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Journalistic Integrity

I am appalled. Absolutely appalled. I’ve just listened to the retraction issued by  This American Life in relation to the Mike Daisey story about Apple in China. Entitled, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” Daisey’s stage show recounts his visit to Apple’s Foxconn factory.

This retraction (Episode 460: Retraction) to the story run on This American Life (Episode 454: Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory) includes conversations with the interpreter, Cathy Lee, that Daisey told This American Life reporter Ira Glass, he had no way to contact. Her reaction to the discrepancies is that Daisey “is a writer. So I know what he say is only maybe half of them or less actual But he is allowed to do that, right? Because he’s not a journalist.”

That would be fine if Daisey had portrayed what he wrote as a work of fiction but he did not. In fact, Daisey knew that his story was going to be used on This American Life, and he was told that whatever was aired on that show had to be factually accurate. This is what Daisey told Ira Glass in the interview about fact checking with This American Life producer Brian Reed that followed the Schmitz interview in the retraction:

  • Glass reads from email from Reed to Daisey: …Being that news stations are obviously a different kind of form than theater, we wanted to make sure that this thing is totally, utterly unassailable by anyone who might hear it.
  • Glass reads from Daisey’s return email: I totally get that. I want you to know that makes sense to me. A show built orally for the theater is different than what typically happens in a news station. I appreciate that you’re taking the time to go over this.
  • Glass: And so you understood that we wanted this to be accurate in the most traditional sense.
  • Daisey: Yes. I did.

Rob Schmitz, China correspondent for the public radio program Marketplace first noted the discrepancies in Daisey’s show. It was he who interviewed Daisey in the first part of the retraction show. Even simple things were suspect and Daisey admitted he had visited fewer factories than he’d said. He also said he didn’t actually have a girl say she was twelve; he used that age to cover the spread of the age of the girls that he suspected they were. And, he did not actually meet hexane-damaged workers — shaking uncontrollably or otherwise — as he said he had in his monologue.

  • Schmitz: Let’s talk about the hexane poisoned workers. Cathy says that you did not talk to workers who were poisoned by hexane and were shaking uncontrollably.
  • Daisey: That’s correct. I met workers in Hong Kong going to Apple protests who had not been poisoned by hexane but had known people who had been, and it was like a constant conversation we were having about these workers. So no, they were not at that meeting.
  • Schmitz: So you lied about that. That wasn’t what you saw?
  • Daisey: I wouldn’t express it that way.
  • Schmitz: How would you express it?
  • Daisey: I wanted to tell a story that captured the totality of my trip and so when I was building the scene of that meeting I wanted to have the voice of this thing that had been happening that had been talking about.
  • Glass: So you didn’t meet any worker who’d been poisoned by hexane?
  • Daisey: That’s correct.

Why does it matter? It matters because those of us who write narrative nonfiction take what we do very seriously. Everything must be true. It must happen the way it happened; not the way we wish it had happened. The dialogue, the details, the characters — they need to be true. Composite characters are out. Moving events in time or space is out. Guesstimating is out.

To portray something as true when it is not true is the ultimate betrayal of public trust.

As for Daisey? This excerpt is from his website as of today, regrettably, says it all:

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.

This American Life Episode 460: Retraction

This American Life Episode 454: Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory