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This American Life retracts Apple story

BY Miranda Neubauer | Friday, March 16 2012

Even as the new iPad is being released today, This American Life says it has retracted a piece it broadcast in January about working conditions in Chinese factories that supply Apple because the story, an excerpt of Mike Daisey's high-profile one-man show, "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs," contained numerous fabrications.

The one-man-show, which Daisey has been performing in cities across the country in the past year, including New York City's Public Theater, had previously not only attracted attention for its critical take on Apple, but because Daisey said he would release a transcript of the play under a royalty-free license so it could be performed anywhere without a license.

A statement from This American Life states:

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.

According to This American Life, an interpreter that Daisey worked with has also denied key elements of his monologue, such as that he met underage workers at the company Foxconn, that a man with a mangled hand was injured at Foxconn making iPads and that Daisey's iPad was the first one the man saw. This American Life notes Daisey says the following in the original story:

He's never actually seen one on, this thing that took his hand. I turn it on, unlock the screen, and pass it to him. He takes it. The icons flare into view, and he strokes the screen with his ruined hand, and the icons slide back and forth. And he says something to Cathy, and Cathy says, "he says it's a kind of magic."

The interpreter, Cathy, says the incident never occurred. While fact-checking the story before broadcast, This American Life staffers had asked Daisey for her contact information. He told them the cell phone number he had for her did not work anymore and that he had no way to reach her.

In This American Life's press release, the show's executive producer Ira Glass says that the story should have been "killed" when Daisey said he couldn't reach the interpreter. "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."

But after the story aired, Marketplace China Correspondent Rob Schmitz had wondered about its truth, because Marketplace had done a lot of reporting on the story and he had first-hand knowledge of the issues. He was able to locate the Chinese interpreter, whose real name is Li Guifen (though she goes by Cathy Lee with westerners), and she "disputed much of what Daisey has been telling theater audiences since 2010 and much of what he said on the radio."

Schmitz also tells Poynter:

This was not an amazing piece of detective work." He Googled the name of Daisey's translator and called the first person with that name he found. He interviewed her and brought his work to the attention of his editors, who then alerted "This American Life."

This American Life notes the extensive response to the broadcast, which became the single most popular podcast in This American Life's history, with 888,000 downloads (typically the number is 750,000) and 206,000 streams to date. In addition, it was a listener who heard the story who started a petition calling for better working conditions in Apple's Chinese factories, and later delivered almost a quarter-million signatures to Apple. This American Life also notes the New York Times investigation of working conditions at Apple factories that was published the same month of the broadcast, and Apple's announcement that it would have a third party audit working conditions and post a list of suppliers on its website. Discussion about Apple's overseas factories has also played in to President Barack Obama's call for more companies such as Apple to create jobs in the United States.

"Daisey lied to me and to This American Life producer Brian Reed during the fact checking we did on the story, before it was broadcast," Glass says on This American Life's website. "That doesn't excuse the fact that we never should've put this on the air. In the end, this was our mistake."

This American Life is airing a program tonight featuring Ira Glass, Mike Daisey, and Rob Schmitz which will detail the errors found. According to This American Life:

"In our original broadcast, we fact checked all the things that Daisey said about Apple's operations in China," says Glass, "and those parts of his story were true, except for the underage workers, who are rare.
We reported that discrepancy in the original show. But with this week’s broadcast, we're letting the audience know that too many of the details about the people he says he met are in dispute for us to stand by the story. I suspect that many things that Mike Daisey claims to have experienced personally did not actually happen, but listeners can judge for themselves."

On tonight's show, Schmitz says he had been particularly struck by what Daisey had said about meeting workers in Shenzhen. "It happened nearly a thousand miles away, in a city called Suzhou," it says in the report. "I've interviewed these workers, so I knew the story. And when I heard Daiseys 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."

On both the broadcast and in a blog post, Daisey stands by his show, but says it was wrong for it to have aired on This American Life.

"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......"It was completely wrong for me to have it on your show," Daisey tells Glass on the program, "and that's something I deeply regret." He also expresses his regret to "the people who are listening, the audience of This American Life, who know that it is a journalism enterprise, if they feel betrayed."

On his blog, he writes:

I stand by my work. 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. It uses a combination of fact, memoir, and dramatic license to tell its story, and I believe it does so with integrity....What I do is not journalism. The tools of the theater are not the same as the tools of journalism. For this reason, I regret that I allowed This American Life to air an excerpt from my monologue. This American Life is essentially a journalistic ­- not a theatrical ­- enterprise, and as such it operates under a different set of rules and expectations. But this is my only regret. I am proud that my work seems to have sparked a growing storm of attention and concern over the often appalling conditions under which many of the high-tech products we love so much are assembled in China