Once Is Not Enough: The Insufficiency of Once

And the disappointment of Mike Daisey

I stand by my work … What I do is not journalism. The tools of the theater are not the same as the tools of journalism.” —Mike Daisey, posting to his blog, March 16, 2012.

Mike Daisey’s reputation was destroyed last weekend. Ira Glass, host of This American Life, meted out the destruction, but the real work of it was done by Mr. Daisey himself. Through hundreds or thousands of performances over the past several years, he has presented as fact his The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, purportedly an honest recounting of his visits to the factories in Shenzhen, China, where Apple products are made. “Tonight,” he would say near the end of his monologue, “we know the truth.”

But, it turned out, we didn’t. A China-based reporter for public radio’s Marketplace, rereporting a version of the monologue that aired in January on This American Life, revealed numerous falsehoods in Mr. Daisey’s story. The most troubling were the creations: people he claimed he’d met—a man disabled making iPads who’d never seen one in use until Mr. Daisey swiped on his own, a group of preteen workers—who didn’t actually exist but made for compelling moments in his performance.

As someone who was snookered, I’m angry about the snookering. But more than that, I’m angry about the damage Mr. Daisey has done to himself. I’m not convinced, as some commentators have argued, that what he says on stage need be as rigorously accurate as what appears in The Times. But I do believe that if it’s not, he may not actively present himself as a lone truth-teller, as he did. And I further believe that he cannot actively conspire to hide his evasions, as he did in misrepresenting himself to This American Life’s producers.

Now apologetic for those fact-checking lies but still defiant about his theatrical work, Mr. Daisey continues to insist that his factual manipulations are less important than the larger points he is persuasively conveying. He seems unaware that he has in fact hurt that greater cause, by allowing his opponents to dismiss his work, and that he’s damaging not only his own credibility but that of advocacy theater.

editorial@observer.com