This weekend, the public radio show, This American Life issued an hour-long retraction for its most listened to show ever, the program about the Foxconn plant in China. The plant is the factory that makes virtually all of the Apple products that you know, iPod, iPad and so on.
While nobody can be happy about the lies in the original program, Ira Glass shows us how to make a correction. He doesn’t offer a lame excuse, an addendum on a web page. He dedicates just as much time airing a retraction as he did to the original story. He takes responsibility for the program that aired. The downloads for this program are free. They don’t charge to download a retraction. It is a small point, but not at all subtle.
The lies were uncovered by Rob Schmitz, a Shanghai-based reporter for Marketplace. Rob admits this was not some huge investigation that made the story unravel. Instead, he felt the story Mike Daisey had told to Ira Glass and to audiences around America just didn’t sound right. So he started with tracking down Daisey’s Chinese interpreter. It was a simple Google search.
In her interview with Rob, Cathy disputes much of what Daisey has been telling theater audiences since 2010 and much of what he said on the radio. Rob also talks to Mike Daisey about Cathy’s version of the trip and tries to square the two accounts. Act One. Cathy’s Account.
Cathy says a lot of what Daisey tells audiences about Foxconn is not true. Security guards do not have guns, they talked with many fewer workers, they visited many fewer factories, the story about visiting workers as young as 12, 13 and 14 years old at Foxconn. Cathy says they met workers who looked young, but she says Daisey did not meet workers as young as that.
When Rob presses Daisey, Daisey admits he met with far fewer “outlawed” union members than he first claimed, his story about the young girls fell completely apart, his stories about workers who claimed they had been poisoned on the job was based totally on stuff people had told him. He said refused to say he lied, but he didn’t meet an actual worker who had been poisoned on the job as he has repeated claimed. Time after time, details in his stories do not check out.
One of the more interesting moments in the retraction is when Cathy says Daisey is a writer and it is OK when he makes up some of the facts. It is a window into the understanding of a Chinese citizen who does not expect that everything they hear on the radio has to be true. She was not the least bit surprised to hear Daisey exaggerated some of his story.
Act Two. Mike’s Account. Host Ira Glass has a lot of questions for Mike Daisey, beginning with why Daisey lied to Ira and This American Life producer Brian Reed about how they could fact-check his story with Cathy Lee. Ira also explains This American Life‘s fact-checking process, in general. (15 minutes).
Act Three. The News That’s Fit to Print. To get a sense of what really is true of Apple’s working conditions in China, Ira talks to New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg. Duhigg, along with Times reporter David Barboza, wrote the newspaper’s front-page investigative series in early 2012 about this subject. And while Duhigg won’t tell you how to feel about Apple and its supplier factories’ practices, he does lay out the options for how you could feel, in a very clear and logical way. Duhigg is also the author of The Power of Habit. (12 minutes).
Here is the Marketplace report. It is an unemotional, factual and low-key piece that does not even lead with the fact that Marketplace caught Daisey lying.
A note from Ira Glass.
Glass told Daisey he felt terrible for him, but he also felt lied to. Astonishingly, rather than admitting to more lies, Daisey came back to Glass to try to provide more “context” for why he told his exaggerated story the way he did. He said his goal was to “make people care.” He admitted he took “a few shortcuts in his passion to be heard.” He said his story is theater, not journalism. And Daisey said “it was completely wrong for me to have it on your show.”
.Daisey says he when he performs in a theatrical context he has no plan to reveal that some of his story is made up. He says audiences understand in that context, that some of what performers say is made up. That is the context of the theater, he says.
It raises the question doesn’t it, is the only way to get to people to fabricate? To exaggerate? Glass confronts Daisey by saying “it just isn’t true.” Glass goes on to tell Daisey be thinks Daisey exaggerated and/or lied in other parts of the story too. Ira says what people want is “honest labeling.” Ira says, “I think when somebody says something happened to them that people believe it.”
Update: This is the strange way that Daisey opened his stage act this weekend.
He does not admit in the revision that he is a liar, he says he stands behind the work. Astonishing.
Last year, performer Mike Daisey sat down with Jeff Brown for Art Beat to discuss his much-talked-about one-man show, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.” It was that show that caught Ira Glass’ attention and started this radio project. In that PBS interview, Daisey claimed that his work is “non-fiction.”
Part of the tragedy of this story is that you might not now believe anything that Daisey said. In fact, an awful lot of what he reported to be true, is true.
Here is a piece that ABC News Nightline filed in February 2012.
Something to keep in mind:
A lot of people hear This American Life on public radio station stations affiliated with National Public Radio. This American Life is produced by PRI, Public Radio International. Marketplace is a program produced by American Public Media. They are all public radio networks and you hear their programming on stations affiliated with NPR, but they are not the same.