‘This American Life’ retracts its exposé of Apple. But all’s still not well in China.

at 04:29 PM ET, 03/16/2012

In recent months, Apple has endured a wave of criticism for the harsh workplace conditions in its Chinese suppliers’ factories. “This American Life” even aired a radio episode about Foxconn, the electronics manufacturer, based on a visit to Shenzen by performance artist Mike Daisey.

Employees at Foxconn City in Shenzhen, China. (Thomas Lee/Bloomberg)
There was just one problem: A lot of what Daisey reported about Foxconn didn’t hold up under scrutiny. “This American Life” has now had to retract the attention-grabbing episode entirely, saying that it “contained significant fabrications.” Here’s a summary of what went wrong: Daisey never actually met underage factory workers in Shenzen, as he claimed, and he never ran across a man with a mangled hand. He also lied about meeting Foxconn employees who had been poisoned by the n-hexane gas. (The radio episode was based on Mike Daisey’s one-man show, “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.”)

So how much blame does “This American Life” bear? In the episode, the program claimed to have “fact checked everything that was fact checkable.” Here’s a transcript showing how show host Ira Glass tried to verify Daisey’s claims. It does sound as though “This American Life”’s producers tried to do their due diligence, but Daisey misled them at several points, including steering reporters away from his Chinese-language interpreter.

Naturally, this is going to get heaps of attention as a media story, as well it should. Fabrication is a mortal sin in journalism, and “This American Life” has conceded that it should have been much more skeptical of Daisey’s tale. “We didn’t think that he was lying to us and to audiences about the details of his story,” Glass said in a statement. “That was a mistake.”

But how much does this kerfluffle affect what we actually know about labor conditions in China? Let’s hear what Rob Schmitz, the Marketplace reporter who first caught Daisey’s fabrications, has to say: “What makes this a little complicated is that the things Daisey lied about seeing are things that have actually happened in China: Workers making Apple products have been poisoned by Hexane. Apple’s own audits (pdf) show that the company has caught underage workers at a handful of its suppliers. These things are rare, but together, they form an easy-to-understand narrative about Apple.”

Indeed, the media spotlight on companies like Foxconn has prompted Apple to hire an independent auditor for its Chinese suppliers, although, according to Schmitz, it will take some time to determine whether conditions actually improve or not.

Still, “fake but accurate” is never a viable defense for a media outlet. And Daisey’s statement defending himself — in which he claims that he’s a performer, not a journalist — doesn’t really hold up, since it appears that he actively misled “This American Life”’s fact-checkers. But Foxconn, as well as other labor suppliers in China, do deserve closer scrutiny. For a much better place to start, see Charles Duhigg and David Barboza’s long New York Times investigation into labor conditions in Apple’s sprawling global supply chain.

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