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An acclaimed Apple critic made up the details

Workers inspect motherboards on a factory line at the Foxconn plant in Shenzen, which was the subject of an retracted episode of the public radio show This American Life featuring the work of Mike Daisey.

Cathy Lee (Chinese name: Li Guifen) was Mike Daisey’s translator during his trip to China to investigate factory conditions for his monologue “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.” Here, Lee returns to the front gates of the Foxconn factory in the city of Shenzhen to recount details from her original trip.

A protestor in a Steve Jobs mask takes part in a protest against Taiwanese technology giant Foxconn, which manufactures Apple products in China.

Clothes hang from the balconies of Foxconn campus during a rally in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen following a string of suicides at its Chinese factories turned a spotlight on working conditions.

Apple got a lot of attention recently over conditions in the Chinese factories that make its iPhones and iPads. The public radio show "This American Life" aired an electrifying account of one man’s visit to several factories. The man was Mike Daisey, a storyteller who is widely credited with making people think differently about how their Apple products are made.

It’s Daisey’s story about visiting a Foxconn factory in China where Apple manufactures iPhones and other products. With the help of a Chinese translator, Daisey finds underage workers, poisoned workers, maimed workers, and dismal factory conditions for those who make iPhones and iPads.

“I’m telling you that in my first two hours at my first day at that gate I met workers who were 14 years old…13 years old…12," Daisey recounted. "Do you really think Apple doesn’t know?”

Daisey told This American Life and numerous other news outlets that his account was all true.

But it wasn’t.

For the past year and a half, I’ve reported on Apple’s supply chain in China, where I work as Marketplace’s China Correspondent, based in Shanghai. When I heard Daisey’s story, certain details didn’t sound right. I tracked down Daisey’s Chinese translator to see for myself.

“My mistake, the mistake I truly regret, is that I had it on your show as journalism. And it’s not journalism. It’s theater.” - Mike Daisey

For years, reporters in China have uncovered a sizable list of problems that have shown the dark side of what it’s like to work at factories that assemble Apple products. Mike Daisey would have you believe that he encountered—first-hand—some of the most egregious examples of this history all in just a six-day trip he took to the city of Shenzhen.

Take one example from his monologue—it takes place at a meeting he had with an illegal workers union. He meets a group of workers who’ve been poisoned by the neurotoxin N-Hexane while working on the iPhone assembly line: “…and all these people have been exposed,” he says. “Their hands shake uncontrollably. Most of them…can't even pick up a glass.”

Cathy Lee, Daisey’s translator in Shenzhen, was with Daisey at this meeting in Shenzhen. I met her in the exact place she took Daisey—the gates of Foxconn. So I asked her: “Did you meet people who fit this description?”

“No,” she said.

“So there was nobody who said they were poisoned by hexane?” I continued.

Lee’s answer was the same: “No. Nobody mentioned the Hexane.”

I pressed Cathy to confirm other key details that Daisey reported. Did the guards have guns when you came here with Mike Daisey? With each question I got the same answer from Lee. “No,” or “This is not true.”

Daisey claims he met underage workers at Foxconn. He says he talked to a man whose hand was twisted into a claw from making iPads. He describes visiting factory dorm rooms with beds stacked to the ceiling. But Cathy says none of this happened.

Last week, together with Ira Glass, the host of This American Life Host, I confronted Daisey in an interview. I brought up the workers he says he met who were poisoned by N-hexane. I tell him what Cathy said.

Rob Schmitz: Cathy says you did not talk to workers who were poisoned with hexane.

Mike Daisey: That’s correct.

RS: So you lied about that? That wasn’t what you saw?

MD: I wouldn’t express it that way.

RS: How would you express it?

MD: I would say that I wanted to tell a story that captured the totality of my trip.

Ira Glass: Did you meet workers like that? Or did you just read about the issue?

MD: I met workers in, um, Hong Kong, going to Apple protests who had not been poisoned by hexane but had known people who had been, and it was a constant conversation among those workers.

IG: So you didn’t meet an actual worker who’d been poisoned by hexane.

MD: That’s correct.

Daisey apologized to Ira Glass for not telling the truth to him and his listeners.

“Look. I’m not going to say that I didn’t take a few shortcuts in my passion to be heard. But I stand behind the work,” Daisey said. “My mistake, the mistake I truly regret, is that I had it on your show as journalism. And it’s not journalism. It’s theater.”


This American Life Retracts the Story: This American Life devoted this weekend's episode to a retraction of "Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory." Listen to the full episode.


This American Life wasn’t the only journalistic outlet for Daisey. For the past year, he’s been in the news constantly: newspaper articles, op-eds, magazine profiles, online news sites. He’s made numerous television appearances—CNN, C-SPAN, Bill Maher. And he usually says things like this, from an appearance on MSNBC a month ago:



What makes this a little complicated is that the things Daisey lied about seeing are things that have actually happened in China: Workers making Apple products have been poisoned by Hexane. Apple’s own audits show (PDF) the company has caught underage workers at a handful of its suppliers. These things are rare, but together, they form an easy-to-understand narrative about Apple.

“People like a very simple narrative,” said Adam Minter, a columnist for Bloomberg who’s spent years visiting more than 150 Chinese factories. He’s writing a book about the scrap recycling industry.

He says the reality of factory conditions in China is complicated—working at Foxconn can be grueling, but most workers will tell you they’re happy to have the job. He says Daisey’s become a media darling because he’s used an emotional performance to focus on a much simpler message:

“Foxconn bad. iPhone bad. Sign a petition. Now you’re good,” Minter says. “That’s a great simple message and it’s going to resonate with a public radio listener. It’s going to resonate with the New York Times reader. And I think that’s one of the reasons he’s had so much traction.”

And Minter says the fact that Daisey has not told the truth to people about what he saw in China won’t have much of an impact on how the public sees this issue.

And Apple will continue to try to clean up its image. The company’s hired an independent auditor to inspect its suppliers throughout China. Charles Duhigg is a New York Times reporter who helped write an investigative series on Apple’s supply chain. He told us that it may be hard to track whether conditions are improving because Apple hasn’t yet released data that can be compared on a year-by-year basis.

“My understanding is that Apple has said that they are going to begin releasing essentially granular data, and so we're looking for that to test the claims that things are improving as a result of Apple going in and demanding changes,” Duhigg said.

And if Apple does become more transparent about its supply chain, that’ll mean one step towards better working conditions, something Mike Daisey has been fighting for all along.

Listen to the full episode of Marketplace from Friday, March 16, to hear the report with an introduction from Kai Ryssdal.

About the author

Rob Schmitz is Marketplace’s China correspondent in Shanghai.

Cathy Lee (Chinese name: Li Guifen) was Mike Daisey’s translator during his trip to China to investigate factory conditions for his monologue “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.” Here, Lee returns to the front gates of the Foxconn factory in the city of Shenzhen to recount details from her original trip.

A protestor in a Steve Jobs mask takes part in a protest against Taiwanese technology giant Foxconn, which manufactures Apple products in China.

Clothes hang from the balconies of Foxconn campus during a rally in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen following a string of suicides at its Chinese factories turned a spotlight on working conditions.

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@SomethingSH:
please research your facts, your quote: "These are not China's factories. Foxconn is a privately owned, Taiwanese company." is false, which makes your comments - which includes plenty of stated facts as if you researched it - as creditable as Mike Daisy's "report"

Foxconn is the trade name for Hon Hai Precision Industry Co., Ltd. which is a publicly traded company in Taiwan Stock Exchange, Hong Kong Stock Exchange, London Stock Exchange, NASDAQ and OTC Bulletin Board

Thanks for this. I still don't get all this anger directed at Mike Daisey but none at the Chinese government. But then, I don't get the anger of Chinese people I've spoken to regarding Tibet. It's nice to be anonymous on the net, no?

It's true that what Mr. Daisey did was unacceptable, and I have a hard time believing that he would have ever submitted this story as "theater", so I find his apology rather phoney. But for those who simply kowtow to monied interests, the story has simply become a retraction of any and every claim of labor exploitation in China, and a kind of vindication, or absolution. They seem to have forgotten that there are a myriad of other stories that aren't falsified concerning labor exploitation in China that don't involve Mr. Daisey, and that Apple itself has found unsatisfactory conditions in their own audits.
Now, I'm not one to merely "bite" on any and every critique aimed at foreign states, (especially those aimed at states with ties to ideologies that the west finds unpopular...namely, the dirty "C" word), but I will admit that I accepted, at least to some degree, Mr. Daisey's story as "true". I felt there was a bit of pandering and hyperbole, and too strong an emphasis on the Communist Party, given that these days it really maintains no meaningful exercise of the philosophy whose name it still attaches itself to. But at the end of the day I found it credible enough. But not for the compelling nature of the story, as it wasn't exactly a shock, at least not to those who have been paying attention.
I'll admit that I was duped, as were most of you, but I'm not really that aggravated at being made to feel a fool. I'm more aggravated at the fact that Mr. Daisey's obvious attempt at grandstanding has allowed the idea that the whole notion of labor exploitation in China is a farce to be propagated, when in fact it is a cruel reality for many Chinese laborers.
As for those who continually point out that people clamor for these same jobs, and are "happy" to have them, I wonder what else it is you expect them to do? In case you haven't heard, it requires money to survive in China, just as it does in any other capitalist country. There are a lot of people in China, many more than there are jobs to fill.
And as for the MacKenzie and Marr fellow, I would not be surprised if things were, relative to other plants, satisfactory in yours. After all, China has a predominately hands off approach, and will conform to the wishes of the manufacturer. If you want things made well, and your workers payed a (relatively) decent wage, it can happen in China. If you want things made on the cheap, and your labor mistreated in order to maximize profits, it China will more than allow it.
You say they are happy to be paid what they are paid, well, I don't think it would surprise even you to find that they are simply happy to be paid at all, and could probably stand to be paid more. When anyone in the manufacturing business remarks that his/her workers are "happy with their wages", no one should be able to keep from cringing. Especially when they are referring to a population that, only in the last 70 years or so, saw itself finally climb out of the middle ages, and where poverty, especially for those without employment, can take on a meaning not known since those times.
But let's suppose not all is as it seemed in your plant, are you suggesting that you, the lone Caucasian, blended in with your fellow Chinese workers in order to avoid special treatment in the interest of a truly telling investigation? And even if it were palatable for a week, could you imagine yourself working in those conditions indefinitely, and for that pay grade, versus the far more comfortable pay that you likely receive as a top official in your company?

Motherseer, Mike Daisey admitted he lied. This American Life retracted its story. There is nothing noble here. Nothing in the least.

It's not too hard to make a compelling story out of lies. Mike Daisey should be ashamed, and we should treat his acts as shameful. His lies make all journalism less trustworthy.

As I mentioned below in my other reply, you apparently omitted reading the entirety of my comment. The Chinese government is capable of anything, and would certainly go to any lengths to prevent adverse publicity concerning its relationship with one of its most important corporate partners. I would not be at all surprised to learn that Mr. Daisey had a conversation in which it was suggested that things could become, um... unpleasant for his translator were he to refuse to recant. A government capable of slaughtering monks and destroying temples is above a little blackmail and intimidation? Please.

Interesting excursion into the land of incredulity. It also presumes Daisy would sacrifice the importance of his message (ostensibly meant to protect thousands, and thousands to come) for the well-being of one. He could have protected both by publically exposing the "theoretical" blackmail. At first blush, I suppose the damage here is what Daisy does to public trust of journalism . . . but then again, maybe he does us an unintended favor.

My company, MacKenzie & Marr Guitars produces very high end acoustic guitars in China. I've spent enough time in Chinese factories and workshops to know that Daisey was either lying or getting a whole lot of goofy information. Never-the-less the report still created problems for us - as it no doubt did for many consumer goods companies. In part to counter the false impression that our Chinese workers are exploited, abused and paid "slave wages" (as if slaves get a salary?) I decided to spend a week working as a laborer in the workshop where our guitars are produced. I worked the same hours, slept in the same dorm, ate the same food and did the same manual labour as an entry level worker. My experiences will be chronicled in an upcoming newspaper article. They bear no resemblance to those in the TAL documentary.

@bd_: Are you aware that this issue came to light when Apple published it's own report on conditions in China. That's when all of the newsies grabbed it and ran with it. Not exactly "The Jungle", eh? Apple has never tried to hide the fact that things are not perfect there and they have been taking steps to resolve any conditions that don't meet their standards. Daisey told outright lies in order to increase his notoriety. Your statement "I hope that the overall story will not be swept under the rug because this particular story has fictions." tells me that a) you bit on the lies and still believe the story based on them, and b) you have not done your homework on this issue and are basing your opinions based on knee-jerk reactions of those in the press that also bit on the lie. Daisey's story is reminiscent of Andrew Breitbart and the big lie he used to destroy ACORN. The news media bit on that one too. Then there is the case of USDA official Shirley Sherrod and the carefully edited video that forced her resignation. Even the NAACP (along with her bosses at the USDA and most of the rest of the country) bit on that lie.

Recently. FoxxCon advertised that they were hiring. 3600 people showed up in search of these jobs. Most were hired. You can't convince me that not one of these applicants talked to current employees and knew what the job is like. And yet you continue to mention "overall story" as though you know the particulars.

I know it's true because I read it on the internet!

I was one of those people who downloaded and widely disseminated the original story. And I want to make a point which at this moment I have not yet seen made: Rob Schmitz tracks down and interviews Daisey's translator, and she fails to corroborate the most damning pieces of his story. In case I'm being too subtle, let me rephrase that: a woman whom Mike Daisey initially characterized as being unusually open to his request to investigate a process usually kept secret - in a country known for its treatment of those who in any way cast it in a negative light - denies those aspects of the story when interrogated in a way that makes it clear that she personally is now part of the story. And that whether or not these unfavorable reports stick is now entirely in her hands. And this is a surprise to who, exactly, that this young woman doesn't offer herself and perhaps her family up on the altar of journalistic integrity? For all we know it may have been indirectly suggested to Mr. Daisey that if he failed to recant things might become, shall we say, uncomfortable for Ms. Lee. I'm just rather stunned that such a sophisticated and respected organization as NPR is willing to swallow whole this new "move along, nothing to see here" version of Mr. Daisey's experience. His report is still one of the best pieces NPR has ever aired. I applaud him for his perseverance, his daring, and now I believe his extreme gallantry in being willing to fall on his journalistic sword to protect his translator. Good on you, Mike.

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