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