Sunday, January 13, 2013

Tom Williams writing at has dismissed the Chicago production of AGONY/ECSTASY there with this devastating paragraph:

Now, after Daisey apologized for the above, the revised script of Jobs now called “ethically made” version that Lance Baker referred to as “airtight and fact-checked a piece of journalism as you are likely to ever hear spoken in theater.” Well, if that is the case, why, with a simple Google search, was I to easily find several falsehoods?

I see two possibilities:

1) There are giant, gaping factual holes in a piece that has been refined for several years, fact checked by NPR, then retracted, which put it under a microscope, fact checked AGAIN by NPR under said microscope, then revised, re-fact checked for the new version, and then restaged in an environment where everyone knows will be fact checked again and again.

2) Mr. Williams isn't a very good fact checker.

There is a reason people don't just put things into Google to "fact check" them—because it doesn't do a very good job. Fact checking is an art and a science, and it's actually difficult to do with nuance and insight.

Here are the two facts that Mr. Williams believes are contested, and which he believes should throw the work into dispute:

"The population of Shenzhen, China is NOT 14 million but 10,357,938."

Thanks to his wonderful specificity, it's clear Mr. Williams went to the
Wikipedia page for Shenzhen, scrolled down and read the population number from the sidebar there. I suspect this is where his fact checking began and ended.

What he doesn't know is that there are actually a number of different sources you can look at for population data, especially in China. That same section of the show talks about the relative size of Shenzhen to other Chinese cities—depending on which definitions you use, that number also shifts a lot.

What we did is that since we were talking about Shenzhen's economic engine, I talked about the population of Shenzhen including the factory zones which I will be traveling to in the piece, much in the same way that Seattle, for example, has a city population of 620,778, but an urban population of 3,059,393 and a metro population of 3,500,026.

My number passed muster at NPR for the broadcast, where we went over its methodology. It was then gone over again with incredible detail for the retraction…and again, for the restaging.

It does open a great question about facts. For example, would Mr. Williams find it acceptable if the performer had said 10 million? What about 11 million? 10.5 million? Where would he have liked the line drawn? And why is Wikipedia definitive for him? Where did he construct his authority? Obviously he does not trust this performance…but the response he has is to reach for Wikipedia, and then without context trust that source.

I'm just asking. I think these are interesting questions.

His other issue is:

"…and a search of Foxconn (the Chinese factory making Apple products) reveals that 450.00 workers (estimated) work at Foxconn but they has 13 factories in nine Chinese cities plus factories in other countries."

It looks like he used the
Foxconn article on Wikipedia for this, from what I can tell from some of the sentence construction.

What's funny is this is wrong in a number of different ways. First, there's no point in the show where I state how many workers there are at Foxconn overall.

I do talk about how many workers are at the plant in Shenzhen where I met people at the gates and where Sun Danyoung died, and that was 430,000 at the time that I visited. This was fact checked by NPR, twice, as above, and then gone over in great detail repeatedly later.

Mr. Williams has conflated that number, which I think he misheard as 450,000, though technically he is saying that there are 450.00 workers at Foxconn. I won't take that seriously like some kind of fact checker, and I'll assume this is a typo. But that isn't even remotely the right number of workers at Foxconn—Foxconn is China's largest employer and has well over a million employees.

Perhaps sensing that he doesn't have much to stand on here, Mr. Williams says:

"These are among many questionable items found in the piece."

I wonder what those are? Perhaps Mr. Williams, if he finds the time, will do more Google searches and unearth more discoveries from Al Capone's vault.

I'm kidding a bit, but let's be clear: Mr. Williams is lying.

He doesn't have a list of "more questionable" items. He just wants to make sure he's puffed up his position, and he doesn't expect anyone to respond, so he's saying shit.

What's sad here is that this review could have been about the actual work Mr. Williams saw onstage. We have protocols in the theater for it—if a reviewer has questions about the factual truth of something in a piece of theater, they should contact the production and simply ask. That dialogue makes sense in the same way that a reviewer sometimes might inquire about a dramaturgical point about what they just saw, for which they often make the same request.

It's also interesting to look at this from a positivist angle. Fact checking is by nature reductive and negativist, and you never can tell what was done beyond what you see. Did Mr. Williams "check" many other facts, but find them acceptable? Did he read the New York Times stories spoken about in the work which affirm and reinforce the work being dramatically presented on stage?

We don't know.

Mr. Williams ends his piece by speaking of "mere storytelling", equates all theater that is about any subject in the world to documentary, and uses the words "distorts" and "propaganda" liberally.

If Mr. Williams is so taken with fact checking, I am hoping he will publish my response and respond. It would be interesting to see what he would actually think of the show if he was to actually review it.