Fantastic to see you guys are taking this enormous plunge. Well played, Keely & Dave! Looking forward to seeing a show on my next visit home.
The very last words I have to say on this subject, hopefully until the end of time.
Hi Mat. You hit the nail on the head when you say Daisey's piece is theater and not journalism. The very point of theater is to "make up key details of a story to present a piece of dramatic theater." This is what theater has been from its beginning. Nobody's objecting that Shakespeare deliberately made up key details about the reign of Henry the IV in order to present a piece of dramatic theater. Nobody's pulling out their hair because 'The Elephant Man' took dramatic liberties with the real life of John Merrick. Did Daisey inflate elements of his China experience for the same reasons? Obviously, yes, because that's what drama is. He is here at Spoleto performing theater, not performing journalism. He has repeatedly acknowledged the mistake he made by appearing on TAL (again at this festival). My point is let's allow the man to do theater, which he's good at, and to stay well away from journalism, which he's not good at.
I didn't say I teach journalism in Vietnam. I said I earned an M.A. in journalism. At RMIT's Centre for Communication and Design, I teach mass communications, e.g. media and society, communication theory, cultural studies, and Asian cybercultures. Regarding the lack of a free press and one whose function is to merely produce propaganda, the more time I spend outside the U.S. looking in, the more unclear it is to me which system prevails here. As Ballard (and Noam Chomsky) have noted, mainstream news outlets in the West serve up just as much propaganda as you'll find in any authoritarian state. But here it's driven not by government directive but by advertiser influence, the status quo, the fear of political flak, and the never-ending hunger for profit. Different models, same outcome.
Mat, it's been verified and corroborated a dozen different ways -- including by This American Life -- that Daisey spent time in China researching his piece and did impersonate an American businessman to gain access to the Foxconn factory to get a firsthand look at conditions there.
Hi Sybil, forgive me for not replying sooner. I was at the bottom of the Grand Canyon last weekend and only hauled myself out and back into Charleston a day ago. Your point is well-taken, and I largely agree with you. But I disagree with the notion that as soon as an artist decides to touch upon an “important” subject, he or she is bound to do so with journalistic accuracy. Shall we blame Picasso because his portrayal of the horrors of the Spanish Civil War in “Guernica” are not photo-realistic? Surely the tragedies of that war and the suffering it inflicted upon innocent civilians was of greater significance than the working conditions of some factory laborers in China. Yet we easily recognize the ridiculousness of expecting journalism from Picasso. The artistic expression in “Guernica” -- which exaggerates, condenses and reinterprets those events from 1937 -- is far more effective (now as it was then) as an artistic and, crucially, political commentary against the war precisely because of the way the artist manipulated the actual events.
I do not seek to compare Daisey’s art to Picasso’s. But the principle here is the same. My task in writing this article was to present a short profile of Daisey as an artist, not of Daisey as a journalist. Daisey is not a journalist. He has never claimed to be a journalist. He was not invited to Spoleto to perform journalism. I see no reason to hold him accountable at Spoleto to the codes of conduct of an institutional practice that has nothing in common with theater except that it shares with it the same medium of expression -- language.
Did Daisey, in his earnestness, make a mistake in agreeing to allow segments of his monologue to be aired on This American Life, whose ethic is one of documentary-style journalism rather than artistic expression? Absolutely. Has he acknowledged and apologized for that mistake? He has not stopped doing so -- he apologized again, at length, in front of an audience with Martha Teichner after his opening night performance here last week.
Like you, Sybil, I studied journalism -- I have a M.A. in Journalism and Mass Communication. I also live in Vietnam, a Communist country with strict restrictions on the press and Internet, where I teach mass communications to Vietnamese university students at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Saigon. In Vietnam I see every day what a country with no fourth estate looks like. In Vietnam there is no institution to shed light on corruption and abuses of power, no one to give voice to the voiceless. Speaking truth to power is illegal there, and the gap between rich and poor, influential and marginalized, grows greater every day. So I know as well as anyone how critical journalism is to individuals and to societies. I do not seek to trivialize it by choosing not to pour more gasoline over Mike Daisey’s flaming hulk for mistakes he made and has expressed contrition for. I only suggest that he is a mere human being, just as capable of making mistakes as you or I am, and that he should be allowed to step down off the pyre to practice his art as an artist with a conscience -- a rare thing in these times.
Regarding Aristotle’s ideas on the tragic flaw, I don’t think an awareness of it calls for much real cultural prowess. That’s the stuff of almost every high school Western Lit class. I noted that, for Aristotle, the tragic flaw was ‘often’ something of no great importance but, though seemingly small, leads to the character’s outsized downfall. For Daisey, that flaw was clearly a tendency to inflate the truth in his monologues, just as we all do when telling a story. But there was surely some hubris in this story as well. Appearing on This American Life? Improving working conditions for squillions of poor Chinese families? Becoming an internationally recognized monologist? Hard to say no to. In combination, these relatively minor flaws -- for an artist -- conspired to bring about a decidedly grim result for Daisey. That doesn’t make him the world’s worst person. It makes him someone who probably had very good intentions and who tripped on them in front of the world because of the kinds of errors that are common to pretty much everyone who has ever lived. That’s what I call tragic.
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