On Friday, This American Life caused quite a stir when it announced it was retracting its report on Apple supplier Foxconn, adapted from Mikey Daisey’s one-man show “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.” The show, broadcast on Jan. 6, was the catalyst for a wave of negative press surrounding Foxconn’s labor practices and was TAL’s most downloaded episode ever.
To be clear, many of the accusations made by Daisey have been echoed by other news outlets, most notably the New York Times. The issue, in the words of This American Life’s Ira Glass, was that “Mike’s monologue in reality is a mix of things that actually happened when he visited China and things that he just heard about or researched, which he then pretends that he witnessed first hand.”
The show committed an entire hour to finding out the truth, both talking to Daisey himself and to his interpreter in China, who Daisey lied about not being able to contact during the fact-checking process. Here’s a summary of the five biggest revelations in the episode (all quotes taken from the show’s official transcript):
Security Guards in China Don’t Carry Guns
This might seem like a minor point, but it’s this detail in Daisey’s story that caused Rob Schmitz, China correspondent for American Public Media’s Marketplace, to become suspicious and investigate. In Daisey’s account of what happened, he arrived at Foxconn’s factory to find security guards carrying guns. Schmitz thought that unlikely:
I’ve done reporting at a lot of Chinese factories, and I’ve never seen guards with guns. The only people allowed to have guns in China are the military and the police…not factory guards.
This led to Schmitz tracking down Li Guifen, Daisey’s interpreter, who goes by the Anglicized name Cathy Lee. After that, Daisey’s story starts to unravel.
Here is what Daisey says in the Jan. 6 broadcast, describing an encounter with a group of underage Foxconn workers:
And I say to her, you seem kind of young. How old are you? And she says, I’m 13. And I say, 13? That’s young. Is it hard to get work at Foxconn when you’re– and she says oh no. And her friends all agree, they don’t really check ages. I’m telling you … in my first two hours of my first day at that gate, I met workers who were 14 years old, 13 years old, 12.
Apple’s own audits have found underage workers in its suppliers’ factories. But to find several together, with most of them speaking English? Ira Glass didn’t buy it and asked Daisey about it directly:
Ira Glass: But none of them said they were 12, right? Like, you have one who gave their age as 13, and the others didn’t actually give their ages and you’re just kind of guessing.
Mike Daisey: That’s correct. That’s accurate
Workers Exposed to n-Hexane
In another part of the original broadcast, Daisey recounts meeting with workers in an illegal union who complained about being exposed to a toxic substance:
There’s a group that’s talking about hexane. N-hexane is an iPhone screen cleaner. It’s great because it evaporates a little bit faster than alcohol does, which means you can run the production line even faster and try to keep up with the quotas. The problem is that n-hexane is a potent neurotoxin, and all these people have been exposed. Their hands shake uncontrollably. Most of them…can’t even pick up a glass.
Schmitz had actually interviewed workers exposed to n-Hexane, two years ago in a city called Suzho, a thousand miles away from Shenzhen. Schmitz confronted Daisey, saying that Cathy had said that no such meeting with poisoned workers took place. Daisey responded:
I met workers in Hong Kong going to Apple protests who had not been poisoned by hexane but had known people who had been, and it was like a constant conversation we were having about those workers. So no, they were not at that meeting.
The Man With the Claw Hand
Daisey also describes meeting a man who got his hand stuck in a metal press, which deformed it into a twisted claw. What plays out next is one of the most dramatic parts of his story:
And when he says this, I reach into my satchel, and I take out my iPad. And when he sees it, his eyes widen, because one of the ultimate ironies of globalism, at this point there are no iPads in China …. 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.”
The problem is that Cathy has no recollection of the event, telling Schmitz “No. This is not true. You know, it’s just like a movie scene.” Cathy says she does remember meeting a man with a deformed hand but that he did not work at Foxconn.
Originally, Daisey said he visited 10 factories during his trip to China. When confronted by Schmitz, he changes that number to five. Cathy only remembers visiting three factories.
Daisey also originally said that he had interviewed 25 to 30 illegal union workers; later, he said it was only 10. Cathy only remembers him talking to somewhere between two and five.
To say the segment where Ira Glass sits down with Daisey is awkward would be a gross understatement. It’s full of hurt feelings and cringe-worthy pauses, very reminiscent of that uncomfortable episode of Oprah where she scolds James Frey on national television.
Daisey never flat-out admits to lying. Instead, he says that a lot of the facts refuted by Schmitz and Cathy — including the underage workers and the man with the deformed hand — are true in a “theatrical context.”
And everything I have done in making this monologue for the theater has been toward that end – to make people care. 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. My mistake, the mistake that I truly regret, is that I had it on your show as journalism and it’s not journalism. It’s theater.
The sad thing is that he has now undermined his own cause by not disclosing the nature of his work to the producers of This American Life, who admit they should have never aired the show in the first place due to the fact that they couldn’t corroborate Daisey’s version of events.
There are a lot of legitimate concerns surrounding labor conditions in the consumer electronics industry — the Times’ Charles Duhigg and David Barboza proved that — but, unfortunately for Daisey, he has now taken himself out of the discussion.