Radio show on Apple's Chinese workers is retracted

Sat Mar 17, 2012 10:43am EDT

A man walks outside one of the Foxconn factory buildings with nets which are installed to prevent workers from jumping to their deaths in Langfang, Hebei Province August 3, 2010. REUTERS/Jason Lee

A man walks outside one of the Foxconn factory buildings with nets which are installed to prevent workers from jumping to their deaths in Langfang, Hebei Province August 3, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Jason Lee

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(Reuters) - The U.S. radio program "This American Life" has retracted an episode critical of working conditions at a Chinese factory that makes iPhones and iPads for Apple Inc, saying it had contained "numerous fabrications."

The retracted episode, which aired on January 6, was based heavily on a one-man theatrical show by actor Mike Daisey: "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs." The play and its attendant publicity, including the radio segment, have played a big role in pressuring Apple to allow outside inspectors at its contract manufacturing facilities in China, which are mostly owned by Foxconn Technology.

Daisey had also written an op-ed piece on the topic for The New York Times, and on Friday the Times removed a paragraph from that piece, stating that "questions have been raised" about its veracity. The Times itself also spotlighted working conditions at Foxconn factories in a recent series of stories.

Friday night's edition of the "This American Life," which is produced by Chicago radio station WBEZ and distributed by Public Radio International, detailed the factual inaccuracies in the earlier show and featured a tense back-and-forth between Daisey and the show's host and executive producer, Ira Glass.

"We did factcheck the story before we put it on the radio," Glass said in opening the program. "But in factchecking, our main concern was whether the things Mike says about Apple and about its supplier Foxconn, which makes this stuff, were true. That stuff is true. It's been corroborated by independent investigations by other journalists, studies by advocacy groups, and much of it has been corroborated by Apple itself in its own audit reports.

"But what's not true is what Mike said about his own trip to China."

"This American Life" is one of the most popular and respected public affairs programs in the country, and news of the retraction was greeted with shock and chagrin in the media world. Many of the United States' top journalism organizations have had to combat issues of fabrication, plagiarism and bias in recent years, which press critics say has undermined public trust in journalism.

The alleged fabrications on "This American Life" came to light after a correspondent for another radio show, American Public Media's "Marketplace," contacted Daisey's Chinese interpreter, Li Guiden, who disputed much of what the actor had been telling audiences since 2010 and what he said on the radio program.

"Daisey lied to me and to This American Life producer Brian Reed," Glass said in a statement.

Saying "what I do is not journalism," Daisey defended his work in a blog: "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."

Apple was contacted while the show was being researched and denied its allegations, including that workers were poisoned on an iPhone assembly line by a chemical called n-hexane, according to a source familiar with the situation.

Apple has not commented publicly on the radio program and the retraction. The company has consistently rejected allegations that Foxconn workers were mistreated, but last month the company for the first time agreed to allow independent monitors to inspect the facilities.

Both "This American Life" and "Marketplace" are part of the complex public broadcasting system in the United States, and both are separate from National Public Radio, the news producer most commonly associated with public radio. While taxpayer funds support stations that broadcast the shows, the programs themselves are not directly subsidized by the government.

In a form of cooperation that would be unusual in commercial media, Rob Schmitz, the "Marketplace" reporter, and Glass of "This American Life" jointly confronted Daisey about the truth of the original segment in the show that aired Friday.

In one exchange, Daisey acknowledged that he had not actually met or seen workers poisoned by n-hexane. He then apologized to Glass.

"Look. I'm not going to say that I didn't take a few shortcuts in my passion to be heard. But I stand behind the work," Daisey said. "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."

At another point in the program Glass presses Daisey on why he didn't come clean when a "This American Life" producer pressed him on key facts.

"Why not just tell us what really happened at that point?" Glass asks. Daisey responds: "I think I was terrified." Glass: "Of what?" Daisey: "That ... I think I was terrified that if I untied these things, that the work, that I know is really good, and tells a story, that does these really great things for making people care, that it would come apart in a way where, where it would ruin everything."

Daisey's explanation of his actions echoes a debate that has rocked the book publishing world over non-fiction "memoirs" that contain made-up scenes. Some writers have defended departing from the hard facts to tell a more compelling story, but most non-fiction writers and editors reject the practice.

"A program like "This American Life" wants to get at the truth, to be sure," said Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple. "But it has an equal loyalty to the facts."

On Twitter, the most common reaction from reporters and editors were "Wow" or "Whoa."

The dust-up does not appear to have scared off "This American Life" sponsors, however.

Julia Yager, a vice president with Public Radio International, the network that distributes This American Life, said that her group had informed the show's two sponsors, Toyota Scion and Reputation.com, of the issue on Thursday and that companies had decided to continue to advertise.

"The whole industry suffers a bit when something like this occurs," said Dave Kansas, chief operating officer of American Public Media. "What's important is to address is forthrightly, and that's what This American Life is doing."

(Reporting by Ronald Grover in Los Angeles and Jonathan Weber in San Francisco; Additional reporting by Poornima Gupta in San Francisco, Jim Finkel in Boston; Editing by Gary Hill)

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Comments (3)
Harry079 wrote:
So if you have to install nets all the way around your factory to prevent workers from commiting suicide we are NOT supposed to believe that workers are being poisoned by are harmful gas on the production line?

Okay I’ll buy that one if the US Government doesn’t believe that China sells the Defense Department bogus chips for our missle and weapon systems.

Mar 17, 2012 1:42pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
BiteRight wrote:
Instead of allowing these young workers to manufacture an Apple product from start to end, they were forced to do piece-meal by screwing up a screw repeatedly for 1000 times more a day. No American would take up such a job.

They jumped to their death because they couldn’t withstand the boring pressure and more importantly, Apple insulted their intelligence.

Mar 17, 2012 2:48pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
SethDuerr wrote:
For the last week I have been vigorously involved in the defense of monologuist and playwright Mike Daisey in the face of public outrage over his fabrication of certain facts regarding Apple’s manufacturing practices, both in his solo theatrical play “The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” as well as his appearances and writings in various journalistic and quasi-journalistic forums.

It is apparent that there are myriad questions being conflated in this debate and the worst example, in recent memory, of an inability to see the forest for the trees. It is time to deal with each of these issues, separately, instead of drawing simplistic conclusions about their totality.

Is There Such a Thing as ‘Essential Truth’ Versus ‘Factual Truth’?

In the furious replies to my commentary on The New York Times, Slate and Reuters’ websites it was this question that seemed to annoy my detractors the most. I was accused of “goal-post moving” and told many different ways that there is no such thing as “essential truth”. This is indicative of a severe misunderstanding of how storytelling works. Virtually no play could ever survive a fact-check and it would be wrong to saddle playwrights with the same obligations as journalists. There is a reason that they are two completely different professions. It is not the responsibility of an actor or playwright to be factually accurate and journalistic standards do not and should not apply to theater.

By way of example I asked and answered:

“Shall we exhume Shakespeare’s corpse, reanimate him and hold him accountable for how he misrepresented real-life figures? Facts: Julius Caesar wasn’t half-deaf, Macbeth never conversed with witches and Richard III wasn’t a hunchback.”

I was informed that a) Shakespeare did not claim his work was a non-fiction account b) that audiences knew it wasn’t all factually accurate; and c) that is was inane to compare Mr. Daisey to the Bard.

Point A: Alli Houseworth, the former Marketing and Communications Director at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington, D.C. where this play originated, has alleged that Mr. Daisey insisted the playbills state “This is a work of non-fiction”. If that is true, I will certainly concede that was a poor decision on Mr. Daisey’s part. Worse, however, is the decision on the part of any theater who chooses to produce his play without fact-checking such a statement. It is patently blind acceptance and, in my opinion, tantamount to false advertising on the part of such producers.

Point B: I would ask you to sample a cross-section of the English-speaking population and ask them each one thing they believe to be fact about the actual King Richard III. I can guarantee you most will mention the hunchback as though it were a fact.
Point C: I was not comparing Mr. Daisey’s ability as actor or playwright to that of Shakespeare. I was illustrating that our most celebrated playwrights have manipulated factual truth as a device to tell a story about an essential truth.

Which brings us back to the original question – is there such a thing as essential truth? Unequivocally, yes, it is prevalent in each and every artistic discipline. Shall we reject Van Gogh’s impressions of people and places because they are not necessarily factual representations? Michelangelo’s sculptures because there is no way to corroborate David’s real measurements? David Sedaris’ autobiographical accounts? Frank Langella’s portrayal of Richard M. Nixon?

Each of these artists manipulated or disregarded factual truths in the search to communicate essential truths to their audience.

I never moved the goal post, as I’ve always given carte blanche to the arts so long as they were not wrongfully libelous or slanderous in their representations. While certain factual truths were inaccurate, Mr. Daisey’s essential truth about Apple’s manufacturing practices is certainly valid. The New York Times has confirmed many of Apple’s abuses, in a journalistic medium and in accordance with proper fact-checking standards. Such reporting is the purview of journalism not theater. Also, should Apple truly believe he committed libel or slander they have legal rights available to seek redress. I doubt such a lawsuit will ever be filed.

Should Mr. Daisey’s Appearances and Writings in Journalistic and Quasi- Journalistic Forums Be Held to a Higher Factual Standard?

This is another example of blind acceptance by the audience and gross negligence on the part of the producers and journalists of his play, interviews and articles. Artists are not obligated to do anything. They create something, if they feel like doing so, and must be allowed the room to promote it however they please. It is clear that Ira Glass and “This American Life” asked Mr. Daisey to comply with journalistic standards, for which he was completely unqualified, and chose to produce that content on his word instead of performing the very fact-checking procedures to which they claimed to be obligated. Even more alarming, Mr. Glass actually had doubts about the validity of some of the facts and chose to go ahead anyway. Mr. Glass correctly apologized for this, though it seems rather ridiculous to accept his apology when he knew the original program was a betrayal of the very standards he chose to pursue. Even more disgusting is when the program chose to spend the majority of its retraction humiliating Mr. Daisey to divert the audience’s attention away from Mr. Glass’s own gross negligence as a supposed journalist.

Stephen Glass at The New Republic, was, as a journalist, the source in his articles when no others were available. Later, it was revealed he fabricated virtually all of his reports. It was correct to hold him to account for his disregard and perversion of journalistic standards because that was his industry, and I suspect that Ira Glass must’ve realized angry villagers would come after him with pitchforks if left to their own thoughts about what he did wrong.

Mr. Glass, a spectacular performance artist in his own right, was faced with the very tough situation of how to avoid being shamed off the air for such a flagrant disregard of what he himself stated was journalism. Clearly, his retraction has had the intended affect upon his listeners. Most now view Mr. Daisey as predator and Mr. Glass as victim.

Mr. Daisey admitted to fabricating certain factual truths and, compounded with his non-fictional framing, it is understandable why people felt misled. However, the actual standards and obligations fall on the presenter not the performer. Both gentlemen failed to present a fully accurate portrayal of the facts, but only one of them called himself a journalist.

Again, Mr. Daisey is using the tools of theater inside and outside of the performance venue, telling the essential truth about these events, not the factual truth. Nor is it his obligation to deal in facts outside of a court-room. Mr. Daisey is a playwright. Any appearance Mr. Daisey makes, anything he writes about the show, is merely publicity to get bums in seats and to further provoke readers/viewers to research how Apple created its products. A goal which he has certainly achieved. That can of worms is open.

Sadly, it was not just Mr. Glass who blithely assumed the factual representations to be true, but the listeners. So:

Should We Really Feel Misled About Factual Truths We Never Questioned?

It is appalling that we now accept something as truth just because we read it in print, saw it on television, or heard it on the radio. Have we truly fallen so far as to no longer maintain even a modicum of intellectual caution? I have long admired Mr. Glass’ program, but never presumed it was 100% journalism. Even when I do believe something has been fact-checked, ad nauseum, by an organization, I exercise healthy skepticism and further research the claims in other locations and I hope that others do the same.

We have, as a country, become profoundly lazy about how we receive information. We value speedy talking points and dubious statistical sources over actual rigorous engagement. Google is utilized more often as a safety net rather than one of many tools to be employed in proper investigation of an issue. Journalistic bars are set lower each day not only by Fox ‘News’ but many organizations on both sides.

I do believe in the obligation of journalists to fact-check every last piece of data so that we can have some trust in the information we’ve received. Mr. Glass and his program labeled their program as journalism and it is wholly incumbent upon them to fulfill that obligation. Of course we feel misled and we should, but Mr. Glass’ own manipulative performance in the retraction has obscured where the proper blame of misrepresentation should lie as well the real issue – the abuses of Apple.

The Forest for the Trees

The factual revelations in the last few months about Apple’s abhorrent manufacturing practices have made people incredibly uncomfortable. We do not want to believe that we have contributed directly or indirectly to the oppression of others in the creation of our gadgets. This backlash against Mr. Daisey has less to do with debating the obligations of storytellers and more to do with our desperate search for a way to force Apple’s worms back into the can and pretend they never existed.

In the last few weeks, Chris Hayes has had both Mr. Daisey on his MSNBC weekend program as well as actor and playwright Wallace Shawn to discuss his play “The Fever”. This is no accident. Mr. Hayes is rightfully bringing an issue into the fore that we struggle to keep hidden away: how are our possessions made and what responsibility do we have to ensure they are done so safely and fairly?

This is a question with which I have struggled ever since reading Mr. Shawn’s play over a decade ago. And I still fail at this. Even knowing about Apple’s practices, I use an iPhone, a Macbook Pro and I’m typing this on my iMac. And that’s only one organization.

Consider how with each passing year more and more of our work is outsourced, robbing our citizens of much needed jobs and allowing us such physical distance from the locations in which our things are produced that we ignore the blood, sweat and tears of those who make them.

Whatever you think of Mr. Daisey’s cry, I can assure you that the wolf exists.

-Seth Duerr
Artistic Director
The York Shakespeare Company

Mar 22, 2012 4:39am EDT  --  Report as abuse
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