The most popular single podcast in This American Life's history is one from early January called "Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory," in which actor and writer Mike Daisey visited the factory in China where his iPhone was made and discovered the appalling working conditions there. Not only was the podcast, excerpted from Daisey's one-man show, downloaded 888,000 times, but along with a Times investigative series that ran around the same time, it helped spark widespread outrage against the company's production policies. Apple pledged to have a third party audit the working conditions in its factories. Now, it turns out, not all those outrageous details in the program were true. In an episode of TAL that will air tonight, the program will retract the Mr. Daisey episode for being "partially fabricated" and explain what went wrong.
As Ira Glass explains on the show's blog, Marketplace reporter Rob Schmitz initially raised questions about the veracity of Daisey's reporting, leading to a lengthy ex-post facto fact-check. The original episode was checked before airing — and there were some details, including Daisey's claims about having seen many clearly underage workers, that didn't check out — but the show disclosed those "discrepancies" in the original version. Writes Glass, "We saw no reason to doubt him. We didn't think that he was lying to us and to audiences about the details of his story." This was despite the fact that Daisey hadn't produced contact information for his interpreter, "Cathy," and said that her cell phone number had changed, leaving him with no way to reach her. Schmitz contacted "Cathy," whose real name is Li Guifen, and it turned out that her version of the events described in the show was quite different from Daisey's.
Some of the falsehoods found in Daisey's monologue are small ones: the number of factories Daisey visited in China, for instance, and the number of workers he spoke with. Others are large. 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 Schmitz's report, he confronts Daisey and Daisey admits to fabricating these characters.
Daisey's interpreter Cathy also disputes two of the most dramatic moments in Daisey's story: that he met underage workers at Foxconn, and that a man with a mangled hand was injured at Foxconn making iPads (and that Daisey's iPad was the first one he ever saw in operation).
Daisey repeatedly and publicly said that all the details in his report were true. But now, on his blog, he writes, "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." But it's not an apologia, exactly. It's more a genre clariifcation. "I stand by my work." It's an argument that calls to mind this recent book on fact-checking a fabulist.) Perhaps the title of Daisey's 2005 audiobook All Stories Are Fiction was a disclaimer, not a meditation on the nature of perception.
Glass, meanwhile, squarely shoulders the blame even while pointing a finger. "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. We're horrified to have let something like this onto public radio." The program, which made its name with charming, small slice-of-life tales has gotten increasingly ambitious in recent years, and has begun running a number of successful investigative pieces alongside its bread-and-butter stuff from people like David Sedaris, who has a famously slippery notion of truth himself. It's hard to imagine this misstep, however public and embarrassing, halting that trajectory — but it's also hard to imagine there's not going to be a heightened awareness of the degree of difficulty in creating a product that might play with the idea of truth in one segment and seek to expose it in the next.