In a somber, abashed voice, Ira Glass informs listeners of This American Life of a decision to retract the program Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory -- one of the most popular in the show's history, disclosing alleged abuses at Apple suppliers -- because the report "contained numerous fabrications."
Guns and StarbucksRob Schmitz, China correspondent for the radio show Marketplace, interviews Daisey's translator in defense of the retraction. He starts by tracking down issues that people familiar with China question at face value: guns and Starbucks.
Daisey opens with his approach to Foxconn:
The first thing I see at the gates are the guards, and the guards look pissed, they look really pissed, and they are carrying guns.
Daisey's translator points out the impossibility of any truth to Daisey's observation:
Guns are not allowed to be carried by security guards, it's illegal.
Daisey reported that members of a workers union that is allegedly illegal in China, when asked how they found workers to join their group, people who would be the right people to work with, they replied:
We meet at coffee houses, and different Starbucks in Guangzhou...Rob Schmitz notes the improbability that Chinese factory workers would hang out paying for coffee priced at international standards, with wages based on Chinese standards.
Other fabrications come to light. The most serious:
- Daisey did not meet workers with hands shaking due to poisoning by the neurotoxin Hexane, a solvent used for cleaning screens.
- The man with the mangled hand, who refers to an iPad as a "kind of magic", one of the most emotional twists in Daisey's monologue, never told them he worked at Foxconn.
- They never saw any factory dorm rooms.
Separating Fact from FictionIn Daisey's monologue, he worries: "I'm telling you, that in my first two hours of my first day at that gate, I met workers who were 14 years old, 13 years old, 12. Do you really think Apple doesn't know?"
In fact, underage workers have been found working at Apple suppliers. In fact, Apple does know, their audits discover such abuses. Rob Schmitz notes: "It is widely acknowledged that Apple has been aggressive about underage workers, and they are rare." Daisey's translator confirms in an interview with Schmitz that although she has on rare occasion encountered underage workers, she did not see any underage workers during the factory visits with Daisey.
Daisey claims he met Foxconn workers poisoned by hexane. In fact, Chinese workers at Apple suppliers have been poisoned by hexane vapors. It happened two years before, at a factory a thousand miles away from the location where Daisey claims to have had a personal experience meeting workers suffering symptoms of hexane poisoning. The factory where the poisonings occurred is not and was not operated by Foxconn. Apple has been active in ensuring affected workers get fair treatment.
Unpacking the ComplexitiesThis American Life defends their airing of Daisey's report by noting that although Daisey is not a reporter, there was mutual agreement that his piece would respect the standards of journalism. This American Life fact-checked the piece. The facts support Daisey's story, to the extent that the things he talks about have happened, are still happening at Chinese factories.
Daisey defends his "reporting." He claims the interviewer was otherwise occupied when a girl proudly employed her English capabilities to tell him she was thirteen. He admits 12 involved some dramatic license. He admits he did not meet any employees poisoned by hexane.
But Daisey also lied about the name of his translator and her contact information. Daisey defends the obfuscations, saying that any fact-finding would "unpack the complexities" of how the story gets told. This American Life admits that, as soon as they realized they could not confirm facts with the translator, they should have dropped plans to air Daisey's story.
Can Any Good Come From This?Good journalism certainly suffers a painful wound. When did innocent until proven guilty or the ethical standards of reporting become usurped by "whatever gets the public riled up and/or makes me the center of attention"?
Daisey's story not only became one of the most popular ever on This American Life, it entered the echo chamber of social media largely unchallenged. Very few reporters followed the path of TreeHugger: examining the complexities of sourcing our gadgets in low-wage countries, even daring to say that multi-nationals like Apple Corporation are a force for good on the occupational safety scene in developing countries.
Some good comes in the raising of awareness about the electronics supply chain. But does that justify distilling years of rare incidents into a fabrication that paints a picture of criminal abuse?
When the public learns that the suicide rate at Foxconn is lower than the suicide rate of the general population in China, and that Foxconn stands falsely accused of poisoning workers, will they add that information to the filters that allow them to dismiss concerns and return to apathetic consumption?
What do you think? Was Daisey justified in taking dramatic license, in spite of being on a news program rather than a stage? Are his fabrications justified, even as a piece of theater, when people believe he speaks as an eye witness? Or did he lie, muddying a complex issue to the point where the public will be turned off from a real dialog about where gadgets come from?