This American Life’s James Frey Moment

March 17th, 2012, byJeremy Freed

Chicago Public Radio’s This American Life is renowned for its quirky reportage of regular folks’ experiences, from the mundane to the extraordinary, as well as in-depth and accessible analysis of current world events. The program’s hour-long concept shows are just as easily devoted to an average New Jersey turnpike rest area as the European debt crisis.

Their most popular show ever was a recent broadcast titled “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory”, which was an adaptation of spoken word performer Mike Daisey’s one-man stage show, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. The monologue details Daisey’s trip to China, in which he delves into the working conditions at factories producing Apple products and finds all to be far from well. Following the show’s broadcast, Daisey became viewed as something of an expert on the topic, opining in several news sources, including The New York Times, about the working conditions in China and advocating for reform.

This week’s edition of This American Life is a follow-up to that show and a most unfortunate one. As it turns out, Daisey fabricated many key details of his story and lied to the show’s producers and host about them, in an effort to maintain his credibility. As a result, host Ira Glass spent the entire program this week revealing Daisey’s duplicity and the program’s failure to adequately fact-check his story, while attempting to set the record straight on Apple, China and its treatment of workers there.

Glass sounded tense on the program, which was titled simply “Retraction,” even angry at times, particularly when holding Daisey’s feet to the fire in a confrontational interview. Daisey, appropriately, sounded mortified, despite sticking to his story on a few questionable points. The situation calls back to the debacle surrounding James Frey, his memoir, A Million Little Pieces, and his famous appearance on Oprah, in which she took him to task for misleading millions of readers and viewers. Among the ironies of this story, and there are several, is that Daisey himself did a one-man show about Frey, titled Truth.

How Daisey’s career as a monologuist will rebound from this is hard to say. The man is a first-rate storyteller and performer, and it would be a shame to lose his voice in the national cultural conversation. Still, his credibility is seriously damaged, possibly beyond repair–and for good reason. According to this quote from Variety‘s review of Truth, Daisey is no stranger to the pitfalls of telling a good story:

“In assessing the story of Frey and Leroy, Daisey comes to a judgment that is strict but sympathetic; he suggests that if people are often the least reliable narrators of their own lives, they are also sometimes the most engaging.”

Last modified: March 19, 2012 at 1:42 pm