In a story that is shaking the adjacent worlds of media and technology, “This American Life” has just announced that it’ll devote its “entire program” this weekend to an unfortunate endeavor. That would be a retraction.
According to a news release from the show, the retraction will cover a story that first aired in January, which was an excerpt from the monologue of performer Mike Daisey titled “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.” The monologue touches on working conditions at Chinese facilities that make Apple products, including the famous Foxconn plant. The release notes that a correspondent for Marketplace, Rob Schmitz, heard the excerpt and found parts of it fishy.
That moment led to its undoing.
Herewith a list of problems with the story, as narrated by “This American Life’s” full disclosure:
1) Interpreter problems: In traveling through China, Daisey had used an interpreter. The identity and reachability of that interpreter became an issue as Daisey’s segment rushed to air on “This American Life”:
During fact checking before the broadcast of Daisey’s story, This American Life staffers asked Daisey for this interpreter’s contact information. Daisey told them her real name was Anna, not Cathy as he says in his monologue, and he said that the cell phone number he had for her didn’t work any more. He said he had no way to reach her.
“At that point, we should’ve killed the story,” says Ira Glass, Executive Producer and Host of This American Life.
Yet Glass notes that other parts of the tale checked out, so they proceeded.
2) Visits: “This American Life” says that the Daisey monologue misrepresented both the number of factories he’d visited and the number of workers that he’d met along the way.
3) Location of poison incident: Daisey “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.” “This American Life” calls this particular falsehood “large.”
4) “Magic”: Now for the show-stopping moment: Daisey’s interpreter, Cathy Lee (as she’s known to Westerners), takes issue with Daisey’s story about a man who’d suffered a grievous hand injury at Foxconn while making iPads. He says that the man had never actually seen one of the devices in action. Yet Daisey says this in the monologue:
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.”
Daisey himself has posted a defense of his work on his Web site. The gist? Bad move to jam a theatrical production into a journalistic straitjacket.
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.
Here’s where these two worlds collide: Between truth and facts. Check out this short interview Daisey did on the topic:
Daisey: “An actor has a responsibility to summon up their best self to reflect the truth of the world.” When asked what the calling of an actor is, he responded: “To express the truth, as best as one can, in public, coming out of your face.” “This American Life” executive producer Ira Glass had this to say about Daisey’s relationship with the truth: “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. That doesn’t excuse the fact that we never should’ve put this on the air. In the end, this was our mistake,” writes Glass on the program’s blog.
Even so, Daisey protests that he has fulfilled his duty to a broader truth: “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.”
A program like “This American Life” wants to get at the truth, to be sure. But it has an equal loyalty to the facts. And that’s why it has written a two-page press release. Its program had represented itself as both.