Mike Daisey created a popular one man show outlining labor abuses perpetrated by Apple in China. There was just one problem: the stories he told were riddled with factual inaccuracies, and some didn't even happen to him. Instead of apologizing to his fans, Daisey circled the wagons and claimed dramatic license. When will people learn that a sincere apology is the best path to the public's heart?
Update 4-3-11: This morning, I received a link to this blog post by Mike Daisey from an email address that appears to belong to Mr. Daisey. There was no greeting or commentary attached.The blog post contains a defense of Daisey's actions and, in the ninth paragraph, an apology to his theater colleagues and then the journalists he deceived. At no point does he apologize to his audience or the public for deceiving them.
When a segment of Mike Daisey's show The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs aired on my favorite podcast, This American Life, I was torn. I like Apple. I admire Steve Jobs. I want to like Apple, and I want to believe that its business practices aren't any more heinous than that of any other American corporation taking advantage of cheap overseas labor. Like most others who heard the broadcast, I believed that most of what Daisey claimed happened to him was true.
But the media appearance ended up spawning more controversy than anticipated when it came out that much of what Mike Daisey reported was either not true, not experienced firsthand or patently exaggerated for dramatic effect. A Slate reporter summarizes his surprise at some of Daisey's claims as well as Daisey's unwaveringly defensive reaction to them. And worse (at least for Mr. Daisey), Ira Glass and the TAL team did something unprecented: they aired a one-hour retraction of the original segment, in which they explained the fact-checking and follow-up process and cop to their original mistake in airing the story. One could argue that the retraction is far more enlightening than the original piece and a coup de grace for the This American Life team, whose journalistic ethics and prowess remain nearly spotless through the kerfuffle.
The theater vs. journalism debate
What has been fascinating as this controversy has unfolded has been the philosophical debate over whether Daisey's piece is journalism or theater. The arguments go something like this:
- Theater: Daisey is an artist. He took artistic license when creating his piece so it would play better to the theater crowd.
- Journalism: But wait... the basic facts presented are still true, right?
- Theater: Essentially, yes.
- Journalism: What do you mean, "essentially"? Did Daisey actually talk to a person whose hands were shaking uncontrollably from xxx poisoning?
- Theater: Well, no. But he read reports of it, and they seemed credible. And it was more powerful to relate them in the first person in the show. I mean, when a comedian says, "This is a true story," everyone knows it isn't a true story, just a relatable one, right?
- Journalism: So the most powerful moment in his show didn't actually happen to him even though he says it did?
- Theater: We're pretty sure it happened. And the story needs to be told. That's what the power of theater is for.
- Journalism: Wait... what about the 13-year-olds working in the factory? Did he really talk to them?
- Theater: Well, he saw some girls that looked 13, and he assumed they were. That counts, right? The message is still valid.
The 60-minute retraction that TAL produced goes into far more detail, but it turns out that Daisey deliberately lied to the journalists who were fact-checking his segment by telling them his translator, the only one who could verify the events in question, was unavailable. He even lied about her name. Despite the fact that the journalistic team impressed upon him that in order to be aired on the original show, the content would have to survive journalistic standards rather than theatrical ones, Daisey asserted (and still does) that everything in his production is essentially true.
It's PR, not theater vs. journalism
While the artistic license vs. journalistic integrity debate is a fascinating one that we intellectuals love to mull over and debate, those arguments actually only serve to complicate and obscure the heart of the matter in the Daisey controvery. And, not surprisingly, it comes down to PR: the public who heard Daisey's stories, whether in the theater or on NPR, feel lied to. And with good reason.
And what does one do in this age of transparency when one's public feels deceived? One apologizes. Sincerely and honestly. Describe the initial intent, promise to do better in the future, but always apologize.
What Daisey fails to understand is that in the age of transparency, opaqueness doesn't fly. Even if Daisey insists on sticking to his "artistic license" guns, he's making a fatal PR error by not apologizing to consumers who feel wronged. Much in the way that Susan G. Komen fans were unimpressed with Nancy Brinker's frigidly rational defense rather than a sincere apology on the hot button issue of women's reproductive rights, theater fans and NPR listeners alike felt they deserved an apology, regardless of Daisey's intentions were when creating his stories.
Even when an organization's intentions are pure, fans can still feel wronged. The best move is almost always to apologize for the misunderstanding, acknowledge the emotions that the users are feeling and, if absolutely necessary, explain the initial intent of the communication. Promising to consider future changes is the frosting on the apology cupcake.
Daisey has failed on all PR counts. Foolishly believing that sticking to his guns will somehow boost his credibility, he has steadfastly refused to acknowledge any regret or make any apology to his audience for the deception, even if it was unintentional. Bad move. Fans don't tolerate it when corporations refuse to apologize, and they don't tolerate it when actors do, either. Like a corporation caught with its pants down, Daisey should have the courage and conviction to apologize to his fans. Because soon, he won't have any.