Within a few hours of phoning the translator who refuted key details in a This American Life show about factories that manufacture Apple products in China, Marketplace correspondent Rob Schmitz was on a plane to meet her.
“I rarely do this, but I made an executive decision to go,” Schmitz said in a phone interview from Shanghai, China, where he is based. He gave editors few details. He just went after the story.
Schmitz knew it was a big scoop and feared someone else might beat him to it.
A stage performance by monologist Mike Daisey had galvanized public attention to working conditions in Chinese factories where Apple iPads and iPhones are produced, and This American Life played a big role in that by adapting his theatrical piece for its Jan. 6 broadcast and presenting it as truthful journalism.
“Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory,” a collaboration between the dramatist and TAL’s producers, turned Daisey’s two-hour theatrical show into 39 minutes of compelling radio. It became the most popular podcast episode of This American Life, with nearly 900,000 downloads and more than 206,000 online audio streaming sessions.
Nine weeks later, Glass was collaborating with Schmitz in reporting on how TAL had been duped into presenting a theatrical monologue as a piece of journalism.
“When I started working with Ira, he felt really strongly about bringing this to his listeners,” said Schmitz. “He was horrified. He felt terrible. But it played out in a way that showed a lot of integrity.”
Like other reporters based in China, Schmitz instantly recognized flaws in Daisey’s account of his 2010 research trip to factories in Shenzhen, a city in southern China. “[A]ll my reporter friends here knew Mike Daisey’s monologue was full of lies,” Schmitz said. “I felt time was of the essence,” he said of his Feb. 29 decision to meet the woman who had been Daisey’s translator. “I took a taxi to the airport and bought a ticket to Shenzhen. It was like in a movie.”
Because Schmitz’s wife had recently given birth to their second child, the reporter and avid TAL fan didn’t listen to Daisey’s radio story until mid-February. In talking it over with other China-based reporters, his doubts about the facts behind it crystallized.
To begin with, Daisey’s description of armed guards outside a Foxconn factory in Shenzhen didn’t pass muster. Gun possession is illegal in China for everyone except the military and police.
As he asked questions and probed deeper, Schmitz identified significant fabrications that slipped by TAL’s producers. Daisey’s descriptions of his meetings with factory workers — underage girls and a man whose hand had been mangled in an iPad factory operated by Foxconn — had been exaggerated or completely made up. The monologist described workers who had been poisoned on an iPhone assembly line in Shenzhen, but this incident — which Apple itself revealed in an audit of its suppliers — occurred in a different city.
Glass and his producer, Brian Reed, could have revealed these “lies,” as Glass would later describe them, if they had contacted Cathy, the translator who appeared as a character in Daisey’s monologue. But Daisey refused to provide the translator’s real name and phone number. He said he had lost contact with her.
Schmitz easily found her. A Google search of “Cathy,” “Shenzhen” and “translator” produced a name and phone number. Schmitz called and arranged to meet Li Guifen, who uses the name “Cathy Lee” with Western clients.
After arriving in Shenzhen and interviewing Lee, Schmitz’s doubts about Daisey’s story were confirmed. He returned to Shanghai March 1 to deliver the news to his Marketplace bosses: Daisey had bamboozled Glass. “I transcribed the interview with Cathy and basically sent a memo that read like a legal brief,” Schmitz said.
“I did feel a little conflicted,” Schmitz said. “I respect this program, but they obviously made a mistake by not fact-checking this thoroughly.”
Producers at Marketplace had come under fire last month for their own lapse in fact-checking. Leo Webb, a man who described himself as a heroic Army veteran in the commentary series My Life Is True, was exposed as a phony by military bloggers. Marketplace retracted the commentary, which had previously aired on KQED in San Francisco.
Being on the “gotcha” side of an editorial lapse may have sensitized Marketplace Executive Producer Deborah Clark, she acknowledged, to how Glass would react to news about problems with his program. But Clark views the two retractions as “different issues.”
“In our instance, we skipped a few steps because it had aired on another station,” Clark said of the fake soldier’s story. She described the flap as a teaching moment: “It was a good reminder and a chance to say to our staff, ‘Don’t forget, this is how we work as journalists.’”
Her decision not to blindside TAL with Schmitz’s scoop was clear-cut, Clark said. The Marketplace team “didn’t want to approach it as a ‘gotcha,’” Clark said. “I had no doubt that contacting them to do it this way was the right thing to do.”
“It was the right way to treat them,” Clark said, “but also, frankly, the right way to get better journalism done.”
A few days after hearing from Schmitz, Clark outlined discrepancies in Daisey’s monologue in an email to Julie Snyder, TAL senior producer. Minutes later, Glass was on the phone.
Clark recalled telling Glass: “Listen, I’m going to you with this first because I want to figure out the best way to handle it. I respect the work you guys do, and it’s important to proceed from that starting point.” They decided to work in tandem to report on Daisey’s fabrications.
Schmitz worked with Glass on the TAL episode that was simply titled “Retraction.”
Among the factual errors and fabrications laid out in the March 16 program, Glass points to the decision he regards as his biggest mistake: running the story even though they hadn’t spoken to Lee, who could have corroborated or disproved Daisey’s stories.
“We never should have broadcast this story without talking to that woman,” Glass told his listeners. “Instead, we trusted [Daisey’s] word. Although he’s not a journalist, we made [it] clear to him that anything that he was going to say on our program would have to live up to journalistic standards. He had to be truthful. And he lied to us.”
Under Glass’s questioning, Daisey often paused at length before answering. Glass asked the monologist to explain the artistic license he’d taken in writing the piece for theater audiences and then presenting it as a true account.
“I felt really conflicted,” Daisey told Glass. “I felt trapped.” He later said he had hoped Glass would kill the story when it didn’t check out. “I was kind of sick about it,” Daisey said, “because I know that so much of the story is the best work I’ve ever made.”
Daisey didn’t apologize for passing his stage monologue as fact, but he did say, “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.”
When Glass expressed his regret to listeners, he spoke of public radio’s journalistic values, and his disappointment at having failed to meet them.
“All of us in public radio stand together. And I have friends and colleagues on lots of other shows who, like us here at This American Life, work hard to do accurate, independent reporting week in, week out,” said Glass.
“I and my co-workers here at This American Life, we are not happy to have done anything to hurt the reputation of the journalism that happens on this radio station every day. So we want to be completely transparent about what we got wrong and what we now believe is the truth.”
In the view of Poynter Institute expert Craig Silverman, the editorial process that Glass described for “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory” wasn’t rigorous enough to meet journalistic standards. TAL producer Reed, who worked with Glass to vet Daisey’s monologue, fact-checked the ideas in the story, but not the specific details of each of Daisey’s encounters, said Silverman, author of Regret the Error, a Poynter blog about fact-checking.
“The show worked to vet elements of the Daisey story, but I think their approach was different from what is typically defined as ‘fact-checking,’” Silverman said. “At some point, they came to see Daisey as a partner in the verification process, when, in fact, the nature of this story made it important for him to be the subject of verification.”
“His monologue was built on what he said he saw, heard and experienced in China,” Silverman said. “Those critical components were not checked, and that was the major point of failure.”
Producers of TAL aren’t ready to say anything more about the decisions that led to their “Retraction” program.
“All of us here are all pretty sick about what’s happened, you know?” wrote Julie Snyder, senior producer, in an email.
Glass departed for Barcelona before the show aired and hasn’t granted any interviews.
The hard work of self-examination isn’t over, according to Glass’s boss, Torey Malatia, president of TAL parent Chicago Public Radio. He plans a rigorous review of what went wrong with the fact-checking process.
“We are doing a forensic on this whole thing as soon as Ira gets back, and we will write up some policies on verification and confirmation,” Malatia said. “Our managing editor, Ira and some folks from other shows will be involved, and there will be a report handed over to our board for approval.”
From its beginnings 17 years ago, TAL has blended fiction, personal narrative and journalism. Malatia described the editorial process as “art done journalistically as much as possible” and its fact-checking as “amazingly rigid.”
“My instincts are that, had the procedures been followed the way it is usually done, you never would have heard the initial broadcast,” Malatia said.
Malatia has already taken a big lesson from this embarrassing episode: “There is a universal responsibility for attention to detail that never goes away and can never be assumed. It’s like practicing scales if you are a musician. Even if you are virtuoso, you still have to practice scales.”
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Copyright 2012 American University
After the Daisey affair, This American Life producers discovered that an earlier batch of fabricated stories, by magazine fabulist Stephen Glass, were again offered up by the program’s website, and they were pulled for a second time. Through some technical error, Glass’s stories for TAL that had been retracted were put back online in 2010 during relaunch of the show’s website. The producers explained what happened, concluding: “As with Mike Daisey’s story, we’ll be pulling the audio of these stories down from our website, but will leave the transcripts up, for anyone who’s interested.”
Oskar Eustis, artistic director of The Public Theater, where Daisey ended a run recently, in a statement quoted in the New York Times: “We would not have called it nonfiction had we known that incidents described in the piece were fabricated,” Mr. Eustis said, reading a statement. “We didn’t know, and the result was that our audience was misled. The piece had a powerful, positive impact on the world, and we are proud of that. But that doesn’t relieve us of the responsibility of honoring our contract with our audience. … As artists, we know that truths do not always hinge on facts. However, when we present pieces whose power depends on their claim to authenticity, we must hold ourselves to a different and higher standard of accuracy. We must ascertain, to the best of our ability, that the facts presented in the piece are, in fact, facts. We will do so in the future.”
Mike Daisey apologizes: When I said onstage that I had personally experienced things I in fact did not, I failed to honor the contract I’d established with my audiences over many years and many shows. In doing so, I not only violated their trust, I also made worse art.
Scott Rosenberg of Grist: [T]here’s no such thing as a neutral story. But there is such a thing as an honest story. An honest story is one that makes a good-faith effort to be forthright about the circumstances of its own creation.
David Carr, New York Times: The heroic narrative of a fearless theater artist taking on the biggest company in the world is now a pile of smoking rubble.” “I am a longtime fan of This American Life, but I have never assumed that every story I heard was literally true. The writer and monologist David Sedaris frequently tells wonderful personal yarns on the show that may not be precisely true in every detail, but this was not a story about a family car trip gone bad.
James Fallows, The Atlantic: Daisey’s downfall is the sadder and more infuriating because it was so completely unnecessary and avoidable. If he had even once said that he was presenting a polemic, a metaphor, a dramatization, an “inspired by real events” monologue rather than real “facts,” no one could ever have complained…. Mike Daisey could have had 98 percentof the intellectual/social impact of his monologue, and zero percent of the dishonesty and now disgrace, if he had described it as an attempt to convey the truth of a situation through imagined details.
Steve Martin tweets: A standing ovation and a boy scout salute to the dignity of This American Life.
John Sutton: We should be proud of This American Life for pioneering new forms of journalistic storytelling. It brings listeners closer to what’s real. And we should be proud of This American Life for retracting its Foxconn show. It lets the world know that accuracy trumps agendas. ¶ It’s better to not make mistakes at all but how we respond when we are wrong is just as important to maintaining our bond of trust with listeners as getting the story right in the first place.
Jeff Jarvis: The worst of this episode to me is Daisey’s insistence — and he’s hardly the first — that he need not be held to a standard of truth and he need not be expected to deliver facts because he is not a journalist. Now journalists might enjoy the notion that they hold a monopoly on truth. But, of course, this idea is just a bullshit layer cake.
TechCrunch: Daisey was a droning Woody Guthrie whose intentions were good but whose rigor was lacking. His efforts to expose the Great Sin of our technological age – that the items we use and love must be made by unhappy hands – were noble and I believe he’s done some good.
Before Daisey was undone, Current reported in February on TAL‘s adaptation of Daisey’s stage performance, and how other recent TAL reports have raised the program’s journalistic profile, the others withstanding scrutiny and some winning awards.
Marketplace correspondent Rob Schmitz uncovered fabrications in Daisey’s monologue and reported them on the nightly show March 16.
Ira Glass of This American Life retracted the show, accusing Daisey of lying to TAL during its fact-checking, and devoted this week’s broadcast to explaining, with Schmitz, how the monologue was misrepresented as journalism.
Copyright 2012 American University