"I know about art," says Mike Daisey. "I'm very good about art."
As part of a special week focusing on journalism, the Philadelphia Theatre Company hosts the controversial monologist, writer, opinionator, and artist for two nights. At 8 p.m. Thursday and 3 p.m. Saturday, Daisey performs This is Not Normal, boisterous reflections on repercussions and consequences of the 2016 election. On Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., he completes the one-two punch with The Death of Journalism. This is his art, and he's sticking to it.
Also, at 6 p.m. Saturday, PTC hosts a panel of arts critics on the future of what they do. It's free. Full disclosure: I'm one of the panelists. I'll join wonderful local playwright Jacqueline Goldfinger (Bottle Fly; The Arsonists), who'll be our moderator, and panelists Michael Riedel, New York Post columnist and author of Razzle Dazzle: The Battle for Broadway; John Moore, senior arts journalist for the Denver Center for the Performing Arts; Chris Jones, chief theater critic for the Chicago Tribune; and Wendy Rosenfield, editor-in-chief of the Broad Street Review.
To get this out of the way: Daisey was involved in a notorious 2012 fracas at the syndicated radio program This American Life, which used part of his monologue "The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs" in an episode about inhumane labor practices at Apple factories run by FoxConn, an industry group in Taiwan. The program later retracted and apologized for the episode, saying Daisey had exaggerated or misrepresented his experience in researching his monologue. It's important to add that Daisey and the program have always stood by the central facts, abundantly corroborated by independent sources. But after ethical questions blew up, Daisey and the program comprehensively apologized.
Not a man to let his powder get damp, Daisey speaks by phone from New York about his Philadelphia Theatre Company shows, why journalism is sloppy-dead, why President Trump is a disaster and we just missed it, and much more. After 45 minutes with him, I was a little beat up but also, how shall I put this? Awake.
Your first show is titled This is Not Normal. What does the this refer to?
A couple of different thises. One this is the absurd, insane year we've now spent under the current administration, which sure isn't normal. Then there's the entire state of emergency we still are living under since 9/11. The third this started right after the end of World War Two, when we shifted over to being a massive military-industrial complex. The show reckons with the dangers inherent in this system of normality.
And what are those dangers?
The environment generated by this president is not something we've ever had to grapple with in our lifetimes. You think it's wrong to speak of the dangers of fascism? Not. During the election year, I did a monologue called The Trump Card about this fringe candidate running for president, and how people didn't understand his background and that he could win. You could just see how institutionalized media just never got over itself and took him seriously.
This is Not Normal is the fruition. I have rarely have been this unhappy to be right.
This atmosphere of take-no-prisoners, zero-sum political division means there's less and less room for people we used to call moderates. We see people like Jeff Flake (R., Ariz.) leaving the Senate — a sign we're supposed to take as positive, right? He's some virtuous moderate, right? Wrong. He's no moderate. Every part of it is terrible: Flake is terrible, Trump is terrible, and this praise of Flake is the worst. That's the worst danger. We're normalizing things that would have outraged us only a few years ago. It's like the frog in the water heating up to boil: You keep getting used to the escalation until you're cooked. When Nazis are at the table, it makes moderates of people who weren't moderate before.
Whoa. “Nazis”? You want to go there?
I'm sorry, but that's such a newspapery thing to say — as if the word choice is a P.R. decision when it's a matter of the facts. Trump hangs out with white nationalists, has a chief adviser who is a white nationalist, has white nationalist policies, and continually coddles his base of white nationalists in white nationalist terms. Over and over again! Loudly! It controls the narrative. We really should be asking: What does it mean to have someone in charge of your country you can't trust? Who believes that one group of people is really more important than any other group? We don't get to those questions because we're still discussing whether or not it's couth to use this language. It's delightfully old-fashioned in the face of this nightmare.
If we're not going to call Trump a white nationalist, soon we'll start spouting as "talking points" terrible things only Nazis would be comfortable with, saying, "These people are very nice people," that Trump's no different from George W. Bush, which is not true — this is the heart of normalization.
The Death of Journalism, huh? Not to be too negative about it …
Look, I believe newspapers will still come out and websites will still get updated. The work will go on. What's dead is the myth of objectivity, and how that myth empowers those who employ it. It's not that there's no such thing as truth — it's that no one can write anything that's totally without bias. I put the awful stuff that's happened, all of it, down to Roger Ailes and Fox, absolutely. When established media claim objectivity and then make mistakes, which they do, it leaves them vulnerable. Ailes seized on that to create a toxic, false counter-narrative. These people know the game goes to the ones who get there first and control the narrative.
Some folks still pretend they can be objective, and that, "If we do our jobs well, that'll be enough, we'll win out in the end." Actually, no, sorry, not enough; actually, it's dead. As things become more and more partisan, bad actors find ways to partisanize every story. Bad actors like Fox are putting out propaganda; they're not even playing the same game. The Walter Cronkite thing, the trusted voice? Dead. He's a white, straight male telling you what to believe. Nope, gone: People are tired of having their narratives controlled.
So how does Mike Daisey use journalism? Because it’s clear you’re a journalism junkie.
I read a bunch of different papers, a number of different news websites. I follow Twitter, subscribe to people on the right and on the left, and I constantly keep track of things in my blind spots. Slate has a daily track of what conservatives and the right wing are talking about. I make a point of keeping track of that, to watch what the counter-narratives are. That's what I mostly do. I am pretty strongly aligned with the left, so part of my job is to challenge that, so I search out people on the right who challenge my ideas and constantly test my ideas that way. It's understandable why people don't do this — it's more work, and just reading what you agree with is easier.
But are you a journalist? A lot of people would say, “No, Mike Daisey is not interested in what used to be called the “straight” story. He prefers alternative explanations, anything that challenges the official story. Mike Daisey on the end of journalism is like Donald Trump on the end of democracy.” They might even raise issues of trust, This American Life …
I've been a theater artist for my entire career, 25 years. It was always art. I was always an artist, I was never a journalist. Don't come to see me do a piece of journalism — I won't do it, I don't do that. I'm very, very good at performing monologues.
As for This American Life, I made the art. I thought it was pretty clear. This American Life even said in the episode, "This was from a monologue," so you'd think that'd tell people it was theater. Ask Ira Glass, the producer who begged me to do that show. You can find him. Just ask him. You think he'll give you a quote? He won't comment at all. You'll accept that, because that's how this game works. He decided it was newsworthy, that it counted as news; he's the one who did an entire episode about it. Maybe you should ask him about journalism. I know about art. I am very good at making art.
If you research FoxConn for 15 minutes, you can find Human Rights Watch reports documenting human-rights atrocities in the Apple factories. This American Life has acknowledged that the facts are true, so what's your problem? Did I tell you a story that was dramatized? Oh, I'm so sorry. I work in drama. I apologized sincerely five years ago when this went down. I made revisions. I took more ownership over this than any news organization has ever taken when it made a mistake. The way you know a story is true is that you go do some research after a piece of art that moves you, and in this case you'll find the facts are as bad or worse than I portrayed them. And that's how I sleep at night.
Journalism week, Philadelphia Theatre Company, Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad St.: Mike Daisey, This Is Not Normal. 8 p.m. Thursday and 3 p.m. Saturday, and The Death of Journalism, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Tickets for each show: $25-$69; discounts for members. Also: Panel on the future of arts journalism. Free. 6 p.m. Saturday. Information: 215-985-0420, philadelphiatheatrecompany.org.