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'This American Life' Retracts Apple Story


The public radio show THIS AMERICAN LIFE has retracted a lengthy story it ran in January. The report painted an ugly picture of working conditions at Chinese factories where they manufacture iPhones and iPads. The story focused on a monologue told by performer and activist Mike Daisey about his interviews with factory workers. NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik joins me now. And, David, this was THIS AMERICAN LIFE's most popular podcast. How are they explaining their decision to retract the story?

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Well, I think it's worth starting by taking a moment from the broadcast itself. THIS AMERICAN LIFE, produced by our colleagues over at WBEZ Chicago Public Radio. Here's Mike Daisey. He's talking a little bit about what he found when he was in China and let's play that clip for a moment.

MIKE DAISEY: The problem is that n-hexane is a potent neurotoxin and all these people have been exposed. Their hands shake uncontrollably. Most of them can't even pick up a glass. I talked to people whose joints in their hands have disintegrated from working on the line, doing the same motion hundreds and hundreds of thousands of times. It's like carpal tunnel on a scale we can scarcely imagine.

And you need to know that this is eminently avoidable.

FOLKENFLIK: So that very segment prompted questions, among others, from Marketplace's Rob Schmitz. He's a correspondent for Marketplace American Public Media over in China and he's done a lot of reporting on this and related issues and it struck him that, actually, the people who had worked in plants were manufacturing items for Apple who had been poisoned by that element that Daisey was talking so compellingly about were actually about 1,000 miles away.

And he started raising questions. One of them was solved by just doing a Google search. He looked for a translator that Daisey had sworn to producers over at THIS AMERICAN LIFE could no longer be reached. You know, Rob did this Google search, found her within less than a minute online and was able to call and start challenging a lot of the assertions she made. A lot of the claims started to unspool.

BLOCK: Well, Mike Daisey had previously presented his findings about Apple as fact. What does he say now?

FOLKENFLIK: That's right. I mean, he's not only been a performer on this, but an activist stirring calls for there to be a lot more careful observation of what Apple is up to in China. Now what he says is he stands by his work. He stands by his performance, the one man show called "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs," which has gotten critical raves.

But he says, look, I use tools differently than those of journalism. I'm an artist. He says, so he regrets that he allowed THIS AMERICAN LIFE to air an excerpt from his monologue, but otherwise, he says he's using a combination - and this is a quote - "of fact, memoir and dramatic license" to tell his story and he said, I believe it does so with integrity.

BLOCK: Well, he is standing by his work, but THIS AMERICAN LIFE is not. What have they said about what they're going to do?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, they're going to devote an hour long segment this weekend listeners are going to be able to hear on hundreds of stations across the country to find - to unpack what went wrong. And they actually did what Schmitz described to me as a collaboration with Marketplace of a detective work or an autopsy on their own work to figure out what they did wrong.

An impressive element of the segment when I heard it back in January was that they had done a fair amount of fact checking. In fact, the broad strokes of what Mike Daisey claimed occurred in China appears to have occurred there, but a lot of the details are wrong and it undermines a lot of his assertions.

They want to keep faith with their listeners and I think that what a lot of journalists do is not simply condemn a news organization when something like this happens, but looks to see how that outlet deals with the allegations. In this case, it appears as though THIS AMERICAN LIFE is working very hard to keep faith with its listeners once questions were raised.

BLOCK: OK. NPR's David Folkenflik, thanks very much.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.