Breaking Character: This American Life Retracts Story

Earlier today, news broke that This American Life had retracted the episode “Mike Daisey and the Apple Factory,” because Daisey had fabricated crucial parts of his report on working conditions in the Chinese factories that manufacture Apple products. The immediate reaction on the Mac Rumors message board, for example, has been almost unanimous outrage against Daisey for making false claims. I too am upset but for an entirely different reason: he didn’t break character.

Having studied documentary film at various points in my academic life, you learn that you can communicate truth with fiction. For most of film history, filmmakers such as Robert Flaherty, Chris Marker, and Errol Morris, have played fast and loose with facts to communicate a larger truth to an audience. I think Daisey, who is an essayist and not a journalist, is working in a similar vein. His monologue and performance, which I saw in November at the Public Theater, is absolutely compelling. After hearing The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, you leave with a very simple message about how our electronic stuff comes at a human cost.

Daisey’s performance is an excellent example of what art can do. After nearly two years of performing in theaters throughout the United States, January’s This American Life broadcast seemed to have an effect in the world outside of the theater. There was the New York Times series on the iEconomy. There were petitions delivered to Apple Stores protesting the working conditions in Foxconn factories in China. And there was the Nightline investigation into one of the Foxconn factories, which I found as too short and too soft. Whether Daisey was making up the facts in his performance seems almost a non-issue because he had pressed the public into action, which is what great political art should do.

However, I’m upset with Daisey because he used his exaggerated, composite, or even fabricated facts, which made for a great story, and took them to journalistic venues. He wrote an impassioned op-Ed in New York Times. He went on CBS Sunday Morning, on MSNBC on The Leonard Lopate Show, and of course This American Life. Once he leaves the theatrical environment, he’s engaging in a different form of performance. Perhaps he thought that by disclosing that many crucial facts were in fact fabricated, he would undermine the argument at the heart of his performance. Once he went to these non-theatrical venues, he must have faced a tough choice: either disclose that his report was based in part on fabrications or to avoid spreading his message beyond the stage.

Instead, he chose not to break character. He continued performing in public. Now that This American Life has retracted his story, it will sadly set back the cause of justice for the workers who make our stuff. But I don’t know how to get people to actually think about all of our electronic stuff, Apple-branded or not, and the means of their production.

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