The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, a monologue by Mike Daisey ’96 that this magazine covered in the winter 2012 issue, captivated audiences, Apple customers, and the media. Daisey’s masterful oratory condemning Chinese factories where Apple products are made, which saw an extended run at the Public Theater in New York, also landed him in mainstream newspapers, on television, and on American Public Media’s This American Life.
That’s where things got bad.
This American Life, a nonfiction storytelling program that airs on NPR, excerpted Daisey’s show and included experts (New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and Ian Spaulding, a founder of INFACT Global Partners, which helps Chinese factories meet social responsibility standards) who corroborated Daisey’s assertions about the conditions in Chinese factories, namely Foxconn. The program became the most popular podcast in the show’s history, with more than a million people downloading or streaming the audio. Daisey’s show was doing what he hoped it would—inspiring outrage and action among American audiences.
Then came March 16.
Ira Glass, host of This American Life, issued a press release stating he was retracting the episode about The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. “We’ve learned that Mike Daisey’s story about Apple in China—which we broadcast in January—contained significant fabrications. We’re retracting the story because we can’t vouch for its truth.”
The facts about labor conditions at Foxconn weren’t in question. The problem, Glass said, was that Daisey said he witnessed things he didn’t witness.
The retraction of the episode and calling into question of Daisey’s methods made headlines nationwide.
But from Daisey’s point of view, it came down to the difference between theatrical art and journalism. On his blog, Daisey wrote: “What I do is not journalism. The tools of the theater are not the same as the tools of journalism. For this reason, I regret that I allowed This American Life to air an excerpt from my monologue. This American Life is essentially a journalistic—not a theatrical—enterprise, and as such it operates under a different set of rules and expectations. But this is my only regret.”
Daisey continues to perform The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs—including an April performance at Colby’s Strider Theater—and has included a prologue at the beginning acknowledging the controversy and stating that some changes have been made to the show.
“We use these tools that the Greeks invented so long ago to try to communicate,” he said at a recent performance. “The whole attempt is to try to shine a light through something and get at the truth. The truth is vitally important. I believe that very deeply.”