‘This American Life’ cites ‘fabrications’ in documentary on Apple suppliers


Mike Daisey , the creator and performer of “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.” (Astrid Riecken/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
March 16, 2012

An acclaimed radio documentary about brutal work conditions in the Chinese factories that make Apple’s products contained “numerous fabrications” and included invented characters and incidents, the producers of the program acknowledged Friday.

“This American Life,” a popular public-radio program, said it was “retracting” its January broadcast of a 39-minute piece by Mike Daisey that detailed life inside the Chinese plants that make iPhones and iPads.

The program was adapted from Daisey’s theatrical monologue, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” that helped spark an anti-Apple backlash. The monologue, an account of Daisey’s travels in China, debuted at the District’s Woolly Mammoth Theatrein 2010 and is scheduled to return to the venue this summer.

“This American Life” on Friday said it found numerous errors in adapting Daisey’s monologue for broadcast, including the number of factories he said he visited in China and the number of workers he spoke with. He also claimed to have met a group of workers who were poisoned by a chemical on an iPhone assembly line; Apple’s audits of its suppliers show that such an episode occurred, but in a factory more than a thousand miles from where Daisey said it had happened.

He acknowledged that he made up another scene, in which a worker with a hand gnarled in a factory accident tried out an iPad for the first time, declaring it “magic.”

Daisey conceded that he took “shortcuts” after his work was challenged by Ira Glass, the host and executive producer of“This American Life,” and Rob Schmitz, the China correspondent for the public-radio program “Marketplace,” who first exposed Daisey’s inventions and inaccuracies (both programs are heard in Washington on WAMU-FM, 88.5).

“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,” he told Glass, whose program will devote its entire hour this weekend to correcting the record.

But Daisey was more defiant on his blog. “I stand by my work,” he wrote. “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.” He added, “What I do is not journalism.”

However, since the debut of his theatrical monologue, Daisey has given numerous interviews in which he presented his work as a firsthand factual account, Schmitz said. “He allows journalists to treat him like a journalist,” he said via phone from Shanghai. “He clearly states [in interviews] that these are things that he saw and experienced.”

Daisey said on his blog that his work was validated by a two-part investigation by the New York Times in January that documented difficult working conditions at Chinese factories operated by Foxconn, a leading manufacturer for Apple and other electronics makers. Daisey had written an op-ed for the newspaper last fall that mentioned Apple’s record in China.

But Schmitz, who has reported on China for years, said Daisey’s more extreme characterizations left a distorted impression.

“Some of these things have happened, but he’s repeated ad nauseam a number of things that are rare,” Schmitz said, such as worker poisonings and the use of underage labor. “It’s much more complicated than he’s made it. He’s impacted the way people think about the supply chain in China.”

“This American Life” said it had fact-checked Daisey’s story with his assistance before it aired and found only one small discrepancy: Daisey gave them a different name for his interpreter than the one in his account. But he said that the cellphone number he had for her didn’t work anymore.

“At that point, we should’ve killed the story,” said Glass in a statement. “But other things Daisey told us about Apple’s operations in China checked out, and we saw no reason to doubt him. . . . That was a mistake.”

Added Glass: “I suspect that many things that Mike Daisey claims to have experienced personally did not actually happen, but listeners can judge for themselves.”

Schmitz said he noticed some discrepancies when he heard the “This American Life” broadcast in January. One tip-off: Daisey’s claim that Foxconn’s factory guards were armed; in China, only police and military personnel are permitted to carry weapons, he said.

Schmitz interviewed Daisey’s Chinese interpreter, who disputed some of what Daisey has presented in his one-man show.

Woolly Mammoth Theatre on Friday said it stood by Daisey’s presentation, which it called “a daring work of theater that opened people’s eyes to some of the real working conditions in Chinese factories.”

The theater said it planned to go ahead with Daisey’s planned encore performance of his piece in July. “It’s a core value of Woolly to present works that spark conversation around topics of socio-political importance, and we’re proud to have played a part in bringing these issues to national attention,” it said in a statement.

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
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