‘This American Life’ Retracts Apple-China Story
Producers of the radio series “This American Life” retracted one of the most popular programs in its 16-year history, saying that it contained a series of fabricated statements.
“We can’t vouch for its truth,” said host Ira Glass, referring to a Jan. 6 episode that featured a piece by performance artist Mike Daisey about Apple Inc.’s AAPL 0.00% manufacturing practices in China. Mr. Glass accused Mr. Daisey of lying to him and another producer during fact-checking on the story.
The broadcast was an excerpt from Mr. Daisey’s one-man theatrical show “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” which has been playing at various theaters for more than a year. In the two-hour show, Mr. Daisey describes his visit to a factory in Shenzhen, China owned by a manufacturer known as Foxconn.
That trip became a touchstone for Mr. Daisey, who wrote about Apple’s manufacturing in an op-ed article for the New York Times, and appeared on numerous television interviews to discuss what he found there.
Public-radio program “This American Life” has retracted an episode that had been critical of Apple’s manufacturing practices in China, saying that it contained “significant fabrications.” Ian Sherr has details on The News Hub. Photo: AP
Delivered as an intimate and emotional discussion, Mr. Daisey helped put a new spotlight on labor conditions in factories that make Apple’s gadgets. In it, he describes encountering 12-year-old employees near the factory gates, while also meeting clandestinely with workers who came in contact with a toxic chemical that left their hands shaking “uncontrollably.”
The show touched a nerve among listeners of “This American Life,” which airs on 500 public-radio stations around the U.S., and is now the most popular podcast download on Apple’s own iTunes music service. One listener began a petition protesting work conditions at Foxconn factories that garnered some 250,000 signatures.
Mr. Daisey’s story unraveled after a reporter from a different radio program, American Public Media’s “Marketplace,” met with the translator used by Mr. Daisey on his travels to Shenzhen. The reporter, Rob Schmitz, said the translator disputed much of Mr. Daisey’s account.
Mr. Schmitz later confronted Mr. Daisey, and according to a transcript posted online, asked the stage performer about the workers he said were poisoned by the toxic chemical known as N-hexane.
“So you lied about that?” Mr Schmitz asked.
“I wouldn’t express it that way,” Mr. Daisey responded.
“How would you express it?” Mr. Schmitz asked.
“I would say that I wanted to tell a story that captured the totality of my trip,” Mr. Daisey said.
Last month, Apple’s Chief Executive Tim Cook defended the company’s oversight of its facilities at an investor conference in San Francisco, saying Apple takes the matter seriously. Apple also recently opened its factories to outside inspectors for the first time and began reporting some results of its factory audits more regularly.
The company also went on a media offensive of its own, inviting ABC News into a Foxconn factory. An ABC reporter found evidence of teenagers doing work of “soul-crushing boredom” that was better than the conditions where they were from in the countryside.
An Apple spokesman declined to comment on the retraction and whether Apple played a role in causing it.
In a statement, Mr. Daisey said he stood by his work, though he noted his work is a theatrical piece, and not journalism. “The tools of the theater are not the same as the tools of journalism,” he said. “For this reason, I regret that I allowed ‘This American Life’ to air an excerpt from my monologue.”
New York’s Public Theater, where Mr. Daisey’s one-man show is scheduled to finish its run on Sunday, said in a statement that “we wish he had been more precise with us and our audiences about what was and wasn’t his personal experience in the piece.”
The theater defended the performance, saying that “In the theater, our job is to create fictions that reveal truth—that’s what a storyteller does, that’s what a dramatist does.” It added that Mr. Daisey “has illuminated how our actions affect people half-a-world away and, in doing so, has spurred action to address a troubling situation.”
On Friday afternoon, the New York Times removed a paragraph from an opinion piece Mr. Daisey had written for the paper’s website. The paragraph recounted a story from Mr. Daisey’s monologue, in which he met a man with a hand “permanently curled into a claw”—an account that “This American Life” said was also false.
“We asked him questions and talked about his travel. We took him at his word,” said Times spokeswoman Eileen Murphy. The Times, which had separately published a series of its own articles about Apple’s factories, said it stood by those. “We do something very different. Our standard is a journalistic one.”
The episode is also an embarrassment for Mr. Glass. “We never should’ve put this on the air,” he said in the statement. “In the end, this was our mistake.”
“This American Life,” Mr. Glass added, plans to “devote its entire program this weekend to detailing the errors in the story.”
Corrections & Amplifications
Rob Schmitz is the reporter from American Public Media’s “Marketplace” who found that Mr. Daisey’s translator disputed much of his account. An earlier version of this article omitted Mr. Schmitz’s first name.