For the first time in the history of the much-loved radio program This American Life, Ira Glass and his team have decided to retract a story. The story in question is performer Mike Daisey’s powerful piece on working conditions in the Chinese facilities that produce iPads and iPhones. It was entitled, “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory.”
Not long after it first aired in January, I offered high praise for Daisey’s story. I was hardly the only one who had been deeply moved. The episode became the most-downloaded in This American Life’s history, and it had a big impact in shaping the subsequent discussion of Apple sweatshops.
Unfortunately, in crafting an evocative narrative, Daisey took some serious liberties with the facts. And this has resulted in a sad situation that is sure to set back the cause of pro-labor activists.
It is important to understand the nature of the retraction. The exploitative working conditions in the Chinese factories discussed in the story were genuine. Long hours, repetitive stress injuries, military-style management, suicides, exposure to toxic chemicals—none of this is disputed. In fact, these conditions have been widely reported on and verified outside of Daisey’s story, including in a prominent two-part series in the New York Times in January.
What is disputed is how much Daisey witnessed directly. As the letter of retraction released by This American Life states:
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.
This past weekend, the radio program devoted an entire episode to discussing the retraction. There Ira Glass states:
As best as we can tell, 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. He pretends that he just stumbled upon an array of workers who typify all kinds of harsh things somebody might face in a factory that makes iPhones and iPads. And the most powerful and memorable moments in the story all seem to be fabricated.
Glass also notes:
We did factcheck the story before we put it on the radio. But in factchecking, our main concern was whether the things Mike says about Apple and about its supplier Foxconn, which makes this stuff, were true. That stuff is true. It’s been corroborated by independent investigations by other journalists, studies by advocacy groups, and much of it has been corroborated by Apple itself in its own audit reports.
But what’s not true is what Mike said about his own trip to China.
Daisey appears on the episode detailing the retraction, and he seems to feel truly sorrowful. At the same time, he offers only a sort of half apology. Before being adapted for the radio, his monologue about visiting the Chinese factories was a one-man stage show, a piece performed in theaters. Daisey defends the creative liberties he took as being acceptable within the context of theater. He doesn’t apologize for them. Rather, he expresses regret that he allowed his story to be put into a context where it would be seen as journalism, and also for lying to This American Life staffers trying to verify certain aspects of his story.
Glass doesn’t find this position to be very convincing, and I don’t either. Listening to Daisey try to defend it on the show gets pretty uncomfortable:
Mike Daisey: …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. I use the tools of theater and memoir to achieve its dramatic arc and of that arc and of that work I am very proud because I think it made you care, Ira, and I think it made you want to delve. And my hope is that it makes—has made—other people delve.
Ira Glass: So you’re saying the story isn’t true in the journalistic sense?
Mike Daisey: I am agreeing it is not up to the standards of journalism and that’s why it was completely wrong for me to have it on your show. And that’s something I deeply regret….
Ira Glass: Right but you’re saying that the only way you can get through emotionally to people is to mess around with the facts, but that isn’t so.
Mike Daisey: I’m not saying that’s the only way to get through to people emotionally. I’m just saying that this piece, in how it was built for the theater, follows those rules. I’m not saying it’s the only way to do things….
Ira Glass: Are you going to change the way that you label this in the theater, so that the audience in the theater knows that this isn’t strictly speaking a work of truth but in fact what they’re seeing really is a work of fiction that has some true elements in it?
Mike Daisey: Well, I don’t know that I would say in a theatrical context that it isn’t true. I believe that when I perform it in a theatrical context in the theater that when people hear the story in those terms that we have different languages for what the truth means.
Ira Glass: I understand that you believe that but I think you’re kidding yourself in the way that normal people who go to see a person talk—people take it as a literal truth. I thought that the story was literally true seeing it in the theater. Brian [a producer], who’s seen other shows of yours, thought all of them were true. I saw your nuclear show, I thought that was completely true. I thought it was true because you were on stage saying “this happened to me.” I took you at your word.
Mike Daisey: I think you can trust my word in the context of the theater. And how people see it…
Ira Glass: I find this to be a really hedgy answer. I think it’s OK for somebody in your position to say it isn’t all literally true, know what I mean, feel like actually it seems like it’s honest labeling, and I feel like that’s what’s actually called for at this point, is just honest labeling. Like, you make a nice show, people are moved by it, I was moved by it and if it were labeled honestly, I think everybody would react differently to it.
Mike Daisey: I don’t think that label covers the totality of what it is.
Ira Glass: That label—fiction?
Mike Daisey: Yeah. We have different worldviews on some of these things. I agree with you truth is really important.
Ira Glass: I know but I feel like I have the normal worldview. The normal worldview is somebody stands on stage and says “this happened to me,” I think it happened to them, unless it’s clearly labeled as “here’s a work of fiction.”
Mike Daisey: I really regret putting the show on This American Life and it was wrong for me to misrepresent to you and to Brian that it could be on the show.
There’s a long-standing debate about what fidelity to the truth must be maintained in memoir, narrative essay, and other creative nonfiction writing—a debate that’s arisen around Annie Dillard’s bloody (and fictionalized) tomcat in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and around the accuracy of Rigoberta Menchú’s personal testimonial, among many other flashpoints. Essayist John D’Agata and fact-checker Jim Fingal recently released a fascinating and provocative book—The Lifespan of a Fact—about their battle over a plethora of fact-bending passages in one of D’Agata’s major essays. (A very entertaining sampling of their exchanges appeared in Harper’s.)
While the specifics of each case differ, I generally find myself on the side of the fact-checkers when it comes to questions about how fast and loose writers can play it and still retain a nonfiction seal. My take is that storytellers can be very artful in crafting a narrative for emotional effect. They necessarily select a small number of images and anecdotes from a world of possibilities, making any story only a partial representation of personal experience and public history. They can use flashbacks and foreshadowing to collapse or confound straightforward chronological timelines. They have all sorts of literary tricks at their disposal. But once you label something as nonfiction—as a true story, rather than “based on a true story”—then I think the bar for adherence to fact must be quite high.
I’m no insider in the world of live theater, so I can’t speak to what standards are accepted as norms in that community. But, especially given the mode of public storytelling that has been so effectively popularized by The Moth—tagline: “True Stories, Told Live”—I think that most listeners to a story like Daisey’s expect that when he says, “I met with a worker,” it means he actually met with that worker, not that he read about the relevant labor situation in the newspaper.
That’s what I expected anyway. And all the hedging about the norms of theater only makes me feel like a dupe.
It’s too bad, because I still think there are a lot of very powerful insights in Daisey’s story. Yet there is no doubt that his now-revealed deceptions will provide cover for sweatshop apologists, just as the “Climategate” scandal did for global warming deniers. This retraction is no vindication for Apple, but it will likely please defenders of corporate globalization.
On a final note, in my previous post, I took New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman to task for expressing a gee-whiz admiration of Chinese manufacturing that utterly failed to include any concern for workers’ rights. Given that the recall of Daisey’s story does not at all change the reality of exploitation experienced by Chinese laborers, I stand by my assessment.
I believe I called Friedman a slimeball. No retraction necessary.