The public radio program This American Life has retracted one of its most popular episodes, a January 6 show about labor conditions in factories belonging to Foxconn in China, where workers assemble the iPhone and iPad. As TAL host Ira Glass writes on the show’s blog today, all of this week’s episode — under the title “Retraction” — will be about the original TAL episode, “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory,” which included portions of ”The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” a one-man theatrical show by actor Mike Daisey. But the January 6 episode “contained significant fabrications” which came to light after Rob Schmitz, China correspondent for Marketplace, another radio program, spoke to the same Chinese translator that Daisey had and learned that the translator disputed some of Daisey’s details.
“Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory” was TAL’s most popular online episode ever, with 888,000 downloads and 206,000 streams. To learn that Daisey “embroidered on the truth” — fabricated some of his story — is both disappointing and disturbing. Daisey apparently conflated and recombined facts about Foxconn factories and workers in his TAL episode. For instance, Daisey said that he said he had met workers in the southern city of Shenzhen who had been poisoned by n-hexane; as Tech Crunch says, such poisoning “no doubt” occurred but in Suzhou, thousands of miles away and a place Daisey had not visited.
More jarring discrepancies arose in regard to Daisey’s Chinese translator. As Glass writes, during the fact-checking process before airing Daisey’s episode,
“’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 cellphone number he had for her didn’t work any more. He said he had no way to reach her.”
Glass says that “at that point, we should’ve killed the story”; they did not because other aspects of Daisey’s account about the factories “checked out.” Glass asserts that Daisey “lied” to him and to Brian Reed, a producer of the program, while emphasizing that it was TAL’s mistake to air Daisey’s episode. The questions about the translator’s name and contact information should have been sufficient to cancel it back in early January.
Another story — which Daisey also recounted in an op-ed in the New York Times last October — described him meeting a worker in southern China ”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.” Daisey said that he showed the man his iPad and that the man “gasped because he’d never seen one turned on,” then “stroked” the screen and told Daisey’s translator “‘it’s a kind of magic.’” This story is simply “bogus,” says Ars Technica; the New York Times editorial staff has removed the paragraph about the man with the deformed hand from Daisey’s op-ed and added a note about “questions” being raised about the story’s veracity.
For his part, Daisey writes on his own blog:
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.
Daisey may not himself “do” journalism. He has indeed won renown for ”The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” and, as Brian Stelter writes on the New York Times’ Media Decoder blog, the Public Theater in New York, where he has performed the show since last year, expressed support for him while noting that “we wish he had been more precise with us and our audiences about what was and wasn’t his personal experience.”
A January 26 article in the New York Times and reports by Tech Crunch‘s John Biggs have also described the harsh labor conditions in which Chinese workers make iPhones and iPads. These are not in dispute, but Daisey’s account on the TAL episode and the stories he tells in his own show are and very much so.
In the age of the Internet, when information from many sources can be so readily obtained — and when rumors and things that sound true but are not can spread swiftly and persist long after they have been proven false — the need for truth and accuracy in reporting, especially from such a well-regarded show as TAL, is more important than ever. Journalism is not storytelling, nor is it a theatrical production. Daisey’s theatrical excesses on TAL aside, the reality is that people in China do make shiny iPhones and iPads in conditions that most of us would refuse to tolerate and even consider inhumane. When speaking to thousands via the web about potential ethical violations involving a company as powerful as Apple, the demand for the truth and nothing but the truth is imperative — and that’s a fact.
Should Daisey apologize for his “significant fabrications”?
Would you still go to see “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs”?
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