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Monday, March 19, 2012

‘This American Life’ Retracts Apple Story

Mike Daisey is shown in a scene from "The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs." (AP Photo/Stan Barouh)

Mike Daisey is shown in a scene from "The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs." (AP Photo/Stan Barouh)

This weekend, Ira Glass and his team at  the public radio show “This American Life” retracted a story they ran in January about working conditions at Foxconn factories in southern China. The story featured the work of writer and monologuist, Mike Daisey.

The segment on “This American Life” — titled “Mr. Daisey And The Apple Factory” — was riveting. Daisey told of what he witnessed at the factories — he saw armed guards at factory gates, and met under-aged workers. He described going to Starbucks to meet with factory workers. Daisey told of workers exposed to a poisonous substance that’s used in iPhones and iPads.

Rob Schmitz heard the segment and something seemed off to his ears. Like the Starbucks the migrant workers frequented; Schmitz didn’t think factories workers went to Starbucks — it was expensive. And the gun-toting guards. And the exposed workers. Schmitz — China bureau chief for Marketplace — contacted Daisey’s Chinese translator from the fact-finding trip. The translator disputed many of Daisey’s statements.


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  • Nancy A Olsen

    I listened to the original This American Life broadcast with my 11 year old.  She was appalled at the treatment of Chinese workers.  However, even at that time, I warned her that what Chinese workers expect might differ from what we expect.  I also warned her that people who do these things often have a specific point of view.  That does not mean that there are not concerns for workers in China, but I never believed that Mike Daisy was a neutral journalist.  Good job TAL, on both stories!

    • John Bell

      In Ms. Olsen’s response, and the comments of Ira Glass and Rob Schmitz over the weekend, I hear the emergence of a new acceptable viewpoint on Chinese workers at Foxconn–we need to understand that Chinese workers have different expectations than western workers; for them, working back-to-back 12-hour shifts, for example, is not unusual, because what else are they going to do?; Daisey had an ax to grind (unlike This American Life or Marketplace, whose journalism is scrupulously fair); things are getting better for Chinese workers anyway (as Rob Schmitz stated earlier on Here and Now); so perhaps we need not worry.  What a relief!

  • John Bell

    A problem here is the theatricalization of the news, which is exceedingly popular for This American Life, Marketplace, and Here and Now.  TAL was drawn to include Mike Daisey’s work because, in the tradition of first-person solo performance a la Spalding Gray, such pieces are based on actual events experienced by the performer.  But of course, as theater, these performances are always edited, theatricalized, presented for the greatest dramatic effect–which is also what TAL, Marketplace, and Here and Now do.  Daisey comes from theater, and these NPR programs emerge from radio journalism, but meet in the overlapping of the two.  Even Schmitz’s report on Daisey is highly theatricalized–the long pauses before Daisey’s answers are presented as signs, as you yourself noted, of the awkwardness of the situation, signs of Daisey’s “guilt”.  And yet all these NPR programs routinely edit their interviews for maximum effect–the choice to include the unnerving silences is completely “theatrical”–done for effect.
      Schmitz says in the program that the real story about labor exploitation for multinationals like Apple is that things are getting better, and that work such as Daisey’s makes it harder for Schmitz to present the truth.  But certainly Daisey’s theatrical storytelling inspired people to think about what actually goes on in the making of Apple products, which, as far as I know, is not something that NPR as a whole has been too worried about.

  • Rachel

    No, a journalist has to have absolute integrity. What Daisey did is inexcusable. Period.

  • VFoley

    Mr. Daisey’s performance was passionate and I applaud the cause he is fighting for BUT he also seems like a pathological liar who rationalized much of his actions despite admitting, at times, his wrong doing.

  • Alphonse20

    I think Mike Daisey is unjustly being put through the ringer.  He made some admitted embellishments in his story to make greater theatre.  It was only when TAL wanted to take his production and make it into journalism that it then failed to pass a greater standard.  Much publicity is being made out of this for the fact that he lied rather than the fact that what he lied about (he heard and did not see firsthand) has actually occurred. 

  • Mike

    I’m glad TAL is attempting to maintain some journalistic credibility, but the bias inherent in everything I hear on NPR excludes it from the category of journalism.  I listen regularly, but I consider it to be entertainment or opinion, not the “truth”.

  • Max

    When I first heard Mr Daisey’s remarks, several thoughts crossed my mind:  One, this guy may telling the truth, but what it leaves out is more than what it includes and ,two, this guy is so skilfully dramatic at reeling listeners in.

    Various self appointed experts establish their liberal cred by damning China’s sweatshops.  He seemed to fit the description.  His agenda was tarring sweatshops, particularly Foxconn and its client, Apple.

    Mr Daisey made clear he had no clue what kinds of dead-end, countryside misery most sweatshop workers leave behind.  In the countryside they have way, far less.  Sweatshop work is a short-term opportunity to make and save money, even at paltry pay [Remember, these are unskilled workers just like ones on GM's assembly line, who used to get $39 per hour.] It took the Chinese no time to figure that they could do unskilled work for a fraction of that cost and once trade barriers were removed they could ship their production to the US and EU.

    Nobody in China does sweatshop work for life.  It takes young people.  After they accumulate enough savings they can return home and (1) build a house, (2) start a family, (3) start a business in some city, (4) etc.  Turnover is brisk.

    When the UK and US went thru this phase en route to industrialisation, people stayed in sweatshops until their health failed, they were injured, or they died. 

    Daisey notes Foxconn’s 10 suicides on one year.  Chinese suicides average 15 per 100,000.  Ten suicides a year for Foxconn’s 400,000 total employees show Foxconn’s suicide rate at only one-sixth of the Chinese average.

    Though we may hyperventilate and wring our hands at the enormity, mainstream economists, good liberals all, like Paul Krugman agree to a man that bad as they might be, sweatshops are a stage that industrialising countries go thru.  Chinese workers will not remain sweatshop coolies  indefinitely.  As matters seem shaping up, this phase of China’s industrialisation will if anything be short.

    Next, sweatshops like Foxconn’s that serve major global firms will be top of the line.  I never visited any Foxconn facilities, but a HK-friend with INFACT visited many. Other than not such good canteen food (which even easily-pleased rustics grumbled about), low-incidence suicides, and normal work weeks exceeding 60 hours, she reported Foxconn’s factories as ventilated, clean, well-lighted. 

    Companies like Apple want no media black-eyes which was Mr Daisey’s holy mission. 

    Whether Mainland Chinese-owned sweatshops are the kind he has in mind, one can likely never know.  None of them hire independent, 3rd-party auditors to check them out.  A western-media black eye hardly concern such sweatshops’ owners.  Unlike sweatshops serving global firms, Mainland Chinese-owned and operated sweatshops are not closely watched by Chinese authorities and need not worry about following the show-case regulations officially on the books. 

    In the last few days, the retraction shows that Mr Daisey’s lurid portrayal of Foxconn was so much propaganda, with Daisey imagining himself as some kind of modern-day Harriet Beecher Stowe.  [She never visited the South either.]

  • Mtoldman33

    I listened to the original broadcast somewhat sceptically. Daisey’s remarks seemed to be a little over the top. The rebuttal broadcast seemed to me to be too self serving. Ira could have simply stated what the secondary research revealed in enough detail to prove the point and then apologized for the original broadcast. The whole story provoked some other thoughts: Why was the story focussed strictly on Apple? Don’t the other computer manufacturers also source from Asian manufacturers with the same conditions? How much of Daisey’s routine is just showmanship to increase his earnings from the show? There seems to be no end to the doubtful stories which are designed to produce money; Three Cups of Tea?

  • Ellen O’Brien

    My comment regards the discussion about the “retraction” by Ira Glass and ” This American Life”. I am surprised at the general surprise that someone on that program “made up” information. I am sure there are many guests on that program who’ve made things up or exaggrated.

    I mostly turn it off, because it is obviously performance itself, rather than a source of real and honest information. I prefer my theater to be advertised correctly. I am embarrassed to find it rated one of the most popular programs. I expect NPR listeners to be more descerning. The program, “The State We’re in” has a similar flaw, but I’ll not ramble on about it.
    Thank you for, otherwise, good programming

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Tom-Malone/100001565334357 Tom Malone

    Ira Glass messed up when he decided to portray a storyteller as a journalist. Mike Daisey, who has never labeled himself as a journalist, may have felt trapped by this because the show has first person monologues on all the time. I’m glad to hear Rob Schmitz assert that conditions are improving at factories. That’s one of the goals of Mike Daisey’s storytelling.

  • Anonymous

    Growing up in Salem, Oregon which is the Willamette Valley agricultural region in the 1950′s kids from families of all economic levels were expected to work in the fields picking, strawberries, green beans, cherries, etc. I started at nine. We got up very early and rode in an old school bus to the farm. It was hot and dirty work but we had fun being there with our friends. We learned the value of hard work. We were paid by the pound or the container. Being paid only for what we produced was a good life lesson.
    We all looked forward to being 16 so we could work in the cannery. We worked the night shift. It would alternate between being very hot and steamy or freezing cold when the outside doors were left open at 3 am. Many of the jobs required us to stand all night. Some jobs offered the luxury of sitting on wooden fruit crates.
    Working in the cannery motivated us to study hard and become successful college students.
    There was no time for drugs and grafitti when we were busy working.
    Even though there are many unacceptable conditions these young Chinese factory workers face, my experiences help me see some value that this situation offers the young Chinese factory workers. I think we have gone too far in the other extreme at times in the US.

  • Anonymous

    Mike Daisey lied about his experience at the Foxconn factory in China and in my opinion his apology on Ira Glass’s show was appallingly hollow. Slander, libel — should they both be sued? He stated he would never buy a product from Apple. Was this his purpose? Anti-Apple opinions have been duly pronounced everywhere and indiscriminately — particularly since the passing of Steve Jobs. May he rest in peace. Apple is not the only company outsourcing work to other countries. This nasty piece of fiction has spread so far and wide that its effect on Apple’s reputation and the many repercussions may never be undone. My thanks to Robin Young for airing this news.

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