Monday, March 19, 2012

Truth, Fiction, Theater, and Journalism

I am angry with Mike Daisey.

I am not angry that he lied in his show.  I am saddened by that, saddened both for him and for the integrity of his worthy cause, the working conditions of the workers in China. I am saddened that his shows, for me, will now no longer have any power, for Daisey’s artistic work depended on that sense that you were hearing a personal, true account, told artfully.

What I am angry about is that, in an effort to save himself, he threw theater under the bus.

When caught in his lies, Daisey’s defense was, what I do is not journalism, it is theater.  His implication is that theater has different standards for truth, even when it purports to be factual.  That it is OK to lie onstage, even when you are telling the audience what you are speaking is the truth.

Ira Glass brought Daisey back on his show in order to remedy the breach of trust between This American Life and the NPR audience, brought about by their failure to fact check.  Daisey, apparently, has no similar compunctions.  He is willing to implicate all of us who sometimes try to tell the truth onstage, the factual truth, in his lie.

I understand, of course.  I have lied.  I have lied when telling a story, not even deliberately, but because it’s quicker and easier, and hey, it’s close enough.  I have struggled to tell documentary fact onstage, and I have been forced at times to resort to fiction.

In a writing class, I recently gave my students an exercise.  Take down a conversation verbatim, I said, and we will perform it like a play.  They did.  Afterwards, I quizzed them—who had actually written down what was said word for word, and who had fudged and filled in—to make the dialogue flow, or to make it funnier, or to cover up an embarrassing moment, or just because it was actually hard to remember and note the exact words.

Every single one of them had fudged.  Every single one of them had lied.

(..and here, am I lying?  One or two claimed to have told the truth, but reading the dialogue, I didn’t believe them…so was what I just wrote a fudge or a lie?)

I have also been interviewed and written about in a number of different papers, including, on several occasions, The New York Times.   I have to say, not once was the article written exactly factual.  Sometimes the journalist has tried and failed, fact checking but still missing some important details.  Sometimes the journalist hasn’t even tried.  And often, the journalist has wanted to tell a story of his or her own, and skewed the facts to fit into that story.

Is it conscious?  Is it deliberate?  Probably not.  But it is consistent.

Right now, I am General Managing a play called The Soap Myth, a play dealing the question of fact and fiction.  In it, historians reject a certain possible truth about a detail of the Holocaust events, because they feel that even the slightest doubt give deniers power.  When we all went to the Museum of Jewish Heritage downtown, one of the curators was asked, when a journalist writes about what you do, do they ever get it right?

No.  Not once, I was told.

So the truth is elusive.  The truth is hard to define.  And sometimes, even with the best of intention, one lies.

And then there are other times, when one makes the conscious decision to lie.  And rationalizes it.  And tell oneself it is the truth, not because it is the truth, but because it feels like the truth.  Because even if the facts don’t fit, they should fit.  So, it’s not actually lying, is it?

It is.

It’s also very human.  I am not angry at Mike Daisey for being human.  I am angry that his rationalizations will injure the whole field of documentary fiction.

Those denials, those rationalizations, are also very human I realize.  I am holding Mike Daisey to a high standard, perhaps an unfair one.  A higher standard than most of the journalists I have encountered.  That is not despite the fact that he works in theater.  It is because of it.