In January, the radio program “This American Life” broadcast an episode detailing working conditions at a China-based company, Foxconn, that manufactures major consumer electronics, including Apple products. The program hinged upon descriptions by Mike Daisey, who said he stood outside a factory and questioned workers as they exited.
Today, an episode of “This American Life” is dedicated to taking back the story — noting that some statements by Daisey, who created a performance monologue about Foxconn’s labor practices, were invented.
“As best as we can tell, Mike’s monologue in reality is a mix of things that actually happened when he visited China and things that he just heard about or researched, which he then pretends that he witnessed first-hand,” said “This American Life” host Ira Glass in the “Retraction” episode, which airs today at noon on KQED. “He pretends that he just stumbled upon an array of workers who typify all kinds of harsh things somebody might face in a factory that makes iPhones and iPads.”
Foxconn had been under a good deal of scrutiny after reports that several of its workers committed suicide and detailing poor working conditions at its factories. After the “This American Life” episode “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory” aired, the New York Times ran a series on labor practices and listeners started campaigns and petitions to improve working conditions. Locally, many Apple users in the Mission District said they felt uncomfortable after hearing about the factories from whence their phones and media devices came.
Glass notes that the show erred in not properly fact-checking Daisey’s accounts — namely, they failed to contact the translator with whom Daisey worked. Daisey told reporters that the translator’s name was Anna and provided a phone number that did not work.
“…[B]ecause the other things Mike told us — about Apple and Foxconn — seemed to check out, we saw no reason to doubt him, and we dropped this. We didn’t try further to reach the translator,” Glass said in the “Retraction” episode. “That was a mistake. … We never should’ve broadcast this story without talking to that woman.”
Daisey’s lie came to light when an NPR Marketplace reporter listened to the story, found it full of suspicious details and decided to do some fact-checking of his own. He eventually found the real “Anna” — actually named Cathy — who had a very different version of the story.
Still, Glass noted that the Chicago Public Media program’s retraction does not discount the veracity of other news reports. “That stuff is true. It’s been corroborated by independent investigations by other journalists, studies by advocacy groups, and much of it has been corroborated by Apple itself in its own audit reports,” Glass said.
In the program this week, “This American Life” broadcasts Cathy’s version of events, a new interview with Mike Daisey, and an interview with New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg, who reports extensively about working conditions in China.