Saturday, March 17, 2012

"This American Life" and the Daisey affair

You may have heard that the public radio program "This American Life" retracted an entire episode that it aired last January based on portions of Mike Daisey's one-man show "The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs". The radio program focused on a visit by Daisey to Chinese plants that manufacture Apple's iPhone and iPad, and the allegedly bad work conditions he found. I won't rehash the entire story, but Daisey lied about a number of key events that he either witnessed or participated in during his trip to China.

After the "This American Life" episode aired, Rob Schmitz, the China correspondent for the public radio show "Marketplace", became suspicious about the story. He tracked down and interviewed Daisey's interpreter, who said that many of the things that Daisey told "This American Life" and said in his one-man show were partial or complete fabrications. For his part, Daisey lied to the host and a producer at "This American Life" about the name of the translator, and said that he could no longer reach her mobile phone number.

Here's an incomplete list of Daisey's alleged or acknowledged fabrications:
  • Daisey said that the guards at the entrance to the Foxconn plant were armed; both Schmitz and Daisey's interpreter said that only the military and police are allowed to carry guns in China, not security guards. Daisey's interpreter said that the guards were unarmed.
  • Daisey claimed that he spoke with a Foxconn worker who admitted that she was underage--13 years old--and that other workers he spoke to at the same time were 12 years old. The interpreter said that some of the workers who Daisey interviewed might have looked young, but that none of them were underage or admitted that they were underage. For his part, Daisey sticks by his story, but in his defense, he said that one or more of the workers spoke fluent English to him, a statement that his translator denies and that Rob Schmitz found to be extremely unlikely.
  • Daisey claimed that he spoke with a group of workers who had been exposed to n-hexane, and that every person in the group was shaking from nerve damage. His interpreter said that the meeting never happened, and Daisey admitted under questioning that he fabricated the entire incident.
  • Daisey said that he spoke with a man who was so injured by repetitive work building iPads that his hand had become claw-like. His interpreter said that Daisey met the man, but the man had never worked building iPads, and the entire episode where Daisey showed him a working iPad for the first time never happened.
  • Daisey said that he visited Foxconn worker dormitories and saw bunk beds stacked nearly to the ceiling and security cameras inside dormitory rooms. His interpreter says that Daisey never visited dormitory rooms. Daisey claims that he did visit the dorms without his interpreter, but that the security cameras were in the halls, not in the dormitory rooms. Given that Daisey doesn't speak Chinese and, as discussed above, it's extremely unlikely that the workers Daisey encountered spoke English, how could Daisey have visited the dormitories without his interpreter?
  • Daisey claimed that he was told by a group of workers protesting working conditions at Foxconn that they met at Starbucks to discuss their strategy; Schmitz said that was as likely as a group of United Auto Workers organizers in Detroit meeting at a Chinese tea room.
  • Daisey also said that he was shown a government "blacklist" of people who would not be hired by Shenzhen manufacturers because they had protested working conditions; his interpreter said that the document didn't have any government stamps or seals, and was most likely a fake.
No one denies the work conditions at Foxconn and other manufacturers--they've been widely reported and have been documented by Apple's own audits. However, the most interesting parts of Daisey's allegations--that he actually spoke to underage workers, to workers injured by exposure to n-hexane, and with a man so injured by repetitive work building iPads that his hand had become claw-like--were all acknowledged or likely fabrications.

Ira Glass, the host of "This American Life", has repeately said that when Daisey told him and his producer that his interpreter could not be found, he should have killed the story. However, so much of the story checked out that they believed Daisey. When the story aired, Glass went out of his way to say that the story had been extensively fact-checked by "This American Life" before it was aired, which raises the question: Why did Glass stand behind the story when the interpreter, the only independent witness to everything that Daisey claimed happened, had "disappeared"?

Rob Schmitz of "Marketplace" said that it was very easy to find Daisey's interpreter--he simply entered the name that Daisey used for the interpreter during the radio show (Cathy Lee), and the words "interpreter" and "Shenzhen", into Google, and she came up as the first link. Couldn't the "This American Life" team have done the same thing? Finally, the authenticity of some of Daisey's monologues has been questioned in the past, including by the New York Times. Shouldn't that have raised "red flags" with the "This American Life" team?

Even though the theater where he's performing his one-man show says that the show will continue, Mike Daisey's credibility has been destroyed. The question now is, given how many errors got into this "This American Life" story, how many other bogus stories have gotten on the air?

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