There is a difference between a journalist and a playwright. They have different educational backgrounds. They have different goals. They have different responsibilities. Most importantly, they produce different expectations from their audience. When Daisey traveled to China, he interviewed people, observed their working conditions, and made an effort to learn about their culture. This type of experiential research is acceptable by both journalists and playwrights. However, his actions that followed were not acceptable for anyone.
Actors are expected to tell a story that will provoke emotions, feelings, and deep thoughts. As an actor and playwright, this was Daisey’s goal, and there is nothing wrong with that—as long as it’s done the right way. The problem here is that Daisey presented his play as a work of truth. He did not label it “realistic fiction” or “fact with creative liberties”—he called it non-fiction. The reality is that this work was not non-fiction. His work contained maybe truths. It involved people, places, experiences that were true to Daisey’s travels. However, he exaggerated these stories. He added interactions and stories that did not happen in the way he told. This deception was unfair to his audience, to the subjects of his play, and to the journalists whose integrity he undermined.
Journalists, contrary to actors, are expected to be truthful. They are not supposed to fabricate ideas to make their story more interesting. It is their job to present the truth, without fabrication. By agreeing to present his show on This American Life, he agreed to hold his show up to journalistic standards. Ira Glass explains in the Retraction that he made the standards clear to Mike Daisey; he was determined to maintain the journalistic integrity and reputation for his listeners. Daisey was expected to tell his story exactly how it happened when he was in China. It was presented to his listeners as an element of This American Life, a show full of journalistic stories, presenting the truth. Daisey deceived Ira Glass, his audience at the show, and TAL listeners.
Daisey’s willingness to allow others to modify his script shows an appreciation for the art. While he does explain to Ira Glass that his original version is the best version of the story, it is admirable that he allows others to use their creative abilities to make it something different. This can be very useful and important to modify the script according to the audience, like they did at Bucknell. The modifications made for the show at Bucknell catered directly to the audience at hand. The actors made references to college classes, student life, and ideas pertinent to Bucknell students, faculty, and staff. This allows for the message to reach more audiences in a far more meaningful manner than it may otherwise. In the end, it gets more people thinking, talking, and exploring the subject—which should be every playwright or journalist’s goal.
The worst part of Daisey’s dishonesty is that it discredited a lot of the issues he discussed in his piece. Daisey believed that all of these issues—child labor, unsafe working conditions, long hours, dangerous anti-union rules—exist in China. He even had proof that some of these issues existed. The problem, though, is that he lied about all of them. If he had simply told the truth, we could all believe him and see the injustices that exist in China’s labor force. Unfortunately, his lies discredit his word. Now we can’t be certain that anything he says is true. Now journalists will always need to question his statements. And now perhaps audiences will question others as well. Why couldn’t Daisey simply tell the truth? Isn’t the truth enough?