Watch and learn, science journals: “This American Life” retracts Mike Daisey segment on Apple in China

“This American Life,” the popular radio show hosted by Ira Glass, is retracting an episode in which monologist Mike Daisey claimed to have described conditions in a Chinese factory that makes electronic devices, including Apple products. According to a note about this week’s episode:

Regrettably, we have discovered that one of our most popular episodes was partially fabricated. This week, we devote the entire hour to detailing the errors in “Mr. Daisey Goes to the Apple Factory,” Mike Daisey’s story about visiting Foxconn, an Apple supplier factory in China. Rob Schmitz, a reporter for Marketplace, raises doubts on much of Daisey’s story.

Ira also talks with Mike Daisey about why he misled This American Life during the fact-checking process. And we end the show separating fact from fiction, when it comes to Apple’s manufacturing practices in China.

A This American Life press release spells out why the show retracted the segment, and it isn’t pretty. The doubts started with Rob Schmitz, who interviewed Daisey’s Chinese interpreter, Li Guifen. (She  goes by Cathy Lee professionally with Westerners, according to the release.) A lot of what Daisey had attributed to Lee was false, she said. And that came on top of the fact that Daisey had told This American Life fact-checkers that Lee’s name was Anna, and that he didn’t have a way to reach her anymore. Glass is quoted in the press release:

At that point, we should’ve killed the story. But other things Daisey told us about Apple’s operations in China checked out, and 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. That was a mistake.

The release details the “falsehoods found in Daisey’s monologue,” saying that some of them were small.

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.

But Marketplace’s Schmitz — whose reporting will be featured on a segment of This American Life detailing what was wrong with the Daisey report — knew the story was about a different factory.

I’m not going to say that I didn’t take a few shortcuts in my passion to be heard,” Daisey tells Schmitz and Glass. “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.”

Daisey goes on, later in the release:

“It was completely wrong for me to have it on your show,” Daisey tells Glass on the program, “and that’s something I deeply regret.” He also expressed his regret to “the people who are listening, the audience of This American Life, who know that it is a journalism enterprise, if they feel betrayed.”

Here’s what Daisey had to say about the retraction on his own blog:

“This American Life” has raised questions about the adaptation of AGONY/ECSTASY we created for their program. Here is my response:

I stand by my work. 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. Certainly, the comprehensive investigations undertaken by The New York Times and a number of labor rights groups to document conditions in electronics manufacturing would seem to bear this out.

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. 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. 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.

This isn’t a scientific journal retraction, so it’s a bit outside of what we usually cover. But it’s still a retraction, and we’re interested in it, the same way we’re interested in what happens to papers that have cited retracted work. So we called Charles Duhigg, one of the New York Times reporters who wrote a package of stories on conditions in overseas factories used by Apple, for comment. Duhigg told us that by policy, Times staffers don’t comment on others’ work — not an unusual policy at media organizations.

He did help us figure out whether the Times story would be affected by the retraction, however:

The stories we did are based entirely on first-hand reporting. We did not rely on any monologists. We have two reporters in China who worked for a months on this story. It’s all based on independent reporting. The fact that other people were doing stuff on Apple had literally no impact on our process.

It’s my impression that This American Life is acting really responsibly. They found they’d made a mistake, and moved to correct it quickly.

We have to say: We agree. And that’s despite the fact — or perhaps because of the fact — that one of us (Ivan) has been a big fan of Mike Daisey since seeing one of his earlier shows at The Public Theater in New York. (He also saw The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.)

If you want readers, listeners, and viewers to continue trusting you, when you realize you’ve made a serious error, you need to retract it swiftly, not find reasons to call it a correction, or ignore the criticisms altogether. You need to provide a clear and detailed explanation of why you’re doing so.

That, of course, is not behavior shared by all scientific journals — which could learn from This American Life.

Update, 4 p.m. Eastern, 3/16/12: Corrects Duhigg quote with “months” instead of “a month.” Apologies for the error.

Update, 5:45 p.m. Eastern, 3/16/12: The New York Times has removed a paragraph from an op-ed Daisey wrote in October:

Editor’s Note: Questions have been raised about the truth of a paragraph in the original version of this article that purported to talk about conditions at Apple’s factory in China. That paragraph has been removed from this version of the article.

20 thoughts on “Watch and learn, science journals: “This American Life” retracts Mike Daisey segment on Apple in China”

  1. Ivan,
    Thanks for writing this up. It reminds me of gossip, and how damaging that can be.

    If the NPR/TAL story followed the NY Times’ piece Apple, maybe the editors were too credulous of the findings, besides eager to get the story out. But once it’s out, whether or not the details are true, the company’s reputation is (further) tarnished.

  2. I did not hear the original segment, but during the recent pledge week it was featured among TAL’s greatest hits. Ira and the others were taking partial credit (along with Duhigg et al.) for Apple’s recent openness and other developments.

    I thought at the time that a theater routine was likely to have a different, um, journalistic sensibility. But enforcing that was up to the journalists at TAL, not to Daisey. If he lied about the availability of sources, that makes it harder, or course, and is not consistent with his blog description of his mistake.

    It does sound like TAL is doing the right thing now, but that was one major goof.

  3. Thank you for writing this up. I have to say, when I listened to the TAL story, it was jarring to have a different format (e.g., no chapters and no Ira segues) and I also thought the tone of the show – since it aired as an uninterrupted excerpt of AGONY/ECSTASY – was one of a storytelling nature. The attempts to inject fact-checking during the original airing seemed to be phrased in a way that made it fairly clear to me that Daisey was performing, not reporting.

    Maybe that’s splitting hairs for the way the story was presented, however. It did connect me to the Foxconn story and led me to read the NYT series, so perhaps the Daisey excerpt was a good thing, albeit not appropriate for the TAL platform. In any case, I admire the was Chicago PRI is handling this retraction.

  4. Outrageous, no one seems to know the difference between journalism and theater, most journalism today is now theater, and when its practitioners are called out on it, they say they are entertainers, not journalists or political commentators.

    Apple should sue the pants off of NPR and daisey, and daisey should get a 5 year ban from all media outlets.

    1. Agreed.
      Also agree with @mem_somerville and DefendSmallScience!

      Even after being outed for lying, his continuing “defense” for his intentional embellishment is disgusting and deserving of condemnation from journalists all over. This man sickens me to my core.

      End does not justify the means, truth telling take real courage, and we should applaud the ones who are deserving. It’s an incredibly lazy and scholarly corrupt attitude to think otherwise, and he does disservice to all potential whistle blowers.

    2. I disagree. That’s odd, because I tend to be a right-of-center, corporate type — but the following just occurred to me. There are two basic strategies for dealing with quality of information: (a) regulate information flow by some common filter that generates only information people can rely on or (b) prohibit filters and allow people to develop preferences for information flows they trust. Defamation law is technically a non-filter approach, but courts have tended to disfavor defamation because it often acts as a gag. But the real problem with filters is that they often work well. Consequently, people get lazy. They come to trust “official” information and don’t engage their common sense, reasonable suspicions. No better example of this than the 2008-2009 financial crash — or many of the entries on RW. I’m not arguing for an extreme position here. Filters, like the editorial process, have their place. But so does a healthy skepticism. What the very existence of RW shows is — not that scientific publication (in particular) should be subject to increasingly standardized, increasingly oppressive levels of pre-publication scrutiny — but that readers shouldn’t ever take honesty or accuracy completely for granted. As with the financial markets, it may be that if we don’t see enough dark spots on the road on a daily basis, we stop looking for cow patties — much less land-mines. Just a thought.

      1. I agree with your thoughtful analysis above.

        What I am primarily interested in, and the reason I agreed with Cervellone’s comment above, is in the aftermath of the discovery of dishonorable behavior. Currently, in the face of facts that reveal liars for what they are, the only legal recourse to stop them from spouting their lies are to apply libel law (as in Britain), or by seeking monetary compensation in the court of law. But as you rightly say, that’s just acting as a gag.

        There are professional organizations that may sanction their members, take away licenses as a way to punish and stop bad behavior, but in essence, in Daisey’s profession, as long as he brings in audiences, he is free to spout whatever he wishes to as long as he isn’t sanctioned by fellow performers for outright plagiarism. Sad to say, in his career, Daisey obviously never have had to receive proper training or supervision in a meaningful way to understand what responsibility is about. And when faced with the ultimate test of individual integrity, the honest self-correction that needs to come after revelation of deception, Daisey failed miserably.

        Daisey is no longer a child. He is free to behave as badly as he wants to, but there needs to be a way to sanction individuals recalcitrant to correct themselves in the face of wrong doing, and currently the only methods are by either hitting his pocketbooks or vociferously voicing dismay at his actions. While I’m not allowed to participate in the former, I can in the latter, and I’ll do that to my utmost.

        Researchers, doctors, monologists, are all afforded opportunity to practice their talents by recognition from others in form of research funds, patients, and audiences. It is a privilege that is accompanied with responsibility, and in Daisey’s actions I see him retaining his privilege in spite of having forsaken his responsibility, and for that, I’d like to see him punished as a model.

  5. Ivan–great reporting. I just listened to the broadcast and am pretty thoroughly appalled by Daisey–seems straight out of Stephen Glass and The New Republic. I wrote about this and the plagiarism entry you had a few days back in my own blog.

    FYI the link to Daisey’s blog is dead.

  6. Indeed, Ira had his Oprah vs. James Frey moment on ATC last night, but I would argue that Daisey is far worse an offender. All Frey did was fabricate stories for inclusion in a book he misrepresented as autobiographical to secure publication and publicity. I never really understood all of the indignation over this. What Daisey has done is straight-up defamation.

    As I listened to the NPR piece last night, it occurred to me that the similarities between Daisey’s fabrication and several well-publicized cases of scientific fraud are readily apparent. Ultimately, Daisey is guilty of both fraud and extreme laziness. Journalistic laziness is not dissimilar from scientific laziness. Reading the NYTimes piece by David Barboza on Apple manufacturing practices (also reviewed on ATC last night), it’s clear that there is more than a kernel of truth to the notion that severe working conditions are intrinsic to the manufacturing of iPhones, iPads, etc. However, rather than taking the more costly and time-consuming steps to properly research and expose these conditions for what they really were, Daisey decided to create his own evidence for the sake of his own convenience and the snappiest presentation. This reminds me of the stories of exposed scientific fraudsters, who massage their data (by dropping contradictory results or outright fabrication) to create the easiest or sexiest story possible, rather than spending additional time and effort to get closer to the truth. I have no doubt that transcriptional profiles of tumors can be used to predict their responsiveness, to a degree, to different therapies. Anil Potti surely knew he was on to something, but he chose the easy way to quick, high profile publications – fabricate data to fit the conclusions you want to make rather than reveal the limits of the existing evidence.

    1. Part of indignation stems from his inability to admit he has lied and was wrong to do so. On press releases, he sounds like it, but go read his blog. He sees himself as some enlightened being that’s bringing manna to the masses:

      “If people want to use me as an excuse to return to denialism about the state of our manufacturing, about the shape of our world, they are doing that to themselves.”

      Whether or not he is being obtuse is unclear. But he clearly justifies his lying by saying we have no choice but to listen to his lies and side with him, or else deny all humanity within us. His distortion and delusional self importance is amazing. I guess it comes with the territory of being a performer, but he cheapens other honest efforts at exposing the working conditions at Foxconn (NYT, SACOM (Hong Kong based)). Nobody is in the dark, nobody is in denial, only he is in denial.

  7. This story should be conveyed to the editors and publishers of all peer reviewed journals as well as to the academic institutions (all of which pretend to have much higher ethical standards for research and publications) as an example for DOING THE RIGHT THING.

    We all (as tax payers who fund the research) should insist that all necessary corrections/retractions are made, and Retraction Watch is doing a great job for breaking the silence around research misconduct.

  8. Just listened to the episode on Stitcher. The pinning of Daisey and indeed the whole post-mortem makes for great radio.
    But I’m a little less than impressed by TALs hand-on-heart fealty to high journalistic standards. I don’t have a problem with David Sedaris’ “memoir” like stories–they are clearly not journalism. But, for example, an episode broadcast last year on TAL covered fracking (“Game Changer” from 07/08/11, transcript here In it, they used the words of Dan Volz (labelled Conrad in the transcript):

    Sarah Koenig
    The story of that second guy’s calculation, Dan Volz’s calculation, at first sounds an awful lot like Terry Engelder’s. A couple of years after drilling had started in Pennsylvania, he also figured out something no one else had bothered to calculate, how much toxic crap– chemicals, and other pollution from gas drilling– was getting into water supplies.

    Treatment plants were taking in the waste, supposedly cleaning it up, and then releasing it into bodies of water, like the Monongahela River in Pittsburgh, which actually runs right in back of Volz’s office building.

    I essentially did a calculation looking at these 13 or so wastewater facilities. Every day, if these wastewater treatment plants were accepting their total allotment of oil and gas waste, they’d be putting something on the order of 800,000 pounds of solids into the river a day. And this would include tons and tons of things, like strontium and bromium and barium.

    Sarah Koenig
    High levels of strontium and bromium can cause cancer and birth defects. Barium is a heavy metal, which can be poisonous if you ingest enough of it.

    Koenig is the TAL reporter for this segment. Problem: there is no such thing as “bromium”. Yet not only does Koenig repeat the term used by Volz (?), but she then adds the bit about it causing birth defects and cancer. Where is the fact-checking in that? Apparently bromide is meant, although I’m not really aware of its health effects except as the counter ion to heavy metals.

    I sent an email to TAL shortly after the episode aired. Never heard anything from them.

    1. Sarah Koenig here. Yes – the “bromium” mistake was an embarrassing one. I actually did respond — there was a blog post, correcting the mistake, on our website. Dan Volz simply misspoke, and I repeated his mistake – even though I truly thought I had fact-checked the substance. It’s possible I fact-checked bromide, but figured the good doctor must have known what he was saying – that this was some variant of bromide. I don’t know exactly what I thought. But what’s sure is that whatever I thought, it was a dumb mistake. Again, I did heed your email (others sent emails as well), and did correct it on our website. Here’s the entry, from August 2011:

      “Sarah Koenig here. I’ve been away for the past month, so am just now responding to some of the comments about the gas drilling stories I reported for the “Game Changer” show that ran back in July.

      First, I’d like to correct an embarrassing error in the first half of the show, when Dan Volz from the University of Pittsburgh said one of the pollutants being dumped into water from fracking operations was “bromium.” We got a bunch of emails, several from chemists, pointing out that there’s no such thing as bromium. Here’s one: “I can see the professor misspeaking, but when the producer goes on to say how bromium causes cancer, there should be a little more scrutiny.”

      I agree. I emailed Dan Volz about it, and he was chagrinned. He answered: “It was a slip-up—it is bromide—can’t believe I did it. Bromide in water becomes brominated compounds in finished drinking water after treatment.” And those compounds can be bad for you. As for why I repeated the fake element of “bromium” in the script, I’m not exactly sure. I definitely looked up bromide to see what it did to you if you ate enough of it, but then must have just trusted that if Dan Volz called it “bromium,” I should too. In any case, I apologize for the mistake, and I’m grateful listeners pointed it out.”

      My goof notwithstanding, I want to be clear that I fact-checked that entire episode very carefully. Both because I wanted to be sure of the information I was reporting, and because I didn’t want any oil and gas companies, or any universities, coming after me, or the show. Which they haven’t. (While Penn State issued a nasty press release about the show, they haven’t been able to refute anything I reported.)

      1. Hi Sarah, this is Shane Street. I appreciate your reply here. I did in fact find your blog entry after writing my comment; the Retraction Watch article on TAL renewed my interest in the story. I did not reply there (at the TAL blog) because some time had passed since the airing of the story, and, well, I had more important things to worry about.

        But I find your explanation of the goof not entirely persuasive and indicative of an alarmist slant to the reporting. It is not just the “bromium” error, but the health-effects scare you then attribute to the processes that really is the problem. For example, even after Volz explanation I still don’t think you understand the health effects of bromide. It is not a matter of what might happen to you “if you ate enough of it”. Bromide in treated water might be a problem following certain (not all) chlorination wastewater treatments if the process yields brominated organics. Wastewater facilities have to deal with these kinds of issues all the time. Inorganic bromides are simply not an important health problem, as far as I can tell (and I should say that I’m a chemist, but not an expert in toxicology). Similarly with barium. The form of barium in the drilling fluids is barium sulfate. This is the same compound used in radiocontrast agents (e.g., barium enemas). The reason it is used in medicine is because although there is a naturally occurring radioactive isotope of barium (the tracer), barium sulfate is so insoluble and is passed from the body so easily that it can’t possibly poison you.

        None of this is to say that all fracking, or indeed any of the myriad of industrial processes, around our drinking water is perfectly safe. Rule making, monitoring, and enforcement are clearly important government functions here.

        Now perhaps mine is just the typical response of someone who knows a bit about the problem who finds the version presented to a general audience by non-experts to be lacking in detail and nuance. Could be, and maybe as a radio reporter you run into this all the time. But since it appears you don’t understand the chemistry well enough to catch even a simple error like “bromium”, what are we to make of the rest of the interpretation? “Toxic crap”, indeed.

  9. “Watch and learn, science journals”

    Really? Science journals should learn from journalists? Have you ever looked at the blog “Regret the Error?” Jouralism is filled with untraceable nonsense, and there are no consequences for journalists. You just go on doing your job and your newspaper covers you by saying they “regret the error” and then publishing a retraction usually on the back page in 10 point font.

    Science isn’t perfect, but on the whole functions much better than journalism. Just look at Fox news. It also shows the slant of the authors of this column.

    1. Thanks for the feedback. We’re quite familiar with Craig Silverman’s great work at Regret the Error. We cite it whenever appropriate, and he did a column on us when we launched:

      Our point was that journals can learn from this episode and how This American Life handled it, not that journalists are better at handling error than are science journal editors. They both have serious problems. It’s hard to imagine a careful reader of Retraction Watch would think that science journal editors are as eager to retract papers and correct the record as they should be.

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