By Devin Coldewey
At over a million digital listens, “Mr. Daisey Goes To The Apple Factory” is This American Life’s most popular episode. That’s no small feat for one of the world’s most well-known radio shows. When it aired, it set off yet another firestorm of controversy regarding the ethics of Apple (AAPL) (and other large tech companies) using cheap Chinese labor through major manufacturers like Foxconn (OTCPK:FXCNF). Mr Daisey, who has been touring for years with a monologue about his visit to the factories there and the moral implications thereof, provided details to This American Life to put together what was really a powerful and attention-grabbing piece.
Unfortunately, in the words of This American Life host and producer Ira Glass, “We’ve learned that Mike Daisey’s story about Apple in China – which we broadcast in January – contained significant fabrications. We’re retracting the story because we can’t vouch for its truth.”
The episode’s lurid details provoked many responses on the web, including several editorials on TechCrunch. These details were not entirely new, and we have written about the labor and environmental conditions in Chinese factories before, but such a discussion is always relevant. But although the discussion was fruitful, it seems it may have been based partially on false information.
Without duplicating too much of the blog post, press release, and forthcoming broadcast, it seems that a Marketplace staffer, China correspondent Rob Schmitz, thought that some of Daisey’s claims didn’t add up. The fact checking team at This American Life (not NPR, as previously written) had already cleared the story despite some small discrepancies, but some things Schmitz was personally acquainted with stuck out — for instance, the idea that Daisey had met in Shenzhen with workers who had been poisoned by n-hexane. The poisoning occurred, no doubt, but it occurred a thousand miles away in Suzhou, a place Daisey never visited.
He also contacted Daisey’s interpreter, whom Daisey claimed to be unable to reach, and apparently for good reason. She contradicted much of what Daisey claimed in his monologue and on the radio. Schmitz has written up his investigation here.
I’m not going to say that I didn’t take a few shortcuts in my passion to be heard. 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.
A few weeks ago, a book called The Lifespan of a Fact was released, a peculiar volume detailing a battle between a writer, whose essay had been embellished with inaccuracies and fabrications, and his fact-checker at The Believer, who was attempting to undo those embellishments. The question of which was more valuable, the point being made in an essay that didn’t strictly cast itself as a factual one, or the truth of the matter that it in many ways obscured, is an interesting one. But in this case things seem a little more clear-cut.
Mr. Daisey represented as facts and his own experience things that were not true and which he had not done. TechCrunch interviewed Daisey as well early in 2011 (part one; part two). His statements to us must be questioned, now factually as well as conceptually.
Fortunately, none of our reporting on China and Foxconn relies on his testimony. Our own John Biggs has been to China to report on the state of manufacturing there twice, the first time to Shenzhen proper to see how smaller factories and shops are run, and the second time to “Foxconn City,” where he received a tour of the mega-campus where your devices are made and assembled. These reports, needless to say, are factual.
Update: it is This American Life that did the retracting, not NPR as first reported (and immortalized in the URL). Entirely my mistake, due to the fact that the show is often broadcast on stations the primary affiliation of which is NPR. This American Life is produced by Public Radio International, and Marketplace is produced by American Public Media.