Did Apple just get its biggest break ever in its ongoing PR crisis over its Chinese manufacturing partner Foxconn? It turns out that one the most vocal, most popular critics of Apple's China-side manufacturing arrangements manufactured details of his visits to those very factories.
A Marketplace look into the claims made by Mike Daisey—the former Mac fanboy turned Apple China labor critic and performer of the popular one-man monologue "The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs"—reveals numerous inaccuracies between story and truth.
Daisey's detailed stories of meeting teenage and poisoned workers outside the Foxconn plants have been shared and traded around the globe. TechCrunch, HuffPo, HBO's Bill Maher, all retold Daisey's story as fact. As did we.
During all of our reporting on Apple and China, we also passed along Daisey's tale after it was featured in January on a widely-promoted Apple-skewering episode of the popular public radio series, This American Life, in an episode titled "Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory."
Marketplace reporter Rob Schmitz smelled a rat, and tracked down the translator who accompanied Daisey while in China, and her testimony proved damning. Asked if she recalls any of the workers mentioning being poisoned by n-hexene, as Daisey says, she told him, "Nobody mentioned the Hexane.” She also said she never saw any guards with guns keeping workers in the factories, a detail that Daisey insists he saw on his visit to Foxconn in Shenzhen.
Schmitz and This American Life host Ira Glass then confronted Daisey. The reputation-destroying transcript includes Daisey's admission of "a few shortcuts in my passion to be heard" and is absolutely worth a read. This American Life has retracted its original report on Daisey's allegations and devoted today's episode to examining the matter (Business Insider has the press release on the retraction).
The question, now, is what will Apple do with this gem of journalism? Obviously, the revelation that Daisey's "report" was a fraud doesn't mean Apple's China-side facilities aren't without their woes. But it would seem the brand would have as much interest as possible in getting this story out there and, as they say, "teach the controversy."
Despite lying, Daisey defends himself on his website, arguing that he shouldn't be held to the same standards as journalists:
"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."
Glass, meanwhile, has acknowledged the TAL team should have done their due diligence as there were warning flags about Daisey's claims and they should have fact-checked more thoroughly — earning praise from New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg, who visited Foxconn for a NYT expose that was published in January.
Duhigg commented to the Retraction Watch blog, "The stories we did are based entirely on first-hand reporting. We did not rely on any monologists. We have two reporters in China who worked for a months on this story. It’s all based on independent reporting. The fact that other people were doing stuff on Apple had literally no impact on our process. It’s my impression that This American Life is acting really responsibly. They found they’d made a mistake, and moved to correct it quickly." (The New York Times today retracted a section of an essay it published by Daisey in October.)
The incident and retraction has also sparked confusion about NPR's role in all of this. This American Life isn't produced by NPR (as NPR's Andy Carvin tweeted) but by Chicago Public Radio (WBEZ) and distributed by Public Radio International to public radio stations coast to coast. There's even a non-NPR Twitter feed to spread the word. Marketplace, meanwhile, is produced and distributed by American Public Media in Los Angeles.
As for Apple aficionados, well, this is the best bit of news since the new iPad hit stores today. It would seem that being an Apple fanboy just got a little less self-loathing.
Below, watch Daisey's Nov. 2011 interview with TechCrunch's Andrew Keen, in which he criticizes tech journalists for their "failure" to act as journalists, particularly for their coverage of Apple; and Daisey's February interview with Broadway.com in which he talks about his one-man show, which is due to wrap up its current run at The Public Theater in New York on March 18th: