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'This American Life' Retracts Mike Daisey's Apple Factory Story

Mike Daisey in a scene from "The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs."
Stan Barouh
Mike Daisey in a scene from "The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs."

A highly popular episode of This American Life in which monologuist Mike Daisey tells of the abuses at factories that make Apple products in China contained "significant fabrications," the show said today.

"We're horrified to have let something like this onto public radio," Ira Glass, the show's executive producer and host said in a blog post today. "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."

The 39-minute piece aired in January and TAL says after 888,000 downloads, it became its most popular podcast. The story is compelling: It tells of the awful working conditions of Chinese workers making shiny Apple products like iPhones and iPads at factories owned by a company called FoxConn, which also manufactures products for other electronics giants.

The piece essentially made Daisey Apple's chief critic and it also inspired a Change.org petition that collected more than 250,000 signatures demanding that Apple better the working conditions at the factories.

This American Life, which is distributed by Public Radio International, did not commission the piece. Instead, it excerpted from "The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs," a one-man show Daisey had been performing across the country. It is currently in production at the Public Theater in New York.

In a press release, This American Life says it first learned Daisey had fabricated parts of his story when another public radio program Marketplace tracked down Daisey's interpreter, who disputed parts of Daisey's monologue.

TAL explains:

"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 [Rob] 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 also disputes one of the most dramatic moments in the piece. It's a scene where Daisey hands a FoxConn employee an iPad. He'd never seen the final product, but the process of making them had left his hand mangled. The man sees the screen light up and runs his finger over it. Through the interpreter, he says "it's kind of magic." But his interpreter says that never happened.

This American Life says they did fact check many of the claims made about Apple in the piece. But they failed to check out one big one: Glass says Daisey lied to him and his producer about the name of his interpreter and he also said the cell phone number he had for her didn't work anymore and he had no way to get back in touch with her.

"At that point, we should've killed the story," said Glass in a statement. "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."

For the record, we pointed to the piece in question in a blog post in February. We'll append a note. Also, This American Life will devote a considerable amount of time on Sunday's show to this matter.

Update at 4:12 p.m. ET. The Show Goes On For Daisey:

Cult of Mac reportsthat both The New York Public Theater and Wooly Mammoth Theater in Washington are sticking by Daisey.

"Mike is an artist, not a journalist. Nevertheless, we wish he had been more precise with us and our audiences about what was and wasn't his personal experience in the piece," the theater said in a statement to Cult of Mac.

Wooly Mammoth says it looks forward to hosting Daisey in the summer for an encore performance.

Update at 3:27 p.m. ET. Folkenflik On Twitter:

NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik has been covering this story on Twitter. We encourage you to follow his feed, if you want more on the story. Also, David will be on All Things Considered tonight.

Update at 2:48 p.m. ET. How Daisey's Fabrications Were Uncovered:

American Public Media's Marketplace has now posted a version of the storyset to air tonight. Essentially, Rob Schmitz reports that he met with Li Guifen, Daisey's interpreter, who goes by Cathy Lee, at the gates of Foxconn. He asked Lee about Daisey met underage workers, she said no.

That questioning continued and Lee questioned a lot of what Daisey claimed in his show.

Schmitz does make two very important points:

-- "This American Life wasn't the only journalistic outlet for Daisey. For the past year, he's been in the news constantly: newspaper articles, op-eds, magazine profiles, online news sites."

-- "What makes this a little complicated is that the things Daisey lied about seeing are things that have actually happened in China: Workers making Apple products have been poisoned by Hexane. Apple's own audits show (PDF) 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."

Update at 2:34 p.m. ET. 'I Stand By My Work':

Mike Daisey has posted a response on his blog.

"I stand by my work," he writes. "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."

He adds that what he does is "not journalism," and repeats that he regrets allowing TAL to excerpt his show.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.