This American Life Retracts Episode on Foxconn Abuses

Mike Daisey’s one-man show, ‘The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs‘, brought widespread attention to labour practices at the Foxconn plants in China where many Apple products are assembled (and which produce, together with Foxconn’s other factories in Eastern Europe, Mexico and Brazil, 40% of all consumer electronics). In January, its reach was hugely extended by an episode of This American Life, featuring extracts and discussion of Daisey’s work. The podcast version of the episode became the most popular in the show’s history.

Sunday’s edition of This American Life is a retraction of the earlier episode, pointing out Daisey’s “numerous” and “substantial fabrications”. From host Ira Glass on the show’s blog:

I have difficult news. We’ve learned that Mike Daisey’s story about Apple in China – which we broadcast in January – contained significant fabrications. We’re retracting the story because we can’t vouch for its truth. This is not a story we commissioned. It was an excerpt of Mike Daisey’s acclaimed one-man show “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” in which he talks about visiting a factory in China that makes iPhones and other Apple products ….

Daisey lied to me and to This American Life producer Brian Reed during the fact checking we did on the story, before it was broadcast. That doesn’t excuse the fact that we never should’ve put this on the air. In the end, this was our mistake.

We’re horrified to have let something like this onto public radio ….

The problems were brought to light by Rob Schmitz of American Public Media’s Marketplace. He became suspicious when he heard Daisey’s claim to have met n-hexane poisoning victims in Shenzhen, almost a thousand miles away from the Suzhou factory where the poisoning had occurred. Schmitz then tracked down Daisey’s interpreter, who Daisey had convinced fact-checkers was unreachable. From Marketplace:

I pressed Cathy to confirm other key details that Daisey reported. Did the guards have guns when you came here with Mike Daisey? With each question I got the same answer from Lee. “No,” or “This is not true.”

Daisey claims he met underage workers at Foxconn. He says he talked to a man whose hand was twisted into a claw from making iPads. He describes visiting factory dorm rooms with beds stacked to the ceiling. But Cathy says none of this happened.

Daisey has defended his work, claiming that it “captured the totality” of his six-day trip “with integrity”. From his blog:

What I do is not journalism. The tools of the theater are not the same as the tools of journalism. For this reason, I regret that I allowed THIS AMERICAN LIFE to air an excerpt from my monologue. THIS AMERICAN LIFE is essentially a journalistic ­- not a theatrical ­- enterprise, and as such it operates under a different set of rules and expectations. But this is my only regret. I am proud that my work seems to have sparked a growing storm of attention and concern over the often appalling conditions under which many of the high-tech products we love so much are assembled in China.

The theatre where Daisey performs has also stood by the production, according to The New York Times:

The Public Theater in New York, which has been the home of Mr. Daisey’s show since last year, showed support for him on Friday. “In the theater, our job is to create fictions that reveal truth — that’s what a storyteller does, that’s what a dramatist does,” the theater said in a statement. ” ‘The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs’ reveals, as Mike’s other monologues have, human truths in story form.”

That said, the statement continued, “we wish he had been more precise with us and our audiences about what was and wasn’t his personal experience.”

Daisey’s suggestion that the problem is one of context is undermined by his use of the same material in a New York Times op-ed last October, following the death of Apple founder Steve Jobs:

I have traveled to southern China and interviewed workers employed in the production of electronics. I spoke with a man whose right hand was permanently curled into a claw from being smashed in a metal press at Foxconn, where he worked assembling Apple laptops and iPads. I showed him my iPad, and he gasped because he’d never seen one turned on. He stroked the screen and marveled at the icons sliding back and forth, the Apple attention to detail in every pixel. He told my translator, “It’s a kind of magic.”

(This paragraph has now been removed in response to the news of the fabrications.)

Daisey’s fabrications do not implicate The New York Times’ independent, in-depth reporting on labour conditions in Apple’s supply chain, or other coverage of the issue. He made up only specific encounters and experiences, not the underlying problems, many of which were included in Apple’s own 2012 Supplier Responsibility Report.

The full This American Life episode titled Retraction is now live on their website. It includes an interview with Cathy Lee, Daisey’s interpreter in Shenzhen, an interview with Mike Daisey, and an interview with Charles Duhigg, the reporter who covered abuses in Apple’s supply chain for the New York Times.