‘This American Life’ retracts story, says it can’t vouch for the truth of Mike Daisey’s monologue about Apple in China

This American Life and American Public Media’s Marketplace will reveal that a story first broadcast in January on This American Life contained numerous fabrications.

This American Life will devote its entire program this weekend to detailing the errors in the story, which was an excerpt of Mike Daisey’s critically acclaimed one-man show, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.” In it, Daisey tells how he visited a factory owned by Foxconn that manufactures iPhones and iPads in Shenzhen China. He has performed the monologue in theaters around the country; it’s currently at the Public Theater in New York. Tonight’s This American Life program will include a segment from Marketplace’s Rob Schmitz, and interviews with Daisey himself. Marketplace will feature a shorter version of Schmitz’s report earlier in the evening.

When the original 39-minute excerpt was broadcast on This American Life on January 6, 2012, Marketplace China Correspondent Rob Schmitz wondered about its truth. Marketplace had done a lot of reporting on Foxconn and Apple’s supply chain in China in the past, and Schmitz had first-hand knowledge of the issues. He located and interviewed Daisey’s Chinese interpreter Li Guifen (who goes by the name Cathy Lee professionally with westerners). She disputed much of what Daisey has been telling theater audiences since 2010 and much of what he said on the radio.

During fact checking before the broadcast of Daisey’s story, This American Life staffers asked Daisey for this interpreter’s contact information. Daisey told them her real name was Anna, not Cathy as he says in his monologue, and he said that the cell phone number he had for her didn’t work any more. He said he had no way to reach her.

“At that point, we should’ve killed the story,” says Ira Glass, Executive Producer and Host of This American Life, in a statement. “But other things Daisey told us about Apple’s operations in China checked out, and we saw no reason to doubt him. We didn’t think that he was lying to us and to audiences about the details of his story. That was a mistake.”

The response to the original episode, “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory,” was significant. It quickly became the single most popular podcast in This American Life’s history, with 888,000 downloads (typically the number is 750,000) and 206,000 streams to date. After hearing the broadcast, listener Mark Shields started a petition calling for better working conditions for Apple’s Chinese workers, and soon delivered almost a quarter-million signatures to Apple.

The same month the episode aired, The New York Times ran a front-page investigative series about Apple’s overseas manufacturing, and there were news reports about Foxconn workers threatening group suicide in a protest over their treatment.

Faced with all this scrutiny of its manufacturing practices, Apple announced that for the first time it will allow an outside third party to audit working conditions at those factories and – for the first time ever – it released a list of its suppliers.

Mike Daisey, meanwhile, became one of the company’s most visible and outspoken critics, appearing on television and giving dozens of interviews about Apple.

Some of the falsehoods found in Daisey’s monologue are small ones: the number of factories Daisey visited in China, for instance, and the number of workers he spoke with. Others are large. In his monologue he claims to have met a group of workers who were poisoned on an iPhone assembly line by a chemical called n-hexane. Apple’s audits of its suppliers show that an incident like this occurred in a factory in China, but the factory wasn’t located in Shenzhen, where Daisey visited.

“It happened nearly a thousand miles away, in a city called Suzhou,” Marketplace’s Schmitz says in his report. “I’ve interviewed these workers, so I knew the story. And when I heard Daisey’s monologue on the radio, I wondered: How’d they get all the way down to Shenzhen? It seemed crazy, that somehow Daisey could’ve met a few of them during his trip.”

In Schmitz’s report, he confronts Daisey and Daisey admits to fabricating these characters.

“I’m not going to say that I didn’t take a few shortcuts in my passion to be heard,” Daisey tells Schmitz and Glass. “My mistake, the mistake I truly regret, is that I had it on your show as journalism, and it’s not journalism. It’s theater.”

Daisey’s interpreter Cathy also disputes two of the most dramatic moments in Daisey’s story: that he met underage workers at Foxconn, and that a man with a mangled hand was injured at Foxconn making iPads (and that Daisey’s iPad was the first one he ever saw in operation). Daisey says in his monologue:

He’s never actually seen one on, this thing that took his hand. I turn it on, unlock the screen, and pass it to him. He takes it. The icons flare into view, and he strokes the screen with his ruined hand, and the icons slide back and forth. And he says something to Cathy, and Cathy says, “he says it’s a kind of magic.”
Cathy Lee tells Schmitz that nothing of the sort occurred.

“In our original broadcast, we fact checked all the things that Daisey said about Apple’s operations in China,” says Glass, “and those parts of his story were true, except for the underage workers, who are rare. We reported that discrepancy in the original show. But with this week’s broadcast, we’re letting the audience know that too many of the details about the people he says he met are in dispute for us to stand by the story. I suspect that many things that Mike Daisey claims to have experienced personally did not actually happen, but listeners can judge for themselves.”

“It was completely wrong for me to have it on your show,” Daisey tells Glass on the program, “and that’s something I deeply regret.” He also expressed his regret to “the people who are listening, the audience of This American Life, who know that it is a journalism enterprise, if they feel betrayed.”

This American Life and its home station WBEZ Chicago had been planning a live presentation of Daisey’s monologue on stage at the Chicago Theatre on April 7th, with Glass leading a Q&A afterwards. That show will be cancelled and all tickets will be refunded.

This American Life episode will air on WBEZ at 8pm EST/7pm CST tonight and will also be available to stream and download on thisamericanlife.org at that time. It can be heard on public radio stations around the country this weekend.

Source: WBEZ Alliance, Inc. & Ira Glass

Mike Daisey has posted the following response on his website, dated Friday, March 16, 2012:

“This American Life” has raised questions about the adaptation of AGONY/ECSTASY we created for their program. Here is my response:

I stand by my work. My show is a theatrical piece whose goal is to create a human connection between our gorgeous devices and the brutal circumstances from which they emerge. It uses a combination of fact, memoir, and dramatic license to tell its story, and I believe it does so with integrity. Certainly, the comprehensive investigations undertaken by The New York Times and a number of labor rights groups to document conditions in electronics manufacturing would seem to bear this out.

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.

MacDailyNews Take: It’s good to see “This American Life” do the right thing.

Mike Daisey’s definition of “brutal circumstances” is whacked. But, of course, he’s just trying to sell tickets to his little show.

[Thanks to MacDailyNews readers too numerous to mention individually for the heads up.]

Related articles:
Foxconn: The fire that wasn’t – March 15, 2012
Apple supplier Foxconn again lifts pay for China workers; 16-25 percent increase – February 17, 2012
FLA President: Foxconn factories ‘first-class; way, way above average’ – February 15, 2012
‘Slacktivism’ groups claim credit for Apple supplier audits over a month after Apple originally announced its plans – February 14, 2012
Thousands line up for iPhone assembly jobs at Foxconn’s Zhengzhou, China plant – January 30, 2012
Apple CEO Tim Cook calls New York Times supplier report ‘patently false and offensive’ – January 27, 2012
Apple audit led by COO Tim Cook prompted improvements at Foxconn – February 14, 2011
Media blows it: Foxconn employees face significantly lower suicide risk – May 28, 2010

86 Comments

  1. Don’t worry American Life will RECOVER soon,

    they are all ready to air their “U.S response to Syria Crisis’ story based entirely on interviews with Kiefer Sutherland star of 24.

    stay tuned.

    1. I’m wondering how many other news outlets have some serious retractions due. Gruber’s been pointing out some of them, including everyone’s favorite rag here, the New York Times. I didn’t realize the NYT had elected to run an op-ed piece by Daisey the day after Jobs died.

      1. Even worse, the NYT have apparently now *removed* a paragraph from Daisey’s op-ed piece, and prepended an editor’s note about how “questions have been raised about the truth” of the paragraph they removed.

        Never mind that Daisey has already admitted that his claims in the removed paragraph were totally fabricated, or that the Times have effectively 1984’d the article by removing the paragraph in question and not indicating what it was that was untruthful.

        This is the kind of stuff that shows the NYT for what they truly are.

    2. Broken Glass.
      This is what results when the media desperately wants to find fault in a company: Ready. Fire. Aim. So sure are they that something is wrong, so pure in their belief that a company is intrinsically evil that fact checking would only slow them down on their headlong rush to be judge and jury. Such is what passes as journalism today.

      In a similar vein, you need only look at the reaction of the Ugandan people to the presentation of KONY 2012. Riots nearly ensued, not at the outrage that should be directed at Joseph Kony, but at the reaction of the Ugandan people to the white-centric viewpoint of the film. Award-winning Nigerian-American novelist Teju Cole has been tweeting on the reaction of the people of his country to KONY 2012, and it offers insightful criticism that I find a good parallel to the Ira Glass reality distortion field:

      “From Sachs to Kristof to Invisible Children to TED, the fastest growing industry in the US is the “White Savior Industrial Complex. The White Savior supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening.”

      TMS Ruge, a Ugandan-born co-founder of Project Diaspora is pissed about KONY 2012. He recently wrote that he wants to “bang my head against my desk to make the dumb-assery stop. It’s a slap in the face to so many of us who want to rise from the ashes of our tumultuous past and the noose of benevolent, paternalistic, aid-driven development memes.”

      The point here is that the NPR/This American Life crowd is so busy trying to be right that it never occurred to them to see how wrong they are, not just lack of fact-checking, but the fact that the whole story was predicated on smearing Apple. Never mind the fact that Apple does not run the factories – Hon Hai does. Never mind the fact that many companies use Hon Hai to assemble their electronics, but they get a pass on this, and Apple gets singled out. Never mind the fact that it was Apple that was looking into work conditions long before the stores ever broke, but media like the New York Times and NPR tried to twist the story as if they were breaking the news to begin with. And never mind the fact that the Chinese government was fine with things as they were, and from what I understand about working conditions in general in China, Hon Hai is relatively exemplary.

      Meanwhile, as the bleeding heart media attempts to smear companies like Apple, they are giving countries like Iran and North Korea a complete pass. If This American Life is upset about working conditions in a thoroughly inspected company like Hon Hai, perhaps they should spend time looking at life inside the North Korean gulag archipelago, or how political prisoners fare inside China. Or, for that matter, perhaps they could look at how industrial America is no longer competitive, and what could be done to turn that around.

      But they won’t. The White Savior Industrial Complex is too busy trying to be right to notice how wrong it is.

      Humorist Dave Barry once described the difference between conservatives and liberals. If your car was broken down at the side of the road, the conservative would blow past in their Cadillac Escalade or Mercedes as they raced to the Ugly Pants contest at the local country club. The liberal on the other hand, would stop, try to save you, attempt to fix the car and in the process, the car would blow up.

      That pretty much describes This American Life and the White Savior Industrial Complex.

      1. “White Savior Industrial Complex” – dang, that sure seems to fit the US coverage of labor conditions in China, doesn’t it?

        There’s definitely a strong scent of cultural imperialism in the underlying assumptions behind that news coverage: “We need to push them to do things there the way we do them here.”

        And the selective outrage over certain things, while ignoring other far more terrible things, indicates that political agenda or personal ego is more important than actually helping real people.

        Some good food for thought – thanks for sharing.

      2. Great post. White Savior Industrial Complex is a perfect way to describe this sort of thing. It’s always creeped me out the way everyone on NPR has this soft, soothing, monotone voice. It’s bizarre, and it reeks of self-righteousness, and taking themselves way too seriously.

  2. “listener Mark Shields started a petition calling for better working conditions for Apple’s Chinese workers”
    So let me get this right., that person started a revolution against one of the most important companies in the world just because he listened a podcast?

    1. I wonder how many “slacktivists” will conveniently ignore Daisey’s confessions of fabrication, and will continue to use his made-up stories to further their agendas.

      This is the kind of stuff that truly sickens me. There are *real* problems with working conditions in China, and people who *do* really need help and pressure from the West to make things better.

      By making up bogus stories like this, many folks who honestly and legitimately care about these issues will now be feeling duped and burned, and will be less likely to get behind others with legitimate stories to tell of worker conditions in China.

      And all those companies with far worse China worker conditions than Apple? They’ll use Daisey’s discredited status as an excuse not to try making things better.

      Daisey has caused plenty of harm to those in China he intended to help with his lies. Shameful, despicable worm.

  3. ‘This American Life’ didn’t bother to check any of the facts because Mike Daisey’s big fat lies fit right into their preconceived narrative.

    They *felt* it was true, so of course they ran with the story. Corporations are evil! Smug self-aggrandizing leftists are the good people! Smash capitalism!

    It’s always funny when the dupes dupe each other.

        1. Truthiness is a term that I believe was coined by Stephen Colbert. It’s very nature is meant to be sarcastic. It’s basically saying a lie that sounds like the truth or has some bits of truth mixed in.

          1. Great point, which is why, given that Colbert is a flaming lefty, that comment was perfect! Props to NHL.

            I still love the Colbert Report though, especially when he always begs apple for their new devices. He’s an apple fan.

      1. Daisey, in his defense, uses a “truthiness” argument by appealing to “dramatic license”. Which I suppose puts him at about the same level of factual integrity as Oliver Stone.

        Another phrase used to describe “truthiness” is “dramatic truth”. Both of them essentially mean using exaggerations and lies to help sell a story which the teller wants others to believe, regardless of whether or not it’s actually true.

        Whatever his intentions were, Daisey’s lies will still ultimately do far more harm than good for the workers in China. Shameful, despicable worm.

    1. From Ira Glass’ web site: “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.” Ah, when was the last time you heard Rush say anything even remotely close to that? Oh sorry, he and Mike Daisey are both theatrical characters and should never be taken seriously.

      1. i just LOVE Ira Glass’s “The dog ate my homework” lame excuse. Liberals are so adorable when they’re caught in a lie. Looking at Daisey and Glass, I’m reminded of the notion that there’s no honor among thieves. Throwing Daisey under the bus does not hide that Glass is not without fault.

        “Guilty as charged. Poor attitude and a failure to obey the rules. The Farm. Immediately.”
        – Jason Robards from “A Boy and his Dog”

        1. I don’t know this Ira Glass person because I don’t listen to the show but it sounds like Glass took the blame. He admitted they never should have run it, that they were wrong for believing Daisey and not checking into it more. I’m not sure what else he could have said to take more of the blame. The part where he explains that Daisey lied to them seems more like an explanation of events, not a cop-out or denial of guilt. They admit it was their fault for not checking.

          Would you rather Glass came out and said, “we lied to you all?” That wouldn’t be the whole truth. The explanation of events helps put it in context. It lets you know why they’re doing the retraction.

  4. This is a true liberal conundrum. “What I do is not journalism” applies to a majority of today’s “journalism” on FOX, NBC, ABC, NBC, MSNBC, CNN and the rest of the main stream media.

    1. FOX is not mainstream media. Nor is MSNBC. CNN can go either way (that’s why they suck at what they attempt to do).

      The bigger issue points to the trend in journalism or pseudo journalism (blogging) to distort reality (Daisey calls it “theatre”) to either a) gain a name for themselves; b) sell copy; c) promote their cause; d) create a competitive edge; e) discredit others; f) some or all of the above. Quite pathetic that “fact checking” and good journalism is becoming less and less important. Quite pathetic.

  5. I have an idea for his next story. He could describe in great detail how a repulsive and disgusting fwhitsunck like himself gets all the fat folds on his body clean.

  6. I for one am not surprised one bit that a NPR program did not fact check. The only NPR program I have ever trusted is Marketplace, and it turns out that it was a Marketplace reporter that fact checked after the fact and found out that Ira Glass goofed. NPR needs an overhaul, I really don’t think a liberal or a conservative can be impartial. They need to hire all moderates!

    1. Political views have nothing to do with integrity. It doesn’t matter if the person is liberal, moderate or conservative. It’s a person’s moral fibre that’s at issue here.

  7. Slandering SOB. Hope he gets sued so bad!

    Excuse me while i go off to re-read Al Frankens’ “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them”. See if he added this fat fuck to the appendix.

  8. I’ve pointed out numerous times in numerous places that Daisey’s story didn’t sound true to my ears.

    I was born in China, went to school there, worked there, and had a home there until this past year. His tales sounded more to me like someone who had read all the articles about China in the past 5 years, in the NYTs and put together the worst stories and made a show about it.

    There was no way that underage Chinese female migrant workers who are notoriously shy were going to talk to someone like Daisey. It’s just not going to happen.

    I’m glad that he’s been exposed.

Reader Feedback

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.