This American Life says Mike Daisey fabricated a story. Did Daisey also stretch the truth in Cambridge?

Tonight, THIS AMERICAN LIFE is devoting an entire episode to debunking the most popular story it has ever run: a January story that was an excerpt of the monologuist MIKE DAISEY's one-man show The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. The piece concerned Daisey's story of his trip to visit the Chinese factories where Apple products are made, and of abuses the Daisey claimed to have first-hand knowledge of. TAL now says the story contained "numerous fabrications": Daisey invented scenes and dialogue, and he also fudged some facts and figures. The episode had a transformative effect: Daisey subsequently fielded dozens of interviews, and media outlets including the New York Times followed up with in-depth investigations. 

According to TAL, Daisey has admitted the fabrications and in tonight's retraction episode tells Ira Glass, "I'm not going to say that I didn't take a few shortcuts in my passion to be heard. My mistake, the mistake I truly regret, is that I had it on your show as journalism, and it's not
journalism. It's theater."

That's not exactly a sufficient explanation. What Daisey appears not to understand is that while it's well within the bounds of artistic license for a monologuist to stretch the truth onstage, it's a different scenario altogether when he stretches the truth offstage -- especially when he continues to stretch said license in the presence of journalists. 

Hallelujah the Hills frontman RYAN WALSH has some first-hand experience in this regard. He was working at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge when Daisey was performing his show Invincible Summer -- and was present for the infamous performance where a Christian school group walked out after the part where Daisey talks about what it must be like to fuck Paris Hilton. The performance was taped, so you can see a member of the group walk up and pour water on Daisey's show notes, and hear Daisey screaming at the students as they file out, calling them cowards. All of which was dramatic enough. But Walsh, who wrote about the incident for the Phoenix earlier this year, felt that in the aftermath, Daisey exaggerated what had happened. Here's an excerpt of what Walsh wrote about that night: 

Summer was brilliantly funny and intelligent, but also riddled with F-bombs and references to anal sex with Paris Hilton. One night, I became a little wary when a large group of teenagers and parent/teacher chaperones filed into the theater for the show with their pre-purchased tickets. After the curtain rose, as I was closing down the box office, the head chaperone came bursting out of the theater. He had gone ghostly pale. "You people told me this was a clean performance!" he screamed. "There's nothing but curse words in there! I'm gonna get fired! I need to get my students out — now!"

I nearly shit a brick. I had never before faced the problem of getting a large number of audience members out of the theater during a performance. I knew it was going to disrupt the monologue.

I talked to the house manager and we devised a plan: we'd bring the lights up a bit, allow the teacher to walk in, tell his students to leave, and then the show would continue. I asked the chaperone if he thought he could do this in a polite, orderly fashion. He said yes.

We opened the door and the chaperone entered the theater. Moments later kids began streaming out. Apparently he didn't have to say anything. They saw him, got up, and left. Outside in the lobby, other teachers crowded around the man who pulled the plug. He was sobbing with a brutal intensity.

Minutes later, I learned that one of the other chaperones had walked up to Daisey's desk and poured his entire bottle of water all over the show notes laid out on the table.

When I talked with Daisey the following day, I told him how the man I'd talked to had seemed genuinely worried for his job and that I believed he tried to pull the ordeal off as gracefully as possible; the material wasn't appropriate for their group. The next day, Daisey posted the YouTube video of the event — each performance was filmed — with a description that read, "The show was disrupted by 87 members of a Christian group who walked out of the show en masse to protest the content."

It wasn't a staged walk-out; it was just a panicked teacher who'd picked a show that wasn't appropriate for his group. But that mid-size non-truth was all it took to frame the story in a manner that would garner Daisey the most press. Wired magazine's headline read: "Christians Stage Flash Mob Prank at Mike Daisey Show," while Gothamist went with: "Christian Group Attacks Brooklyn Monologist." The Boston Globe wrote, "87 members of the audience walked out in a kind of protest." Even the BBC reported on the incident:

Eighty-seven members of the audience staged a walk-out. One member of the group, who identified themselves to staff as "a Christian group," poured water over Mike Daisey's set and artwork as he passed the stage, in what the actor later described as "an anti-baptism."

Just how this BBC reporter was able to reconcile the idea that it was a staged walk-out with the opposite idea that a teacher was concerned about content and pulled the group boggles the mind. Daisey did an admirable thing by having post-incident conversations with members of the group but the fact remained that the portrayal of events as written on the description of that YouTube clip (which is surely the primary source for anyone interested in the story) never changed.

You can read Daisey's description of the events here and here. In the end, Daisey had every right to fume: after all, a guy poured water on his notes! But Walsh's description of the events suggests that Daisey did exactly what you'd expect a playwright to do: he dramatized the incident, and didn't mind if the press followed suit.
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