I think Mike Daisey’s presentation of his trip to China was unethical. He contends that he fabricated and dramatized certain elements of his story in order to elicit emotion and sympathy from his audience, and that this was okay because it was a “play.” However, I think that assuming that his audience would interpret his story as a work of fiction is incredibly misguided. It was not explicitly publicized as fictional, and I don’t think anyone would reasonably get the impression that it was a “one-man-show” rather than a lecture or seminar. If a man is standing on a stage in front of you claiming that he experienced these events, you would take that at face value, as Ira contends. Even aside from that, allowing it to be streamed on this radio show was clearly not consistent with his contention that it’s a work of fiction because it is not up to journalistic standards, and Daisey admits this. Furthermore, making the script public under a creative commons license was also unethical, because then it was certainly not being performed or being treated as a work of theater or art to the public, setting it up to be interpreted as truth or fact.
I think that not only is this “theater” justification a cop-out, but also that other actions of his betray the integrity of his explanation, as if he himself knew that his explanation was shallow and deceptive. The most glaring example in my mind is his presentation of “Cathy.” It seems like he went to great lengths to ensure no one could identify or contact her, by changing her name from Anna and by claiming that any contact info he had for her was no longer accurate. He was clearly afraid of people getting suspicious and trying to compare his story with that of his only companion. This ultimately comes back to haunt him, as the radio was able to get in contact with Anna, hear her disconfirming account, and expose Daisey’s deception. Regardless of how important his fabrications actually are, the fact that he included them without being more clear about their being fictional seriously discredits him.
I wonder if Apple has considered pursuing legal action against Daisey for his original monologue. I think it is admirable and responsible of “This American Life” to dedicate an episode to the retraction, because they recognize that while Daisey doesn’t hold himself to journalistic standards, they certainly do. I just wonder if the retraction effectively nullifies the effect of the initial episode. There are certainly people who heard the podcast and did not follow it with the retraction, and I think there are grounds to say that his podcast was slanderous, but perhaps this would not hold up in court. It could also be that this is just a small blip on Apple’s radar, and it isn’t worth it for them to sue Daisey.