Earlier this year, the Public Radio International programs This American Life and Marketplace broadcast stories centered around excerpts from "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs," a one-man show by writer and performer Mike Daisey. Today, This American Life has issued a retraction saying that Daisey's work contained "numerous fabrications."
In the story, Daisey told of how he visited Foxconn, a factory in China where Apple's iPhones and iPads are made. The story featured startling revelations about working conditions at the factory and the appalling pressure placed on workers, some of whom were teenagers. Daisey has toured his production through a number of theaters is currently performing at the Public Theater in New York City, but now questions have been raised about the work's veracity.
Marketplace correspondent Rob Schmitz, who has covered China and reported on the Apple supply chain before, heard the segment when it broadcast on January 6, 2012 and felt that additional investigation was warranted.
A major character in Daisey's monologue is a translator who goes by the name "Cathy." Daisey claimed during fact-checking for his story that he can no longer reach the woman, whose real name, he said, was Anna.
"At that point, we should've killed the story," said host and executive producer of This American Life Ira Glass in the press release, "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."
After the story aired, Rob Schmmitz tracked down the woman, Li Guifen, who goes by the name "Cathie Lee" as a professional translator to westerners. He immediately found that there were discrepancies between Daisey's version of events and Li Guifen's.
This week, the program will broadcast an exposé revealing its findings about Daisey's story and "detailing the falsehoods" about conditions at Foxconn.
Daisey has issued a statement saying that his work was a dramatic presentation, never intended to be interpreted as strictly fact. "I stand by my work," he said, and added, "I am proud that my work seems to have sparked a growing storm of attention and concern over the often appalling conditions under which many of the high-tech products we love so much are assembled in China."
Since the segment aired in January, a petition with nearly 250,000 signatures has been submitted to Apple demanding better working conditions for workers. The New York Times ran an in-depth investigative feature about Foxconn on January 25, 2012.
Faced with mounting public pressure, Apple announced that it would allow an external agency to audit working conditions all along its supply chain and, for the first time in the company's history, it released a complete list of its suppliers.
The press release from This American Life says that some of the falsehoods in Daisey's story are minor, but at other points entire characters and incidents have been invented from whole cloth. The program had been planning a live presentation of "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs" at Chicago Theater on April 7 with a question and answer session led by Ira Glass. That program has been canceled.
(image of Ira Glass via Flickr Commons)