Glass Houses

On the hypocrisy of This American Life.

I also found it extremely difficult to listen to the “Retraction” episode of This American Life. I could not even listen to the whole episode—I had to read the transcript. The only way I could have relieved the fury building up inside me, as I listened to that podcast, would have been to slap Ira Glass across the face. I have never heard such sanctimonious, self-serving hypocrisy in my life—not from someone I respect.

I am going to tell you some things that may shock you. Richard III was not a hunchback. Salieri played no part in Mozart’s death. On a related note, Facebook is not Mark Zuckerberg’s revenge against a world of human relationships that he realized he could never really be a part of. When I was in college, I was in The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged); and every night I, Caitlin Cashin, declared that one of my fellow performers was a preeminent Shakespearean scholar with a bachelors degree knowing full well that neither of these things were true.

You see, in the theatre, and in many other creative forms that attempt to tell stories, we find that when one has approximately two to three hours to recount a complex story with a number of intriguing personalities and important points and events to convey to an audience that has payed upwards of $50 per seat, one must streamline the product.

Every production has something to say, some particular perspective—an agenda, if you will; and, ideally, every aspect of a production is working toward illustrating and driving home that agenda in the most concise and effective way possible. Most productions fail to achieve this—it is a rare and serendipitous thing. The very suggestion that a piece of theatre has somehow “conned” its audience is absurd. You mean Willy Loman didn’t kill himself so Biff could collect the insurance? Shakespeare didn’t set Julius Caesar in fascist Italy? I demand an apology!

Two people are at fault here. It was stupid of Mike Daisey to lie on air, I completely agree with that. He should have said from the beginning, “Look, Ira, this is a piece of theatre. Everything I’ve described has happened to somebody—somebody told me these stories, but they’re not all my personal experiences. But I don’t think that should diminish their impact.” It seems like Mike Daisey hasn’t really thought too much about his position as an artist and the particular nature of the monologue or at least he’s not very good at talking about it, but a lot of artists are bad at talking about their work.

Mike Daisey was stupid to lie to Ira Glass, but didn’t deserve to be humiliated for it.

I feel sorry for Daisey. I think he created a piece of art that really spoke to people and made them think and that he was terrified that this journalistic integrity he was suddenly being held to would destroy the positive impact of his piece. I agree that he was stupid to lie to Ira Glass, but I don’t think he deserved to be humiliated and to have his work invalidated on NPR for it.

Ira Glass should have had the presence of mind to decide that since The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs is theatre, they don’t have all the facts, and since This American Life frequently features fiction, poetry, and other creative works (which, I assume, are meant to influence and inspire people in spite of their fictitious nature or complex relationship with factual truth), he should present The Agony and the Ecstasy as one of the many creative works presented on This American Life. At the very least, he could have used his retraction not as an opportunity to publicly disgrace a man who actually got people to pay attention to where their Apple products come from, but as an opportunity to discuss journalism, truth, the creative work, their social impacts, what we expect from these things and how we define them, and why we have those expectations. But I guess that’s really Radiolab territory.

Mike Daisey wrote in his blog:

Many consider this week’s THIS AMERICAN LIFE episode one of the most painful they’ve ever listened to. In particular the segment with me is excruciating—four hours of grilling edited down to fifteen minutes. I thought the dead air was a nice touch, and finishing the episode with audio pulled out of context from my performance was masterful.

That’s Ira’s choice, and it’s his show. He’s a storyteller within the context of radio journalism, and I am a storyteller in the theater.

What does tearing down Mike Daisey (or KONY 2012) on the basis of journalistic integrity achieve? It’s not as if thousands of Americans, inspired by Mike Daisey, were prepared to storm in and put an end to Foxconn—an action that would have destroyed tens of thousands of jobs for Chinese workers—until they tuned into NPR.

Maybe Mike Daisey lied, but he got people to care about real problems. I know it’s a very complex problem that will require a complex solution, but how are we supposed to find that complex solution to our participation in this problem if no one gives a shit? The goal of a creative work like The Agony and the Ecstasy is to inspire, provoke, and compel people to think. The onus is on you, the audience, to pursue that thought when you leave the theatre. I’m sorry to hear Ira Glass doesn’t know that.

The problem is not that this performer has lied to us in his monologue and about his monologue. The problem is that institutions like the news, television, education and the government—institutions that are meant to be based in factual truth and merit, and are supposed to have the public’s best interests, are not and do not. They are increasingly based on personal agendas and increasingly theatrical in attempting to achieve their goals.

Don’t be angry that you get theatre when you go to the theatre, be angry that you get theatre everywhere else.