Ira Glass: Playwright Mike Daisey lied to me about his Apple monologue

Mike Daisey

This American Life today retracted a story that it aired in January which included excerpts from the one-man show “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” by playwright Mike Daisey. In a blog post titled “RETRACTING “MR. DAISEY AND THE APPLE FACTORY,” the popular radio host Ira Glass wrote that the piece contained “significant fabrications.”

“Daisey lied to me and to This American Life producer Brian Reed during the fact checking we did on the story, before it was broadcast. That doesn’t excuse the fact that we never should’ve put this on the air. In the end, this was our mistake,” Glass writes. “We’re horrified to have let something like this onto public radio. Many dedicated reporters and editors – our friends and colleagues – have worked for years to build the reputation for accuracy and integrity that the journalism on public radio enjoys. It’s trusted by so many people for good reason. Our program adheres to the same journalistic standards as the other national shows, and in this case, we did not live up to those standards.”

This American Life plans to devote its entire program this weekend to detailing the errors in the story. Daisey is a well known playwright who once resided in Seattle and previously wrote and performed a one-man show about his time at Amazon.com.

Here’s the full press release issued today by This American Life.

This American Life and American Public Media’s Marketplace will reveal that a story first broadcast in January on This American Life contained numerous fabrications.

This American Life will devote its entire program this weekend to detailing the errors in the story, which was an excerpt of Mike Daisey’s critically acclaimed one-man show, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.” In it, Daisey tells how he visited a factory owned by Foxconn that manufactures iPhones and iPads in Shenzhen China. He has performed the monologue in theaters around the country; it’s currently at the Public Theater in New York. Tonight’s This American Life program will include a segment from Marketplace’s Rob Schmitz, and interviews with Daisey himself. Marketplace will feature a shorter version of Schmitz’s report earlier in the evening.

When the original 39-minute excerpt was broadcast on This American Life on January 6, 2012, Marketplace China Correspondent Rob Schmitz wondered about its truth. Marketplace had done a lot of reporting on Foxconn and Apple’s supply chain in China in the past, and Schmitz had first-hand knowledge of the issues. He located and interviewed Daisey’s Chinese interpreter Li Guifen (who goes by the name Cathy Lee professionally with westerners). She disputed much of what Daisey has been telling theater audiences since 2010 and much of what he said on the radio.

During fact checking before the broadcast of Daisey’s story, This American Life staffers asked Daisey for this interpreter’s contact information. Daisey told them her real name was Anna, not Cathy as he says in his monologue, and he said that the cell phone number he had for her didn’t work any more. He said he had no way to reach her.

“At that point, we should’ve killed the story,” says Ira Glass, Executive Producer and Host of This American Life. “But other things Daisey told us about Apple’s operations in China checked out, and we saw no reason to doubt him. We didn’t think that he was lying to us and to audiences about the details of his story. That was a mistake.”

The response to the original episode, “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory,” was significant. It quickly became the single most popular podcast in This American Life’s history, with 888,000 downloads (typically the number is 750,000) and 206,000 streams to date. After hearing the broadcast, listener Mark Shields started a petition calling for better working conditions for Apple’s Chinese workers, and soon delivered almost a quarter-million signatures to Apple.

The same month the episode aired, The New York Times ran a front-page investigative series about Apple’s overseas manufacturing, and there were news reports about Foxconn workers threatening group suicide in a protest over their treatment.

Faced with all this scrutiny of its manufacturing practices, Apple announced that for the first time it will allow an outside third party to audit working conditions at those factories and – for the first time ever – it released a list of its suppliers.

Mike Daisey, meanwhile, became one of the company’s most visible and outspoken critics, appearing on television and giving dozens of interviews about Apple.

Some of the falsehoods found in Daisey’s monologue are small ones: the number of factories Daisey visited in China, for instance, and the number of workers he spoke with. Others are large. In his monologue he claims to have met a group of workers who were poisoned on an iPhone assembly line by a chemical called n-hexane. Apple’s audits of its suppliers show that an incident like this occurred in a factory in China, but the factory wasn’t located in Shenzhen, where Daisey visited.

“It happened nearly a thousand miles away, in a city called Suzhou,” Marketplace’s Schmitz says in his report. “I’ve interviewed these workers, so I knew the story. And when I heard Daisey’s monologue on the radio, I wondered: How’d they get all the way down to Shenzhen? It seemed crazy, that somehow Daisey could’ve met a few of them during his trip.”

In Schmitz’s report, he confronts Daisey and Daisey admits to fabricating these characters.

“I’m not going to say that I didn’t take a few shortcuts in my passion to be heard,” Daisey tells Schmitz and Glass. “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.”

Daisey’s interpreter Cathy also disputes two of the most dramatic moments in Daisey’s story: that he met underage workers at Foxconn, and that a man with a mangled hand was injured at Foxconn making iPads (and that Daisey’s iPad was the first one he ever saw in operation). Daisey says in his monologue:

He’s never actually seen one on, this thing that took his hand. I turn it on, unlock the screen, and pass it to him. He takes it. The icons flare into view, and he strokes the screen with his ruined hand, and the icons slide back and forth. And he says something to Cathy, and Cathy says, “he says it’s a kind of magic.” Cathy Lee tells Schmitz that nothing of the sort occurred.

“In our original broadcast, we fact checked all the things that Daisey said about Apple’s operations in China,” says Glass, “and those parts of his story were true, except for the underage workers, who are rare. We reported that discrepancy in the original show. But with this week’s broadcast, we’re letting the audience know that too many of the details about the people he says he met are in dispute for us to stand by the story. I suspect that many things that Mike Daisey claims to have experienced personally did not actually happen, but listeners can judge for themselves.”

“It was completely wrong for me to have it on your show,” Daisey tells Glass on the program, “and that’s something I deeply regret.” He also expressed his regret to “the people who are listening, the audience of This American Life, who know that it is a journalism enterprise, if they feel betrayed.”

This American Life and its home station WBEZ Chicago had been planning a live presentation of Daisey’s monologue on stage at the Chicago Theatre on April 7th, with Glass leading a Q&A afterwards. That show will be cancelled and all tickets will be refunded.

This American Life episode will air on WBEZ at 8pm EST/7pm CST tonight and will also be available to stream and download on thisamericanlife.org at that time. It can be heard on public radio stations around the country this weekend.

Here’s Daisey talking about the performance from an interview on MSNBC from earlier this year.

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

  • M. Hawkins

    Hmmmm.  Why should anyone be surprised by this turn of events?  Mike Daisey, similar to Rush Limbaugh, is nothing but an entertainer. And both will do whatever it takes to get people to listen to their rants.

    • Bill

      This was my thoughts as well, shame on TAL for not doing basic fact checking. NPR should cancel this program. I have supported NPR for years, I think I will take this years contrabution and buy some Apple products. This is journalisum 101. Just as NPR was getting some creditability, all their programing is now in question. They are just for entertainment, not news. Just like Limbaugh.

      Drop the news NPR, Keep  A praire home companion, and click & clak

  • Anonymous

    This is an example of how the press, in their eagerness to tear down business, will believe almost anything for the sake of a “good story”.   I do believe most journalist have ethical standards but think they loosen them when the story plays to their biases.  I think the anti-business bias is strong.  

    I have to give Ira Glass credit for his mea culpa.

    • Anonymous

      I agree the mea culpa is what he should have done not something to admire. But what happened to good fact checking and since when did a real journalist which I don’t think Glass is, take the subject’s word for anything?

      • Anonymous

        I think you are confusing things a bit.  All journalists do fact checking (well, almost all…) but like I said above, they let their biases sway them.  The whole Mortenson/3 Cups of Tea thing is another example.  Or the Frey/Million Little Pieces controversy.   The reality is this: if it’s a great story, people want to believe and they let their guard down.  

        And, regardless of whether some one is a “serious” journalist, when they have the ability to affect the opinions of millions of people, they need to adhere to a higher set of ethics.  Hiding behind the “it’s just entertainment” fig leaf is b… sh..

        • Anonymous

          @joethecoder:disqus 
          Yeah you are probably right, I was giving TAL the benefit of the doubt but given that PBS has been slapped multiple times by their own ombudsman for being partial and misreporting, I’m not that surprised.

  • http://www.christopherbudd.com Christopher Budd

    I have to stay though, give This American Life credit with how they’re handling the situation. They’re being very transparent and really working to address the impact to trust by their listenership. I’ve written a short analysis of that on my blog: http://bit.ly/y4EBpx.

  • Guest

    Thank you to This American Life for doing the right thing.

    As for Mr Daisey, I have asked him for a full refund of the books and tickets I purchased that contain fraudulent material. If Mr Daisey wishes to be a part of the entertainment community, I expect him not to lie.

  • http://blog.findwell.com Kevin Lisota

    I just listened to the retraction podcast from This American Life. For anyone that has seen or heard Mike Daisey on the Apple issues, it is a worthwhile and nauseating listen.

    I saw his monologue in Seattle and actually talked to him in person afterwards. I’ve also seen him on various news outlets critiquing Apple factories. While I’m capable of forming my own opinions on issues, I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t affected by his supposed first-hand stories about visiting these factories. Yes he is an entertainer, and yes the theater is not the best source of journalism, but he clearly conveys the story as his own first-hand account, which turns out is only partially true.

    Daisey “stands by the work and message in the theater, but regrets that it was put in a journalistic context on This American Life.” Say what? What about all of the other news outlets he appeared on telling the same story as fact? 

    Overblown propaganda or rhetoric to drive home a point is one thing, but Mike Daisey seems to lack a basic moral compass and seems incapable of distinguishing fact vs. fiction. I enjoyed his show, but I am offended by his fabrications and disappointed that I didn’t recognize it for what it was.

  • Cara

    National Public Radio made  a mistake and rectified it.  Several media outlets have reported false stories and had Mike Daisey on their shows and in their articles.  Bravo to a news outlet that admits it’s mistakes and tried to fix them.