Public Radio International’s This American Life last week was forced to retract a story they ran last January that drew heavily on a performance piece by Mike Daisey currently playing off-Broadway in New York. Ira Glass writes on the website:
I have difficult news. We’ve learned that Mike Daisey’s story about Apple in China – which we broadcast in January – contained significant fabrications. We’re retracting the story because we can’t vouch for its truth. This is not a story we commissioned. It was an excerpt of Mike Daisey’s acclaimed one-man show “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” in which he talks about visiting a factory in China that makes iPhones and other Apple products.
The China correspondent for the public radio show Marketplace tracked down the interpreter that Daisey hired when he visited Shenzhen China. The interpreter disputed much of what Daisey has been saying on stage and on our show. On this week’s episode of This American Life, we will devote the entire hour to detailing the errors in “Mr. Daisey [and] the Apple Factory.”
Daisey lied to me and to This American Lifeproducer Brian Reed during the fact checking we did on the story, before it was broadcast. That doesn’t excuse the fact that we never should’ve put this on the air. In the end, this was our mistake.
We’re horrified to have let something like this onto public radio. 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.
Glass and TAL did the right thing to retract this story and to devote last weekend’s entire show to correcting the record and to conducting a kind of on-air autopsy of what went wrong with TAL’s Daisey’s reporting and TAL’s fact checking. You can listen to the podcast of “Retraction” here, or read the transcript–it’s worth an hour of your time, especially if you were as entranced and as repulsed as I was by “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory.” To sum it up briefly here, Daisey met with far fewer Chinese workers and union members than he reported; he never interviewed workers with hands shaking from hexane poisoning; he can’t substantiate his claims about the use of under-age workers; he never saw their dorm rooms. In short, some of his more dramatic claims appear to have been either wholly fabricated or drawn from media coverage generated by other reporters covering Chinese factories.
Kudos to Marketplace reporter Rob Schmitz, who tracked down Daisey’s translator to verify Daisey’s story with a very complicated and labor-intensive process known as a Google search. This is a translator that when TAL asked for her contact information, Daisey claimed was unreachable. It was at that point, Ira Glass says, that TAL should have spiked the story.
As a historian and as a straight shooter, nothing pisses me off more than people who want the charge of claiming to tell “a true story” but instead are just spinning yarns. It seems like every few years we have another Truth Eruption, in which this historian or that autobiographer is revealed to have been in fact a spectacular liar or novelist all along. In Glass’s very uncomfortable interview with Daisey and Schmitz on the line together, Daisey tries to claim–unconvincingly in my view–that because he’s a writer and performer that he doesn’t have to meet such a precise standard about what he claims to have seen with his own eyes under cover of artistic license. But that’s bullcrap: he bills his show as a true story, and he went along with TAL’s fact-checking process, which give the lie to his attempts to claim “artistic license” now. You don’t get to perform like a superhero with a cape and a big T for Truth on your chest, and then when caught say that no one should have taken everything you said as actually true.
Reporters and historians play by different rules so that we can protect the concept of the truth, even if most of us are doubtful that there is anything like metaphysical Truth with a Capital T transhistorically and globally for all eternity. Mike Daisey came to the attention of TAL because they were excited by the truth of his alleged reporting, and he did nothing to advise them about the various embroideries and fabrications that . This is why of all of the recent history scandals in the American historical profession, nothing offends me more than Joseph Ellis’s serial repeated lies to his students. Daisey, like Ellis, was getting a charge out of his audience by claiming to be telling a true story, but that charge turns out to be just artifice and manipulation–like Dr. Harvey Kellogg’s many electrical vibrators and stimulating devices. And nothing disgusts me more than this kind of professional dishonesty and manipulation.
Did you hear the show–either the original or “Retraction?” What do you think? Are you as cheesed as I am, or do you think writer/performers should be understood to be playing by different rules than reporters and historians?