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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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Mike Daisey is a lying slob and the "news" people that repeat his lies to improve their ratings are nothing but pimps.

Rob, please also fact check New York Times' Apple Foxconn story. NYT's China reporting is notoriously biased. The fact they failed to disclose their primary source, China Labor Watch, is a dissident group funded by US government (via NED grants), alone raises the red flag for me. Here are few more examples of NYT's incorrect China stories that have never been corrected: 

- Andrew Jacobs wrote about a detained reporter Ji Xuguang, only to have Ji himself tweet back that he was not detained
- Jacobs also wrote about a jailed journalist, Qi Chonghuai, who turned out to be a convicted child molester who ran an extortion racket under the guise of investigative journalism

- John Markoff cited a blogger who claims to have found unique "China Code" in the Aurora malware that attacked Google, but when Dan Goodin from SF Register checked, the China Code turned out to be the Nibble CRC that's been in publication since 1980's
- Markoff also reported a 3rd rate school in China, Lanxiang Vocational, is an undercover military hacking center. It is so wildly inaccurate, the Chinese netters came up with a meme "Lanxiang is more awesome than Harvard"

Who needs a ticket to Mike Daisey's show? For true entertainment, see motherseer's comments below.

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. Many thanks to Rob Schmitz for his expert journalism and integrity.

Yea some people are all too ready to bash apple and have made this story grow way beyond anything reasonable. The motivations behind it all are kind of dubious, here in our own back yard we have farm workers that have far worse conditions than foxconn, so its kinda weird for yuppies to look thousands of miles for things to feel bad about.

Apple is one of the few keeping a few jobs in america, undermine them and what is your alternative, no american engineering jobs at all, buy samsung or sony...

In any case its not americans job to take care of chinese workers, its chinas. In this american lifes retraction story they still have a bit where they claim that apple keeps margins too low for suppliers...it just really doesn't jive with reality. Last year alone rich chinese spent 4 billion on art alone, the top 70 richest legislatures in china added more wealth to their net worth than the combined total wealth of hundreds of top us government legislators and employees combined by a wide margin. They make our richest senators look like paupers, so the wealth is there, and its not our job to appease their workers so they don't have to fear the wrath of their people, who should be unhappy with their unelected rulers.

The discussion has become a bit perverse, do these people who complain about poor chinese workers remember whos in debt to whom? Or how 45 million americans are on food assistance?

The retraction itself was some of the best journalism one could ever hope for in such a situation. TAL has left it's reputation intact.

However, I wonder why Mike Daisey would agree to the inevitable grilling for the truth by top professional journalists rather than opt to simply counter with written statements that could spare him the trial by fire? Perhaps, as master of his trade he felt that he could act his way through unscathed. Only time will tell now.

The real irony, I think, is that even in the truths Daisey didn't get it right. People don't acquire uncontrolled shaking from n-hexane. Indeed, none of the news reports made this claim. So, what harsh conditions did Daisey really expose? The specifics of these were really not there.

And do we really believe that he somehow in the city of Hong Kong managed to find people going to an Apple protest? Do we believe that these people knew some handful of workers that were exposed acutely to n-hexane. Put this one in the category with the rest of his lies.

Boil away the hyperbole and there is little left upon which one can comment. So, he visited a plant and talked to some workers, took no notes, made no recordings, and became an overnight sensation.

Crown him the king of BS because people tonight in Georgetown fell prey to his ramblings awarding him with a standing ovation.

I'm disappointed that This American Life did not do a better job of fact checking. I expect this kind of shoddiness and spin from Fox News (where, indeed it's standard operating procedure) but not from TAL. Truth is the most powerful tool we have for change. But yes, it takes work -- slogging and dogging and digging and verifying. Not glamorous work. But absolutely vital.

DAISEY: [...] I started to think. And that's always a problem. For any religion. The moment you begin to think.

So Daisey has the same contempt for the truth as he does for faith? Who would have guessed.

I guess facts are an acceptable casualty in forwarding the secular-humanist/progressive ideology.

Ira Glass said that "we checked everything that was checkable," or similar words. Well, Ira, you missed one thing ... you went to this amazing theatrical piece by a professional raconteur, and -- wow -- thought it so great you'd put it on your show, and even introduced it as a theater piece ... but your staff decided to try and play it up as nonfiction. Jeeze, get real, did David Sedaris' piece "Santaland Diaries" hold up to such verification? I doubt it.

In other words, you and your staff didn't check your own subjective admiration of Daisey's theatrical piece.

For all of TAL's apology and self-dissection, I think they ultimately didn't do anything honorable, i.e. admit that they took a theatrical piece, dressed it up as non-fiction, fudged on the fact-checking, then aired it as if it was factual. Why not just air Daisey's piece, then (well, as they did) air some more transparent factual information? Ahhh, then it wouldn't be the much-heralded NPR nonfiction program THIS AMERICAN LIFE, would it? I don't think Daisey's to blame here, he just signed a Faustian contract with a successful NPR radio program.

"Ira Glass said that "we checked everything that was checkable," or similar words."

He also said, "NPR isn't biased." Shame on you for believing him even after that whopper...

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