico desert where an atomic bomb was tested. His style is pugnacious, but he’s also funny and touching.
His latest monologue includes no disclaimer that it’s a mishmash of truth and fiction. In it, he describes traveling to the Chinese industrial zone of Shenzhen and interviewing hundreds of workers from Foxconn Technology Group, the world’s largest electronics contract manufacturer. Daisey says he stood outside the gate with a translator and met workers as young as 12 and some whose joints were damaged because they performed the same action thousands of times a shift.
“I talk to people whose joints in their hands have disintegrated from working on the line, doing the same motion hundreds and hundreds of thousands of times. It’s like carpal tunnel on a scale we can scarcely imagine,” he says, according to a transcript of the show. Later in the monologue, he says he met workers poisoned by the chemical hexane, used to clear iPhone screens.
But “This American Life” reported Daisey’s Chinese interpreter disputed many of the artist’s claims when contacted by Rob Schmitz, a China correspondent for the public radio show “Marketplace.” Among them, the translator said guards outside the factory weren’t armed, Daisey never met workers from a secret union and he never visited factory dorm rooms.
“I’m not going to say that I didn’t take a few shortcuts in my passion to be heard,” he told Glass. “But I stand behind the work. My mistake, the mistake that I truly regret is that I had it on your show as journalism, and it’s not journalism. It’s theater.”
Apple’s popularity among consumers and investors alike has only grown while Daisey has been railing against the company. Since Daisey’s one-man show hit the stage in the summer of 2010, Apple has sold more than 74 million iPhones, more than 35 million iPads and more than 29 million iPods.
Propelled by the surging sales of Apple’s devices, the company stock price has climbed nearly 70 percent to create an additional $220 billion in shareholder wealth. Apple now reigns as the world’s richest company, with nearly $100 billion in cash and a market value of $546 billion.
Daisey’s embellishments threaten to set back the efforts to improve the working conditions in China and other countries where many trendy gadgets are made, said veteran technology analyst Rob Enderle.
He fears Daisey’s tainted credibility will embolden more U.S. companies to turn a blind eye to how the assembly-line workers are being treated in the overseas factories run by their contractors. “It will make it more difficult to correct these labor injustices in China,” Enderle said. “Daisey tried to make this out to be an Apple problem, but it really wasn’t. It’s a China problem.”
Daisey _ a performer in the vein of Spalding Gray and John Leguizamo _ has performed the monologue for more than 50,000 people from Seattle to Washington, D.C. He was expected to take the show on tour after its run at The Public Theater in New York ends Sunday, but that’s now in doubt.
In a statement, The Public Theater said the show would be performed this weekend as scheduled.
“Mike is an artist, not a journalist,” the theater said. “Nevertheless, we wish he had been more precise with us and our audiences about what was and wasn’t his personal experience in the piece.”
AP Technology Writer Mike Liedtke contributed to this report.
This American Life: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/460/retraction