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'This American Life' Pulls Apple Story


This weekend, the public radio program "This American Life" will air a retraction and apologize to listeners for a segment that aired in January about factories in China which make the Apple iPad. The story described hazardous working conditions at the plant. It was told by a man named Mike Daisey, who claimed to have interviewed workers injured there. Many elements of Daisey's story have now been discredited.

"This American Life" will present what they call an autopsy of how the fabrications got on the air. Here's the host of the show, Ira Glass, introducing the original show.


LYDEN: NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik joins me now to talk about what happened.

So, David, do tell us what happened. This program, as we said, aired earlier in January. And it had a lot of things in it that were not true.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Well, it carried a lot of punch at the time it was aired a couple of months ago, spurred a lot of people to pay real attention to this issue of the treatment of workers making all those gadgets that we love to use so much here in the U.S. It was downloaded and streamed, I think, over a million times - far and away the most of any episode ever for "This American Life."

And, yet, you know, there proved to be huge holes in it that were punched through by actually Rob Schmitz in China. He's a correspondent who's covered the country on and off for the last 15 years. He works for Marketplace, which is part of another one of our cousins in public radio, American Public Media. And he was able to discern almost from the moment he heard the show that there were not only exaggerations but fabrications.

He was even able to track down with just a simple Google search the translator that Mike Daisey had told "This American Life" could not be reached anymore. She disputed a lot of his account. In one instance, Schmitz was able to show, look, this was an episode and an anecdote that talked about workers having been poisoned by a certain material they encountered in the plant. In fact, those poisonings did occur, but a thousand miles away.

LYDEN: Now, Mike Daisey has told news organizations that what he does is theater, it isn't journalism. He shouldn't have allowed "This American Life" to use his dramatized episodes on the air. They were excerpts from his monologue. Should the fact that he's an entertainer, should that not have raised red flags in the first place?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, you know, "This American Life" does storytelling, and it brings a storytelling approach to a journalistic endeavor. So, for example, they're produced by Chicago Public Radio, WBEZ, but we partnered with them at Planet Money to bring the storytelling sensibility married with, you know, rigorous reporting - which, by the way, they believe in as well. To their credit, if you listen to that original show from January, they take out elements of the story and they say here's what we could confirm, here's what we couldn't. But they now say, you know what, enough things added up that we realize we never should have run this show.

LYDEN: What do you think, as a media critic, David, should "This American Life," which is a show about first-person stories, be held to the same journalistic standards as our own news programs?

FOLKENFLIK: I think "This American Life" would say it does that kind of journalistic endeavor and should be held to those standards. But this is a critical moment for it to prove it and it's doing so by doing an autopsy on what went so very wrong.

LYDEN: By doing a whole exposition or autopsy, as you call it, "This American Life" will deconstruct what happened. How well are they handling this?

FOLKENFLIK: One of the things that's most telling is when I talked to Rob Schmitz in China about this on Friday evening, he said that his colleagues at Marketplace conveyed the questions that he was raising from China and that they embraced the questions. They didn't reject them. They didn't attack the messenger. They said we've got to look into this, which shows an astonishing openness, I would say, for a news organization whose work is under assault to do towards somebody who's raised those very troubling questions. They clearly saw, first and foremost, their need - even after a series of errors on their part - their need to find a way to keep faith with their audiences.

LYDEN: David Folkenflik is NPR's media correspondent. Thank you very much, David.

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