This American Life has retracted their story about Apple.

In January, the always-excellent “This American Life” had a really stunning episode turned over almost entirely to an excerpt of a monologue by Mike Daisey, about working conditions at Foxconn, the Chinese company that manufactures products for Apple, among other companies. Daisey actually went to China, to the factory, and interviewed people about what it was like to work for Foxconn. What he learned was really bad—it made both Apple and Foxconn look just awful. Marketplace’s China correspondent found that the story just didn’t jibe with his own knowledge, so he investigated Daisey’s reporting, tracking down Daisey’s interpreter. It turns out Daisey lied. A lot. About crucial facts. Daisey’s defense? “It’s not journalism, it’s theater.” Lame. 

Published by Waldo Jaquith

Waldo Jaquith (JAKE-with) is an open government technologist who lives near Char­lottes­­ville, VA, USA. more »

4 replies on “This American Life has retracted their story about Apple.”

  1. I’m still sort of mentally processing this recent turn of events with the story, which touched me very deeply in a way that I suppose only things which are at least moderately fabricated can. My first knee jerk reaction, though, are that I can’t say I’m aware of the precise nature of Daisey’s on stage performance, and maybe it’s presented in a context that makes it clear that you shouldn’t take it as a 100% factual account, but he definitely should have made that clear to PRI and This American Life before they entered into an agreement to convert part of it into an episode.

    My second knee jerk reaction is that This American Life takes retractions and corrections more seriously than every other media outlet in the nation combined. Thanks to the press release they’ve issued, you can find the retraction on the front page of the online iterations of the New York Times, the Chicago Sun Times, and the Washington Post. You still can’t find a link to any of the online corrections or retractions any of those publications have to issue for their own stories, however.

  2. My first knee jerk reaction, though, are that I can’t say I’m aware of the precise nature of Daisey’s on stage performance, and maybe it’s presented in a context that makes it clear that you shouldn’t take it as a 100% factual account, but he definitely should have made that clear to PRI and This American Life before they entered into an agreement to convert part of it into an episode.

    I agree—or, at least, I did, until I listened to last night’s episode of TAL. :) It turns out that they were very, very clear with him that everything had to be true, and he was equally clear in his explanation that it was all true. Daisey went on the talk show circuit last month, and made many of these claims there, outside of the context of his show, claims that he now admits are fabricated. So his “it was just a show—what did you expect?” excuse collapsed pretty quickly.

  3. I just finished listening to the episode’s podcast. Yeah, I’m pretty infuriated not just because Mike Daisey was obfuscating on the factual veracity of the performance, but also because he seems intent upon doing so now. I’m particularly bothered by the phrase he kept using, “true in the context of the theater.”

    Outside this particular incident, I don’t think that it’s necessarily wrong to dramatize the facts surrounding a particular real-world event or events in a way that personalizes the facts so that people will care about them. While listening to the podcast, I kept thinking back to the Laramie Project, which was about the events surrounding the murder of Matthew Shepherd and the subsequent trial and was based in large part on personal interviews conducted by the production company and the townsfolk who lived in Laramie and were personally connected to the tragedy. That there was once a young man named Matthew Shepherd who was savagely beaten and then left to die on the side of the road just outside Laramie is factually true, and there’s also a lot of truth to expand the story of the events surrounding that murder which comes out through the interviews. But there is also a lot about the Laramie Project which is not true, and the most obvious example of this is that the resulting production takes the form of a staged dramatization of interviews and monologues performed by actors who in the majority of cases are not portraying themselves. That doesn’t make the piece less socially important; in fact, I think the dramatization helps the audience emotionally connect with the facts surrounding the death of this young man in a way that they might not necessarily have done if they were simply reading news articles or interviews in transcript form. The actors humanize the words they recite.

    I’m willing to accept that in a similar vein, Daisey’s original intent was the dramatize the facts surrounding Apple’s manufacturing in a way that encouraged the audience to emotionally connect to a story in a way they might not have been able to connect to a straight journalistic piece (I wrote myself a few days ago that the story “touched me very deeply in a way that I suppose only things which are at least moderately fabricated can”). And there is a fair amount of truth at the edges which Foxconn and Apple both acknowledged. Even if Daisey didn’t personally talk to an underaged worker, Apple itself has acknowledged that it has found underaged workers in its supply chain on multiple occasions. Even if Daisey didn’t personally talk to the workers who suffered N-Hexane poisoning, that event did happen at a different plant in a different city. That Daisey fabricated his personal connection with these incidences does not mean that the incidences themselves didn’t happen, nor does it mean that I shouldn’t care about them.

    The big difference between Daisey’s work and dramatizations like the Laramie Project is that when we watch the Laramie Project, we know we’re seeing a dramatization performed by actors playing the roles of other people. By contrast, Mike Daisey only ever attempts to tell a story through his own perspective, and anyone could be forgiven for not being able to discern immediately where the line between the real Mike Daisey and the portraiture Mike Daisey falls, even if Daisey himself suggests that the line is very clear “in the context of the theater.” Moreover, while a production like the Laramie Project maintains its dramatic focus on factual or historical events as the subject, I get the distinct impression here that at some point, Mike Daisey stopped dramatizing the story of Apple’s working conditions and started dramatizing the story of Mike Daisey. He could no longer find the value in a discrete set of facts and events when they were divorced from his personal experience of them. Which, I gather, is what lead him to make the leap from “performing” straight to outright lying.

    I really get where Ira Glass is coming from here. I, too, would feel sorry for the obviously flawed person that is Mike Daisey if it weren’t for the fact that I felt so very manipulated.

  4. Sam, first wanted to commend you on your excellent and thoughtful commentary above. You managed to pretty much capture my sentiment/thought-cycle/emotion as well. Well said and well written.

    Additionally, I was very much moved by the original TAL #454. To his credit, Daisy is indeed an engaging speaker (in at least as he presents his material in the theatrical environment). I think Ira did a most exceptional job in #460 (Retraction) and you could palpably hear the lump in his throat as he worked through the sequences with Daisy.

    Post digesting all of this, just a few observations / thoughts at present:

    1. Ira and TAL did state clearly they actually relaxed their own journalistic standard a bit (in not checking with Mike’s China interpreter directly and verifying key items) – is it possible the very modern emotion of humans (anywhere) suffering at the hands of (apparently) uncaring Capatilsts, and especially in the dawn of the post Steve Jobs world, combined with Daisy’s apparent ‘truthiness’ actually had an effect on the even these most wizened TAL reporters/writers? Is this a case of (Mulder) – that TAL ‘wanted to believe’? I don’t know at all, but I’m wondering about what was at the psychology of TAL’s letting it slide and airing the episode against, as Ira stated, the usual better judgement? Is interesting, is all. Flipside, I actually like that TAL took this risk on a number of levels. I want humans to be able to trust other humans. It is OK to be wrong every now and then – and how very…American.

    2. I’ve noticed in the news that the story arc on this subject has stayed very persistent – they were reporting on Apple/Foxconn right up through (this) Easter weekend and it appears there will be more revelations to come. I realize the NYT reporting/TAL #454 all seemed to hit in roughly the same cycle, it’s clear that the information has sparked something in the public sphere.

    3. I was wondering what might have been the case if Daisy had actually said he had created the dramatization right up front (perhaps never mentioning that he even went to China, but posed it as a ‘thought experiment’ of sorts). How might it have been to come at it from the other side – where reporters would have gradually uncovered the actual verifiable parts of his ‘fictional work’? In a sense, using the ‘art imitating life’ angle. So, even given the unusual quasi-journalistic-theater that Daisy performed, and lie or not, the subject has had staying power in the news cycle. Does he get any credit? – even for the actual factual information he does mention? Again, just wondering?

    For note, imho, TAL and NYCs Radiolab are the best (hands down) radio/audio programming I’ve heard in the last decade plus. I wish the best to both programs and will continue supporting them as I’m able.

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