Foxconn operated its factories under harmful working conditions away from prying eyes for decades. Then, as if all of a sudden, it caught a wave of brutal publicity. Suicides. Factory explosions. A terrible audit by Apple. A story about mass poisoning from unapproved chemicals. Until recently Foxconn wasn’t a name you probably ever heard; but now stories appear all over about its employment of children, blacklist for supposed troublemakers, low pay, 18-hour shifts, and cramped windowless dormitories.
“This American Life” listeners, until today, would point you to a riveting January episode starring Mike Daisey, who “performs an excerpt that was adapted for radio from his one-man show ‘The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.’ A lifelong Apple superfan, Daisey sees some photos online from the inside of a factory that makes iPhones, starts to wonder about the people working there, and flies to China to meet them.” Daisey, among other things, described meeting underage workers and poisoned employees.
It’s a fascinating tale, told with theatrical flourish, pregnant pauses and something missing from most media narratives about Foxconn: feeling. But, as some may have suspected, there were fabrications and embellishments on Daisey’s part, and Ira Glass & Co. announced they were pulling the episode.
“We’re horrified to have let something like this onto public radio,” host Ira Glass also wrote in a blog post on Friday. “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.”
Mike Daisey released a statement in his own defense:
I stand by my work. My show is a theatrical piece whose goal is to create a human connection between our gorgeous devices and the brutal circumstances from which they emerge. It uses a combination of fact, memoir, and dramatic license to tell its story, and I believe it does so with integrity. Certainly, the comprehensive investigations undertaken by The New York Times and a number of labor rights groups to document conditions in electronics manufacturing would seem to bear this out.
What I do is not journalism. The tools of the theater are not the same as the tools of journalism. For this reason, I regret that I allowed THIS AMERICAN LIFE to air an excerpt from my monologue. THIS AMERICAN LIFE is essentially a journalistic - not a theatrical - enterprise, and as such it operates under a different set of rules and expectations. But this is my only regret. 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.
As we’ve said before, even without the fabrications, there were a few mitigating caveats to the Foxconn story. All of this reporting ignores the fact that the suicide rate at Foxconn is actually lower than the overall suicide rate of China. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has repeatedly argued that the flagship factory in Shenzhen has made a positive difference for the people who live there, upgrading a rice paddy economy into steady paychecks. And most harshly, it takes aim squarely at Apple when most high-profile tech companies employ workers at the Foxconn plant (IBM, Nokia, Intel, Motorola…).
Ace New York Times reporter Brian Stelter wrote this episode will now expose “tensions between journalism, storytelling and theater.” While that is true, the biggest issue may not be one of journalism; the biggest issue may be that Daisey hurt the very cause he was promoting via embellishment.
RELATED STORY WORTH READING: Rob Schmitz’s ‘An acclaimed Apple critic made up the details’
UNRELATED VIDEO WORTH WATCHING: Slate’s Dave Weigel dug up this great clip of Christian activists pouring water on Daisey’s notes as he performs a monologue in New York in 2007:
UPDATE: Here’s a rush transcript of Glass’ show about the retraction:
(pic via artsblog.dallasnews.com)