‘This American Life’ Retracts Mike Daisey’s Story of Visit to Apple Contractor Foxconn; Daisey’s Response

'This American Life' web site
Mike Daisey’s “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” a one-man show about his trip to Apple contractor Foxconn in China, caused quite a stir and served as another chunk of bad public relations for both companies.

The radio show “This American Life” ran an excerpt from the piece in January, but now it says it’s retracting the segment due to discrepancies between what Daisey’s Chinese translator told the show and what Daisey said.

“The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” ran at Berkeley Rep last winter. The show recounted Daisey’s version of working conditions at Foxconn’s now-notorious plant in Shenzen, China. Foxconn is often cited as the world’s largest contract manufacturer of electronics and makes Apple iPhones, iPads and the like, as well as products for other manufacturers like Dell.

In May, 2010, reports surfaced of Foxconn workers killing themselves amid brutal working conditions. Multiple media reports about the awful environment at the plant followed, prompting Apple to join the Fair Labor Association, which audits working conditions at the offshore contractors of American corporations.

“This American Life” and WBEZ Chicago also cancelled and is refunding tickets to a planned Apr 7th presentation of Daisey’s monologue at the Chicago Theatre. The show was to be followed by a Q&A with Glass afterwards.

Last year, KQED’s Cy Musiker interviewed Daisey about his show. In the interview, Daisey says, “I engaged in a lot of, sort of, undercover journalism.” Listen to the full interview here:

Cy Musiker interviews Mike Daisey

From Ira Glass’ introduction to a longer press release on the “This American Life” web page for the Daisey segment.

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. Many dedicated reporters and editors – our friends and colleagues – have worked for years to build the reputation for accuracy and integrity that the journalism on public radio enjoys. It’s trusted by so many people for good reason. Our program adheres to the same journalistic standards as the other national shows, and in this case, we did not live up to those standards…

Here’s the full press release from “This American Life,” followed by Mike Daisey’s posted response.

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. “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 will air on WBEZ at 8pm EST/7pm CT tonight and will be also be available to stream and download on thisamericanlife.org at that time, and it can be heard on public radio stations around the country this weekend.

Mike Daisey responds:

“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.

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  • Guest

    I am reading in Mike’s response that it is perfectly okay to present in the context of theater a work that purports to be autobiographical when in fact it’s not. IS that okay? DOES he present the theater piece as factual or is there some disclaimer in the program? If people leave the theater believing his story is true, then I don’t see how mis-truths such as this are any worse in journalism than they are in theater.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/S53TJ2IV4HPWFKKQVZ7HTGWRYU Amy

    I’m so disappointed to read this. I was deeply affected by Daisey’s story, and protested outside Apple’s campus a few weeks ago in part because of it. Even though the fabricated portions of his monologue are based on fact, it’s deceitful to say “I did this, I saw X, I spoke with Y” when you never did–even in theater.

  • John

    I wish this piece had placed these two Daisey quotes closer together: “I engaged in a lot of, sort of, undercover journalism.”  –and– “What I do is not journalism.”  Since he seems to think “sort of” really means “not”, then I suppose what he actions are sort of justifiable, and even excusable– sort of.

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Jon Brooks

Jon Brooks writes mostly on film for KQED Arts. He is also an online editor and writer for KQED's daily news blog, News Fix. Jon is a playwright whose work has been produced in San Francisco, New York, Italy, and around the U.S.

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