What were the ‘falsehoods’ in Mike Daisey’s Apple show?

March 16, 2012, 8:28 PM UTC

A monologist who shined a harsh light on Apple has himself come under scrutiny

“Daisey lied to me,” wrote This American Life executive producer Ira Glass Friday as he announced that his radio show was withdrawing its most popular episode — an excerpt of Mike Daisey’s off-Broadway show about Apple’s (AAPL) labor practices in China — and canceling a live presentation of Daisey’s “The Agony and the Ecstacy of Steve Jobs” that WBEZ Chicago had scheduled for April 7.

“We’re horrified to have let something like this onto public radio.” Glass wrote on his blog.

As an accompanying press release notes, the response to the original episode, “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory,” was significant.

The same month the episode aired, The New York Times ran a front-page investigative series about Apple’s overseas manufacturing, and there were news reports about Foxconn workers threatening group suicide in a protest over their treatment.

Faced with all this scrutiny of its manufacturing practices, Apple announced that for the first time it will allow an outside third party to audit working conditions at those factories and – for the first time ever – it released a list of its suppliers.

Asked at a investors summit about Apple’s labor practices, CEO Tim Cook did not deny that there were widespread problems in the company’s Asian supply chain — a supply chain shared by every other major electronics manufacturer — but reiterated Apple’s commitment to improving conditions there:

“I realize that the supply chain is complex and I’m sure that you realize this. And the issues surrounding it can be complex, but our commitment is very, very simple: We believe that every worker has the right to a fair and safe work environment, free of discrimination, where they can earn competitive wages and they can voice their concerns freely. And Apple suppliers must live up to this to do business with Apple.” (link)

So what exactly were the “significant fabrications” in Daisey’s account of his visits to Foxconn and other Chinese factories. According to the press release, some are small, some are larger.

  • The number of factories Daisey visited in China and the number of workers he spoke with didn’t check out. Presumably they were inflated.
  • He claimed to have met a group of workers who were poisoned on an iPhone assembly line by a chemical called n-hexane. Apple’s audits of its suppliers show that an incident like this occurred in a factory in China, but nearly 1,000 miles away from the city Daisey visited.
  • Daisey told This American Life’s fact-checkers that his Chinese interpreter, whom he called Cathy in the show, was really named Anna and that her cell phone number didn’t work. But a reporter for American Public Media’s Marketplace, Rob Schmitz, tracked her down. Her professional name was indeed Cathy.
  • Cathy said two of the most dramatic moments in Daisey’s story — his meeting with underage workers and with a man whose mangled hand was injured making iPads that he had never seen until Daisey showed him his — never happened.
  • She also said, on air to Schmitz, that the guards at Foxconn did not carry guns, as Daisey claimed, and that he never saw the crowded dorm rooms he described.

“In our original broadcast, we fact checked all the things that Daisey said about Apple’s operations in China,” says Glass, “and those parts of his story were true, except for the underage workers, who are rare. We reported that discrepancy in the original show. But with this week’s broadcast, we’re letting the audience know that too many of the details about the people he says he met are in dispute for us to stand by the story. I suspect that many things that Mike Daisey claims to have experienced personally did not actually happen, but listeners can judge for themselves.”

“It was completely wrong for me to have it on your show,” Daisey tells Glass in the follow-up program, “and that’s something I deeply regret.” He also expressed his regret to “the people who are listening, the audience of This American Life, who know that it is a journalism enterprise, if they feel betrayed.”

Having met Daisey and written several stories about his work (see here, here and here), we felt obliged to reach out to him for further comment. We haven’t heard back.

UPDATE: Rob Schmitz’s Marketplace piece is available here.