58

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.

Log in to post58 Comments

Pages

But how can we know the truth of the subject if the reporter exaggerates or dramatizes the facts. I listened to the original and felt that it was presented as fact. The problem is that those of us that believe that there is actual injustice in the world are handicapped every time this happens. This guy wanted to make a name for himself and only himself. It had nothing to do with the cause. He was simply a leech.`

I call shananigans! your wrticle is a cya piece for your listeners. Mr Daisey is not trying to protect Chinese workers he is trying to make money for Mr. Daisey off Apple success. Don't try to whitewash the motives of a liar.

i have to agree with you Atillahn. On the TAL show, Mike repeatedly says "this is the best work ive ever done" as an explanation for why he did what he did. he keeps talking about 'the work'. he also says 'i wanted to make people care'.

but he doesnt say what i thought he might say; something like 'these people are suffering and dying so it was justified to lie'. he doesnt say that, he says 'it was the best work i ever did, and it made you care, thats why it was ok to lie'.

i mean, maybe there is some altruism jumbled up there in his head, but its hard to tell.

There is an easy fix to this: prohibit the importing of ANY products from countries that do not use American standards for child labor, worker safety, etc. Some will call this unenforceable, but that's no reason not to try it. Plus, it has the added benefit of reducing the regulatory cost that makes US goods more expensive than imports.

@DR: "prohibit the importing of ANY products from countries that do not use American standards for child labor, worker safety, etc."
-------------------------------

Amen.
I've been saying a similar thing for 20 years.

The reason most corporations are manufacturing products in places like China is specifically to exploit a vulnerable labor market (labor unions, anyone?), lax environmental laws (an EPA in China? Ha!), non-existent safety standards (no OSHA there!) and a political regime that's willing to sacrifice everything except the elusive "national honor" for the bottom line.

Make our import laws correspond to our own labor and environmental laws and suddenly there's no incentive to do business where the sun don't shine.

Marketplace, Marketplace, Marketplace. Pro-Goldman (per the Greg Smith story) and now pro-suicide nets. All in the same week. Nice. As you say yourself, these things actually happen(ed). Sooo - what happened to business news for the rest of us? Welcome to mainstream media land...

Here's how you know someone is a HARDCORE conspiracy theorist (I'm looking at you motherseer):

1) They accept any story that matches their view of a given topic and reject any view that does not.

2) When solid, water-tight evidence against their stance is presented, say, in the form of a RETRACTION FROM THE PERSON WHO STARTED THE WHOLE CRUSADE, the conspiracy theorist not only refuses to accept it, but actually claims the retraction makes their case STRONGER! That's outhouse rat crazy.

Yes, China is a powerful country, but if they wanted to silence critics, they wouldn't allow tours of their factories, ever. Especially factories with questionable histories. They wouldn't threaten to kill a tour guide; they'd kill her and refuse to let Daisey travel to their country. What's Daisey gonna do about it? Write another play? Big deal. It hasn't stopped Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Samsung, etc from using Foxconn so far, has it?

Drop the crazy (and I mean, wow...so crazy) theories. Daisey lied and you were fooled. Get over it.

Maybe daisy should never be heard from reporting "news" again. Now I can "get over it."

These are not China's factories. Foxconn is a privately owned, Taiwanese company. Mr. Daisey did not start the "crusade". China simply allows those who come to their shores to conduct business in which ever way they choose, so long as it does not endanger Chinese sovereignty, and they get a cut. Unions are actually illegal, that's the truth. Suicide nets? Real. Apples own audits showing abuse? Yeah, that actually happened. There are a literal plethora of other documented cases of labor abuses in China spanning years and years. All it takes is a simple search for "Chinese Suicide Nets" to know exactly how the average Chinese worker feels about the current state of affairs.

Pages

With Generous Support From...