The überpopular US public-radio show This American Life has retracted a story it aired in January – the most listened-to show in its history – in which monologist Mike Daisey detailed what he claimed were his personal experiences when investigating heinous working conditions in plants operated by Apple's Chinese contract manufacturers.
An investigation into some of the details of that broadcast, based on Daisey's critically lauded one-man show, "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs", was begun by a China correspondent from American Public Media's Marketplace business report who was famliar with Chinese manufacturing practices, Rob Schmitz.
Schmitz was troubled that his own experiences in China were different from what Daisey had recounted as his experiences, so he contacted Li Guifen – who goes by the name Cathy Lee in western circles – who worked as Daisey's translator during his trip.
Li, Schmitz reports, contradicted many of Daisey's reports, saying that many of the experiences he recounted in his show simply didn't happen.
"Daisey told This American Life and numerous other news outlets that his account was all true," writes Schmitz. "But it wasn't."
For example, Daisey's show mentions meeting workers poisoned by hexane whose "hands shake uncontrollably". Didn't happen, says Li.
Daisey noted that guards at the contract manufacturer Foxconn had guns. No they didn't, says Li.
"Daisey claims he met underage workers at Foxconn," writes Schmitz. "He says he talked to a man whose hand was twisted into a claw from making iPads. He describes visiting factory dorm rooms with beds stacked to the ceiling." Li denied that any of these events happened, Schmitz reports.
Regarding the hexane allegations, Schmitz recounts a conversation that he and This American Life's executive producer and host Ira Glass had when they confronted Daisey with Li's statements.
Mike Daisey: That's correct.
RS: So you lied about that? That wasn't what you saw?
MD: I wouldn't express it that way.
RS: How would you express it?
MD: I would say that I wanted to tell a story that captured the totality of my trip.
Ira Glass: Did you meet workers like that? Or did you just read about the issue?
MD: I met workers in, um, Hong Kong, going to Apple protests who had not been poisoned by hexane but had known people who had been, and it was a constant conversation among those workers.
IG: So you didn't meet an actual worker who'd been poisoned by hexane.
MD: That's correct.
In a statement on his blog, Daisey stands by his work. "It uses a combination of fact, memoir, and dramatic license to tell its story," he says, "and I believe it does so with integrity."
Daisey does admit fault, but cloaks his motives in artistic license. "What I do is not journalism," he writes. "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."
In addition to issuing its retraction, This American Life will devote its entire show this weekend to the errors it uncovered in its investigation of Daisey's story.
"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," writes Glass. "I suspect that many things that Mike Daisey claims to have experienced personally did not actually happen, but listeners can judge for themselves."
From this Reg reporter's readings and conversations with Chinese expats about working conditions in Chinese factories, the truth lies somewhere between Upton Sinclair's The Jungle and Google's bocce-ball courts, massages, and eyebrow shaping. The country's rapid industrialization and often-corrupt local officials and bosses have, indeed, led to working conditions that can be wildly inferior to those in more-settled industrialized nations.
But actual – if yellow-tinged – journalism as practiced by the likes of The New York Times has done more to move Apple into cooperation with the Fair Labor Association in auditing conditions at its suppliers than has dramatic license as practiced by a spotlight-seeking moralist piggybacking on the fame of another.
Which brings this reporter to a question that has been nagging at him through all of this "Apple as Simon Legree" hysteria. Thousands of American companies contract work out to Chinese suppliers, and many of them – Dell, HP, Microsoft, Amazon, and others, if reports are correct – use the same Foxconn facilities as does Apple. Why, then, is Apple the only company facing fierce scrutiny, petitions, and – yes – "dramatic license"?
Oh, I forgot. Apple is evil – and apparently more evil than companies that don't audit their suppliers, but merely look away and hope no one notices.
Yeah. Right. ®