Radio show’s Foxconn story retracted due to fabrications by author

Josh Peterson Tech Editor
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Recent media scrutiny of the working conditions of Apple’s overseas factories pushed the company to recently open factory doors for inspection. Details of one report from one of Apple’s most ardent critics, however, have been found to be a lie.

In January, a monologue aired by the radio show This American Life told accounts of hazardous working conditions for Chinese workers at Apple’s Foxconn factories. Last week, Marketplace’s China Correspondent Rob Schmitz and This American Life host Ira Glass confronted the monologue’s author Mike Daisey on air. Daisey, who is also an actor, admitted that he had fabricated portions of the account where he had met workers who had been poisoned by a toxic chemical while working in the factory. Daisey said he had wanted to “capture the totality” of his trip to China.

Schmitz tracked down the woman who worked as Daisey’s Chinese translator, who told him that portions of Daisey’s story were false. Glass subsequently issued a retraction Friday for This American Life, and said that Daisey had lied to him during the fact-checking that took place prior to airing the story.

The original story in January is This American Life’s most popular story to date, the show said in a press release about the incident. The story has been downloaded 888,000 times and streamed 206,000 as of Friday. This American Life has now killed the show after concluding that it cannot “vouch for the truth of Mike Daisey’s monologue about Apple in China.”

Glass said they are “horrified to have let something like this onto public radio,” and that This American Life is devoting the entirety of this week’s program to detailing the numerous errors in Daisey’s fiction.

Daisey is, however, hardly apologetic.

“I stand by my work,” Daisey said Friday in a statement on his website about the piece. He said the piece featured on This American Life was an “adaptation” of his longer critically acclaimed monologue, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” which first debuted in 2010. His intentions were to bring awareness to the conditions under which American consumer electronics are made.

Daisey’s confession comes after he had been featured on national television and had conducted numerous interviews discussing his account. Daisey, who is not a journalist and confesses as much, admitted to having taken a “few shortcuts” – his motivation: his “passion to be heard.”

“THIS AMERICAN LIFE is essentially a journalistic ­— not a theatrical ­— enterprise, and as such it operates under a different set of rules and expectations,” said Daisey. “But this is my only regret.”

That This American Life is a “journalistic enterprise” is “debatable,” Slate’s Forrest Wickman wrote. The show has a history of featuring fictional works and a “mostly bunk” story by author and pop economist Malcom Gladwell in 2008, Wickman wrote.

This American Life’s home station, WBEZ, also announced that it canceled a previously scheduled live presentation of Daisey’s monologue and would refund ticket purchases to the show.

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Josh Peterson