Theater News

This American Life Retracts Its Mike Daisey/Apple Story

Some parts were fabricated, they say.

By Laura Dannen March 16, 2012

Photo: Courtesy Mike Daisey

One of This American Life’s most popular segments, featuring an excerpt from Mike Daisey’s one-man show The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, has been retracted today, and the news is practically crashing the TAL blog.

Host Ira Glass said in a post this morning:

I have difficult news. We’ve learned that Mike Daisey’s story about Apple in China – which we broadcast in January – contained significant fabrications. We’re retracting the story because we can’t vouch for its truth. This is not a story we commissioned. It was an excerpt of Mike Daisey’s acclaimed one-man show "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs," in which he talks about visiting a factory in China that makes iPhones and other Apple products.

The China correspondent for the public radio show Marketplace tracked down the interpreter that Daisey hired when he visited Shenzhen, China. The interpreter disputed much of what Daisey has been saying on stage and on our show. On this week’s episode of This American Life, we will devote the entire hour to detailing the errors in "Mr. Daisey Goes to the Apple Factory."

Daisey lied to me and to This American Life producer Brian Reed during the fact checking we did on the story, before it was broadcast. That doesn’t excuse the fact that we never should’ve put this on the air. In the end, this was our mistake.

TAL goes on to detail the discrepancies in a press release, noting—most glaringly—that Daisey didn’t provide the correct name or a phone number for his interpreter during the fact-checking process, and that he fabricated characters from his time spent at the Foxconn iPhone 4 manufacturing plant in Shenzhen.

In response, Daisey said on his blog:

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.

It’s a difficult situation, given the fuzzy lines both Daisey and TAL stand behind. True, Daisey is a monologuist who tours the country doing theatrical stage shows, but his Agony and Ecstasy piece (which we chatted about before its Seattle Rep premiere ) is buoyed by facts and figures—reports from Daisey’s time in Shenzhen, and a 2010 Apple audit confirming his allegations of underage labor. He may not be working for The New York Times, but the details he exposes are damning: "iPhone 4s are all created by people who are paid abysmally, who work hideous hours under terrible conditions," Daisey said of the experience. He’s making an impassioned, logical argument about Apple’s labor practices that comes across as dramatic truth.

Meanwhile, TAL is a radio journalism program that prides itself on both its storytelling and reporting, and consistently hosts humorist David Sedaris, whose memoir and essays contain his own brand of truthiness. How rigorously do they fact-check his pieces?

What do you think about all this? Does Daisey’s show lose its impact? Should it come with a disclaimer from now on?

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