By now you've probably heard about Mike Daisey's The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, which I recommended last year, which aired on PBS in January, and which PBS retracted ten days ago. I called the first-hand reporting from China the most compelling part of the show; it's also the part which was retracted. Everything that Daisey claimed to witness is China is something that does happen in China, that he could have seen—but much of it, he didn't actually see. And the effect of claiming to have seen it is to make the story more powerful.
Tonight I went to a discussion session with the artistic director of Woolly Mammoth, Howard Shalwitz; the managing director, Jeffrey Herrmann; and Mike Daisey, where they all apologized for their parts in the debacle and discussed why they plan to continue presenting the show and how they'll modify it going forward. Daisey's apologies are I think getting more heartfelt and more precise about what he did wrong than they were when the story first broke. It's hard for people to admit they screwed up (as my correspondence with the Keegan Theatre demonstrated), and it's not much to his discredit that it took him a while to recognize and dismantle the fallacies he'd used to justify himself to himself. At one point he described how the lies first slipped in, not in the show itself, but in interviews about the show, which were less carefully considered; and once he saw how effective his accidental misstatements or imprecise summaries were, he gave in to temptation and traded accuracy for emotional power in the stage version as well.
They talked about breaking the implicit contract they had with the audience. I never thought every detail of what he said was true, but I thought the inaccuracies were more on the lines of rearranging the order of events or taking two conversations he had with different people and combining them into one; I didn't think he'd say he had personally seen something when he'd merely read about it. I think a big part of the problem is that the implicit contract was implicit: if he had spelled out how much you could rely on what he said to be true, then he might have avoided the temptation to make his personal experiences juicier than they really were. He could have closed the monologue by saying, "Everything I've just told you is true, but some of it didn't happen to me. Go to my web site, and I'll explain where in a few places I've taken other people's experiences and claimed them as my own. I'm a liar, but those people aren't, and everything I said I experienced is something that's really happening in China right now, and if you go to my web site I'll show you the proof." Or he could have in some other way explicitly renegotiated the audience contract. If he didn't, it's because he knew that if the audience knew what kind of a deal they were getting, it would make his show weaker—and that's where he didn't "make a mistake", as he says, it's where he told a lie.
Edited to add: Something I meant to say last night. There are some people who will never trust Mike Daisey again and never see another of his shows, and that's a reasonable reaction to this whole mess. And there are others who have already forgiven him. I'm in the middle; in order to enjoy his shows, going forward, I need for him to state clearly what standards of truth the audience can expect, and commit to following them. And the best way to do that is as explicitly as possible.