Public radio's popular weekend feature program “This American Life” on Friday retracted one of its most popular stories — about conditions for factory workers who make Apple products in China — and prepared to devote its entire program this weekend to an account of how the report misled listeners.
"This American Life" founder and host Ira Glass said in a statement that performer Mike Daisey had lied to the “This American Life” staff when producers tried to fact-check his detailed, firsthand account of meetings with Chinese workers who make iPads and other products.
The radio host said Daisey manufactured characters and settings in his report, drawn from his acclaimed stage performance, “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.” Glass said the fabrications came to light when Rob Schmitz of public radio's “Marketplace” tracked down Daisey’s Chinese interpreter.
The interpreter reportedly said that Daisey had concocted not only small details but some of the more dramatic moments in the piece, including reported meetings with child laborers and with a man whose hand was mangled as he made iPads for the Apple supplier Foxconn. The interpreter said those accounts were concocted.
The ironies of the story and its reversal were many, including this one: Daisey admitted in the radio program to a subterfuge: He told the interpreter he would pose as various American businessmen, to gain access to factories.
“And she says, ‘You will lie to them,’" Daisey says at one point in the monologue. “And I say, ‘Yes Cathy, I'm going to lie to lots of people.’ " After initially balking, the interpreter, who went by the name Cathy Lee, went along with the ruse, Daisey said.
Daisey said his mistake was not the stories he told but the fact he presented them on a news program like “This American Life.”
“What I do is not journalism,” Daisey said Friday on his blog. “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.”
In his own statement, Glass said: “Daisey lied to me and to This American Life producer 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.”
Listeners downloaded Daisey’s 39-minute report 888,000 times, making it the single most popular podcast in the history of “This American Life.”
Daisey’s one-man show on the same material ends its run at the Public Theater in New York on Sunday. The theater released a statement Friday saying that “we wish he had been more precise with us and our audiences about what was and wasn’t his personal experience in the piece.”
But the theater planned no changes. “In the theater, our job is to create fictions that reveal truth-- that's what a storyteller does, that's what a dramatist does,” The Public's statement said. “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs’ reveals, as Mike's other monologues have, human truths in story form.’
“In this work, Mike uses a story to frame and lead debate about an important issue in a deeply compelling way. He has illuminated how our actions affect people half-a-world away and, in doing so, has spurred action to address a troubling situation. This is a powerful work of art and exactly the kind of storytelling that The Public Theater has supported, and will continue to support in the future.”
-- James Rainey
Photo: An abbreviated performance of Mike Daisey's show "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs" became a huge hit on public radio's "This American Life." Credit: Chris Bennion