“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
amonths 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.