Hoodwinked

03.17.12

The Conning of ‘This American Life’ Leads to an Embarrassing Retraction

Ira Glass’s report on Apple factory abuses was poisoned by a showman’s fabrications. Philip Bump on how a performance artist misled the public radio show.

Mike Daisey is a heavyset man with a soothing voice, a trait that happens to benefit him in his line of work. Daisey is a monologist—he creates and performs theatrical monologues. Over his career, he’s done more than a dozen, on topics ranging from psychology to ghost stories to megalomania.

If his name is familiar to you, it’s probably because of another topic he tackled: Apple.

Daisey’s one-man show The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs outlines his trip to an Apple manufacturing facility in China. It’s run by a company called Foxconn, which doesn’t only make Apple products—it makes an incomprehensibly huge array of electronic products. But Daisey, a longtime fan of Apple, singled out Foxconn specifically because it produces most of Apple’s iPhones and iPads.

What Daisey relates in the show is jarring; he describes seeing abusive working conditions, disfigurement, child labor, illness. The story is so powerful that This American Life, the popular weekly show distributed by Public Radio International, asked Daisey to adapt the monologue into an hourlong episode. That episode ended up being This American Life’s most popular ever, and served as the catalyst for a broad examination of Foxconn’s business practices by mainstream media outlets, as well as promised changes by Apple.

On Friday, This American Life retracted the entire story. And the unfolding tale of how this con job got on the air should be troubling for anyone who cares about good journalism.

The retraction was prompted by Rob Schmitz, a reporter for American Public Media’s Marketplace who is based in Shanghai. For 18 months, Schmitz has been reporting on Apple’s Chinese supply chain. That experience made him very skeptical of Daisey’s claims. “Certain details,” he reported in a Marketplace segment, “didn’t sound right.”

His concerns were borne out. Before the episode aired, Daisey was asked by This American Life producers to verify details from his monologue. Chief among them, the show hoped to speak with the woman who acted as his translator, a person who could corroborate everything that Daisey saw. Not possible, Daisey said—the phone number he had for her no longer worked. That claim, Schmitz discovered, wasn’t true. Schmitz looked up the translator’s phone number and spoke with her. She revealed that, among other things, Daisey had never met with sick workers, as he claimed, had never entered Foxconn dormitories, had never encountered armed guards at the gates.

Schmitz and Ira Glass, the host of This American Life, confronted Daisey. He admitted the falsehoods, describing his conduct as misguided. “My mistake,” he said, “the mistake I truly regret, is that I had it on your show as journalism. And it’s not journalism. It’s theater.”

When the story became public Friday, Daisey echoed that argument on his website: “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.”

Much of the initial response to This American Life’s retraction has been focused on this argument: that the standards of art are different than the standards of journalism. Which they are. Artists use artistic license. No one, for example, assumes that David Sedaris’s amusing anecdotes that also air on public radio are completely factual. The standard of a monologue is not the same as the front page of The New York Times. Daisey’s argument is that his goal was to be David Sedaris, not Jayson Blair.

But focusing on artistic license doesn’t address the core issue. In itself, Daisey’s exaggerations likely wouldn’t have caused This American Life to yank the piece. The conditions Daisey described, as Schmitz himself notes, do exist in Foxconn facilities and among Foxconn employees. Had Daisey been forthright with the producers, it’s possible that the segment could have been adapted with Daisey clarifying what he had witnessed.

But he didn’t. Daisey appears to have intentionally misled the producers and to have lied about his ability to corroborate his story. That action—far more Blair than Sedaris—casts doubt on every other unverifiable piece of Daisey’s story. Whether or not the story he tells happened to someone, it cannot be presented by a journalistic enterprise as having happened to him without a disclaimer. Which is the position in which he put This American Life.

On Friday’s show (PDF), Glass acknowledged the program’s own errors: “I can say now in retrospect that when Mike Daisey wouldn’t give us contact information for his interpreter we should’ve killed the story rather than run it. We never should’ve broadcast this story without talking to that woman. Instead, we trusted his word. Although he’s not a journalist, we made clear to him that anything he was going to say on our show would have to live up to journalistic standards.

“He had to be truthful. And he lied to us.”

Mike Daisey appears to have intentionally misled the producers and to have lied about his ability to corroborate his story.

Some may try to blur the argument here. A recently published book, The Lifespan of a Fact, follows an astonishing, monthslong back-and-forth between an author and a fact-checker. The former argues that details of his story that bend the truth are allowable under artistic license; the latter pushes the author to hew only to the truth. The argument Daisey makes is the same as the one made by the author, in a sense: this makes an important story more powerful. The problem in the case of Mike Daisey is that he presented that argument only after the fact. When the fact-checker came to verify what he said, Daisey deliberately and blatantly lied.

Daisey is a storyteller. The story he told about Foxconn was an important one, a story that deserved to be delivered to a wide audience, revealing behavior that was unacceptable.

That story is now undermined—not because of Daisey’s artistic license, but because Mike Daisey lied.