This American Life Retracts Apple Factory Story; Author Mike Daisey Pulls a John D’Agata

PRI’s This American Life has retracted its most popular broadcast ever, “Mr. Daisey Goes to the Apple Factory,” because it

Daisey, performing "The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs"

PRI’s This American Life has retracted its most popular broadcast ever, “Mr. Daisey Goes to the Apple (AAPL) Factory,” because it contains “significant fabrications,” host and executive producer Ira Glass announced today. An excerpt of Mike Daisey’s one-man show The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, it has been downloaded 888,000 times and streamed another 206,000.

Mr. Daisey said he regretted allowing his one-man show–a combination of “fact, memoir, and dramatic license” –to be billed as journalism.

“My mistake, the mistake I truly regret, is that I had it on your show as journalism, and it’s not journalism. It’s theater,” he wrote.

In the play, Mr. Daisey talks about visiting the FoxConn iPhone and iPad factory in Shenzen, China. Upon hearing the segment, Marketplace China correspondent Rob Schmitz, who had already done quite a bit of reporting on Apple’s supply chain, doubted the veracity of Mr. Dasiey’s experiences. Mr. Schmitz tracked down Mr. Daisey’s interpreter in Shenzen, and she disputed much of the material in the play.

The fabrications include one of its most dramatic moments, involving an injured factory worker operating an iPad for the first time (Mr. Daisey’s iPad) with his mangled hand, and the allegation that he met many underage factory workers. (That one also snuck by this paper.)

“Daisey lied to me and to This American Life producer Brian Reed during the fact checking we did on the story, before it was broadcast,” Mr. Glass wrote. “That doesn’t excuse the fact that we never should’ve put this on the air. In the end, this was our mistake.”

When This American Life fact-checkers asked for his interpreter’s contact information, Mr. Daisey said her cell phone number no longer worked and he had no way of reaching her.

“At that point, we should’ve killed the story,” Mr. Glass said. “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.”

This American Life has dedicated this weekend’s program to correcting the errors in the piece, including interviews with Mr. Schmitz, Mr. Daisey and his interpreter, Cathy Lee. Which actually sounds kind of like your typical, things-are-never-what-they-seem This American Life tale of ambition, human fallibility, and the vagaries of truth and art. The show’s home station, WBEZ Chicago, has also cancelled Mr. Daisey’s live performance at the Chicago Theatre on April 7 and is refunding tickets.

Mr. Daisey responded on his blog, in the style of John D’Agata in The Lifespan of a Fact:

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.

And the show must go on, according to Cult of Mac, which got this statement of support from The Public Theater, where Agony is currently running.

In the theater, our job is to create fictions that reveal truth — that’s what a storyteller does, that’s what a dramatist does. THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY OF STEVE JOBS reveals, as Mike’s other monologues have, human truths in story form.

In this work, Mike uses a story to frame and lead debate about an important issue in a deeply compelling way. He has illuminated how our actions affect people half-a-world away and, in doing so, has spurred action to address a troubling situation. This is a powerful work of art and exactly the kind of storytelling that The Public Theater has supported, and will continue to support in the future.

Mike is an artist, not a journalist. Nevertheless, we wish he had been more precise with us and our audiences about what was and wasn’t his personal experience in the piece.

Update: An earlier version of this post said NPR’s This American Life, it’s in fact PRI’s.

This American Life Retracts Apple Factory Story; Author Mike Daisey Pulls a John D’Agata