“This American Life” says report on Apple labor “partially fabricated”


Updated. The radio program This American Life on Friday posted a note on its website retracting a previous episode of the show in which monologist Mike Daisey described the working conditions in factories in China that produce Apple’s most popular devices, saying it “was partially fabricated.”

The show’s website says Daisey “misled This American Life during the fact-checking process.”

Update: Chicago Public Media, which produces the program, said after checking with Daisey’s interpreter in China, that two of the most dramatic moments from Daisey’s reporting were fabricated: that he met underage workers in Foxconn factories and that he met met a man with a hand mangled from working on iPads.

The show’s press representative did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A link to a new report from American Public Media’s Marketplace describing the error-riddled This American Life episode is online now. In it, Marketplace China correspondent Rob Schmitz questions Daisey about the fabrications.

On his own blog, Daisey posted a statement standing by his work, but admitting that he is “not a journalist”:

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. Certainly, the comprehensive investigations undertaken by The New York Times and a number of labor rights groups to document conditions in electronics manufacturing would seem to bear this out.

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.

Chicago Public Media released a detailed account of the misrepresentations and inaccuracies found in Daisey’s report. In addition to lying about the number of factories in China that he visited, and the number of workers he talked to, he also misled the program about particular people he talked to:

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.

“It happened nearly a thousand miles away, in a city called Suzhou,” Marketplace’s Schmitz says in his report. “I’ve interviewed these workers, so I knew the story. And when I heard Daisey’s 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.”

In the Marketplace interview, Daisey reportedly tells Schmitz, “I’m not going to say that I didn’t take a few shortcuts in my passion to be heard.”

Despite Daisey’s fabrications of people he talked to, there has been plenty of other reporting on the working conditions at Foxconn and other factories in China. The New York Times published a series in January, near the same time the This American Life episode aired, with independently reported accounts demonstrating the human costs associated with the large-scale manufacturing of iPhones, iPads and other consumer electronics devices.

Update: The New York Times on Friday has corrected an op-ed by Daisey the paper published after Steve Jobs’ death in October.

Update: This American Life has released the transcript for “Retraction,” its episode devoted entirely to figuring out what went wrong with its involvement with Daisey.

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