Mike Daisey's First Public Talk After the 'This American Life' Retraction

The performer continued to mix apologies with defenses of his fact-based but not factual work.


Last night, at a long-scheduled appearance at Georgetown University, Mike Daisey gave his first public talk since the news broke last Friday that This American Life was retracting the now-infamous episode featuring his work. Daisey is a complicated and conflicted figure, and, it's hard not to feel complicated and conflicted about him and about his work. His talk last night, which I've transcribed below as best I could, provides a new dimension to the story that is now at the center of a scandal.

This is my first scandal. (Laughter)

I haven't had another one like it.

And, as they say, if you're going to go, go big.

And so, I was on the train down here today, and I was keenly aware that I was coming down to talk about "Art and the Human Voice in the Global Labor Struggle," and I was keenly aware of the situation that I have been embroiled in, that I embroiled myself in.

And, I was very conflicted. I've been conflicted for days and days. Because, you know, most people who get embroiled in a struggle, a story that they have written, write it. Most people don't actually tell it, orally, without a script, over and over again, in front of audiences each night, while the scandal is ongoing. This makes it somewhat difficult. (Laughter) I don't advise it. (Laughter) (Inaudible) If you are experiencing a scandal, that's not the best way to go about it.

So coming down here today, and I'll level with you, I had gone through all sorts of feelings in the previous 24, 36 hours. I've never been so ... unstable.* I mean, I really thought about canceling this, I thought about not coming, I thought about coming and then running away (Laughter) I though of everything; I considered everything. I'm sure a lot of you thought maybe this wasn't even going to happen. You probably all called in, just to make sure you didn't waste your time coming here today.

And of course, on the way down, on the train, I was thinking about strategy. Because that's what you do in these sort of things, you know, you think about, well, who is going to be listening, and will the press be there. (Stage whisper) Well of course the press will be there. (Laughter)

And I'm not used to feeling about the press that way, I'm not used to any of the shape of these sort of things. And the intensity of it is so hot and bright, and so quick. I never really fully imagined that I would become James Frey, in four or five hours, really, after the press release dropped, even before the show had aired. James Frey ... is an asshole.

And now, apparently, I am his friend. We're going to get together, me, him, Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair, we're all going to hang out together, talk about fantastic things we thought we'd do together. I'm a parachutist! I'm a balloonist! We won't believe each other at all. Because we all make up crazy, fucking stories. (Laughter)

I don't belong to any corporation. I have no one's ass to cover. And I am not afraid.

And I was really thinking about strategy. I was really thinking about the whole thing strategically, you know, what should I save for later,* what should I say now. And when I was coming down, I was so grateful to my partner, who is my director and my wife, Jean Michele Gregory, who is everything that is smart about this collaboration. And everything that you're going to hear about that is stupid, that would be me. She gave me some very great advice. We were talking through all the different strategies, like (inaudible) talk about this, don't talk about that, and what if people ask difficult questions, and then, something just opened up inside of me. She talked about this really core idea which is that, if I am naked, then I am free. Because I am actually an independent artist. I don't belong to any corporation. I have no one's ass to cover. And I am not afraid.

So. I am just going to tell you everything that I think there is to tell that fits into a nice framework that we can all listen to. And there will be parts in it about the global labor struggle. Because I felt bad for the 25 percent of the audience who is just like, I don't know what's going on. (Laughter) Because we like to believe, if you're inside the NPR bubble, that like everyone has actually heard this*, oh my, how could we be thinking about anything else? But I feel certain that there's some people out there who are like "this really sounds insular, and I don't have any idea what we're getting at, and I didn't listen to the opening remarks, and now it's really getting confusing." I feel for you, I do, because I'm a performer, and I listen to audiences* and that is actually my job, so I literally do feel for you. I'm sorry. It's not my best performance in that sense, but it's important.

It's important to me. And it's actually important to lots of other people who heard these stories and were touched by them, and now feel like they don't know what to think. And so what I'm going to do, is sort of go through the whole thing, give it a shape and a context, and I'm just going to try to be really open. That's my plan.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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