Shame On Who? This American Life Retracts Apple and China Episode

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”?

Related Care2 Coverage

74 Million iPads. 26 Suicides. Did Steve Jobs Know?

Under Pressure, Foxconn Agrees To Raise Wages, Cut Overtime

Chinese Workers Make $8 Per iPad

Photo of Foxconn factory in Shenzhen by Steve Jurvetson via Wikimedia Commons


Amber M.
Angela Roquemore5 years ago

I would not go!

Julia Cabrera-Woscek


KS Goh
KS Goh5 years ago

Thanks for the article.

jill bukovnik
jill Campbell5 years ago

I tried several times to tell you all to checkout the actual facts & said why all that junk was B.S.
Just because someone writes it down in black & white doesn't mean it's true.
North American's are so eager to jump to conclusions & get on the band wagon.
Don't be one of the the Border Collie that's in charge.
I live in Canada & learnt along time ago to check out so called facts.

MEGAN N5 years ago

The New York Times was a newspaper praised for it's journalistic excellence and widely regarded as the "news source of record" before Jayson Blair decided to write stories that included fabrications, misquotes and outright lies and to plagiarize some of his stories from former colleagues. Now, almost 10 years later, for many readers myself included every story they print is suspect. They are no longer spotless in their reputation and they have lost much of the credibility they used to enjoy.

It is a well known fact that sensational headlines will draw readers, viewers and listeners to a story and news sources do subscribe to the "if it bleeds it leads" philosophy but this is no excuse to report falsehoods. By embellishing facts the "journalist" may gain notoriety but they also do a disservice to their audience and their profession. When these lies come to light they cast doubt on all credible accounts done by proper journalists and cheapen the plight of the people they are professing to help.

Hopefully TAL will come out of this debacle mostly unscathed but I wouldn't count on it. People depend on the honesty and diligent fact checking of reporters and credible news sources because this is their window to the world. When there is a dishonest person in the bunch it tarnishes all reports from that source. Journalistic integrity is important because one bad apple in this field will spoil the lot.

Mari S.
Mariana S5 years ago

Oh by the way, Mike Daisey is not trying to ask anyone to stop buying apple products, he is simply asking us to be AWARE of how things are done and to be more involved in the decisions we make every day!!
Also, this situation is not particular to Apple... do you know how and where your shoes, clothes and "stuff" you use every day are made??

Mari S.
Mariana S5 years ago

I've seen the show and let's not forget it IS a show and as such, don't expect it to be 100% fact! It is excellent and it achieves its purposes: it entertains and it opens our eyes. If it were not for this I would still be in my own little world, never wondering how the ipad I use everyday was made. If the "the harsh labor conditions in which Chinese workers make iPhones and iPads" are not in dispute... then what is the problem? it's a show, not a documentary!!

Mark S.
Mark S5 years ago

I never did buy from Apple.

Cameron S.

Never buying from Apple again.

Roger Monk
Past Member 5 years ago

Now there's somewhere I wouldn't like to work.