‘This American Life’ Retracts Episode on Apple’s Suppliers in China

From today’s NY Times


2:57 p.m. | Updated The weekly public radio program “This American Life” said on Friday that it was retracting a story about Apple’s suppliers in China because of falsehoods in it, exposing tensions between journalism, storytelling and theater.

The story by Mike Daisey, originally broadcast on Jan. 6, was an adaptation of his one-man theatrical show “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” which dramatically conveys and condemns the working conditions at Foxconn, a factory in China where Apple products are made. The episode became the most popular podcast in the history of the program, the show said on Friday.

In the staged performance and in the radio excerpt from it, Mr. Daisey describes meeting mistreated Foxconn workers, relying on a translator to carry on the conversation. But in a later interview with Rob Schmitz, a correspondent for another radio program, Marketplace, the interpreter who traveled with Mr. Daisey disputed some of the details of the meetings, suggesting that Mr. Daisey did not witness what he said he did.

The disparities will be explained in detail this weekend on “This American Life,” which will devote its entire hour to the retraction and the explanation.

On the program, Mr. Schmitz says: “What makes this a little complicated is that the things Daisey lied about are things that have actually happened in China: Workers making Apple products have been poisoned by Hexane. Apple’s own audits show the company has caught underage workers at a handful of its suppliers. These things are rare, but together, they form an easy-to-understand narrative about Apple.”

Mr. Daisey helped to spread that narrative with his one-man show and his radio broadcast.

In a statement on his blog Friday afternoon, Mr. Daisey said, “I stand by my work.” His statement included this comment:

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 retraction is an embarrassing episode for “This American Life,” a beloved product of WBEZ, a radio station in Chicago, that is distributed nationwide by Public Radio International.

“We’re horrified to have let something like this onto public radio,” Ira Glass, its host, wrote on a blog post that was also sent as an e-mail to supporters of the program Friday afternoon. “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.”

Mr. Glass asserted that Mr. Daisey “lied” to him and to Brian Reed, a producer of the program, during the fact-checking process leading up to the Jan. 6 air date. But “that doesn’t excuse the fact that we never should’ve put this on the air,” Mr. Glass wrote. “In the end, this was our mistake.”

On the original Jan. 6 broadcast, Mr. Glass acknowledged the risk inherent in repurposing a monologue. “When I saw Mike Daisey perform this story on stage, when I left the theater I had a lot of questions,” he told listeners. “I mean, he’s not a reporter, and I wondered, did he get it right? And so we’ve actually spent a few weeks checking everything that he says in his show.”

Over a dozen people were contacted in the fact-checking process, Mr. Glass said, including “journalists who cover these factories, people who work with the electronics industry in China, activists, labor groups.”

And “nobody,” he said, “seemed very surprised” by the working conditions described by Mr. Daisey.

Indeed, Mr. Schmitz and other journalists had independently been covering the subject. On Jan. 26, a front-page New York Times story detailed the ways in which “the workers assembling iPhones, iPads and other devices often labor in harsh conditions.” The Times story included on-the-ground reporting in China and cited numerous sources, including some inside Apple.

All together, the skeptical reporting about Apple and its suppliers appears to have galvanized public concern about the production of popular products like the iPad and the iPhone. In February Apple announced that an outside organization had begun to audit working conditions at factories where the products are made.

What Mr. Glass didn’t tell listeners on Jan. 6 was that during the fact-checking process, there was at least one reason to doubt Mr. Daisey’s story. During the process, a news release from Friday stated, “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.”

Mr. Glass acknowledged in the news release that, “At that point, we should’ve killed the story. 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.”

Mr. Glass added that he now suspects that “many things that Mike Daisey claims to have experienced personally did not actually happen, but listeners can judge for themselves.”

The Web site of “This American Life” was overwhelmed by traffic on Friday afternoon after it announced the retraction.

The program said it would refund those who bought tickets for a live presentation of Mr. Daisey’s monologue at the Chicago Theatre, which was scheduled for next month and has now been canceled.

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.”

Some of Mr. Daisey’s stories about Foxconn were also included in an Op-Ed he wrote for The New York Times last October. He wrote, “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.’ ”

According to Mr. Schmitz, the translator said that did not happen. A spokeswoman for The Times said she was reviewing the matter and had no immediate comment.

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