Covering ‘The End of Journalism’ in journalism – San Francisco Chronicle

Covering ‘The End of Journalism’ in journalism



February 16, 2017
Updated: February 16, 2017 2:39pm

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If a monologuist performs a show called “The End of Journalism” in which he posits the argument of his title, and a critic purports to review that show in a bastion of old-school journalism, is one of them necessarily wrong?

Would it complicate your answer to know that the monologuist is Mike Daisey, whom “This American Life” skewered in 2012 when it came to light that, in an earlier episode on the radio program, he had misrepresented a story as journalistic when in fact he had taken artistic license with it? What if you also knew that in “The End of Journalism,” he refers to that debacle, both obliquely and explicitly, and that he calls himself an unreliable narrator, acknowledging that he employs some of the very tropes — lone white “father figure” in a chair at a desk, delivering news as if it’s divine edict — that he criticizes the media for capitalizing on?

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If we’re to judge based on the world premiere of his latest piece, at Shotgun Players as part of its Blast Festival, Daisey might allege that the very concept of “wrong” assumes journalistic objectivity exists, when in fact it’s a myth. He might also say that this theater review is pretty irrelevant anyway, given shrinking arts coverage, the way criticism exists only for quotes that don’t affect ticket sales much anymore. He might add that this article is irrelevant in still another way, in that his show’s opening night on Wednesday, Feb. 15, was unscripted and unrehearsed. He spoke from prompts handwritten on a few sheets of loose leaf, and after the curtain call, he told the audience that for the next performance he would probably swap out many anecdotes and make the intermission-less two-hour show shorter.

Despite all these caveats, it’s tough to argue with the show’s chilling central thesis — that journalism is being, has already been, hoisted by its own petard, that within the conceits it created to make itself legitimate were the seeds of its own destruction. The problem, Daisey contends, is with traditional media outlets’ assertion and reassertion of their own godlike objectivity — an assertion with a Fox News-size hole in it.

In detailing that history, though, Daisey can be vague, simplistic and cavalier. He says newspapers face a choice between firing everyone and no one reading them; he makes sweeping statements about the advent of the printing press and yellow journalism that suggest he hadn’t bothered to consult anything beyond his memories of grade school history. He also devotes scads of time to his thorough command of the obvious, defining the notions complacency and institutionalism, telling his Berkeley audience just how bad Fox News is.

Daisey had never rehearsed or performed “The End of Journalism” before, and he stuttered, interrupted himself, started over and left ideas hanging more often than you might expect from one of the country’s foremost storytellers. Remarkably, though, his gift of gab shone through more often than his glitches did. Daisey’s vocal range astounds. He is like a jabbering troll under a bridge, then a hard-charging viking, then a prophet who can see something in the distance the rest of us can’t. He calibrates his pitch and speed with a conductor’s understanding of how every note fits into a symphony. Though he stays seated throughout the show, a la Spalding Gray, so expressive are his voice, face and hands that he doesn’t need the tools of motion.

“The End of Journalism” doesn’t tell us how to change course, how the phoenix of news might rise from the ashes. But if part of the show’s purpose is to make you read headlines more thoughtfully the next morning, with more awareness of how news is and has been constructed and the dangers it faces, then Daisey more than accomplishes his mission.

Lily Janiak is The San Francisco Chronicle’s theater critic. Email: ljaniak@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @LilyJaniak

ALERT VIEWERThe End of Journalism: By Mike Daisey. Through Feb. 19. Two hours. $15-$40. Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley. (510) 841-6500. www.shotgunplayers.org

To see Mike Daisey in “The Trump Card”: www.youtube.com/watch?v=rvpT2-kkpQI

To see excerpts from “The Last Cargo Cult”: www.youtube.com/watch?v=MUEflm9B5U4

To see excerpts from “How Theater Failed America”: www.youtube.com/watch?v=QoXf5u6_Gw0

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