(Reuters) - The U.S. radio program “This American Life” has retracted an episode critical of working conditions at a Chinese factory that makes iPhones and iPads for Apple Inc, saying it had contained “numerous fabrications.”
The retracted episode, which aired on January 6, was based heavily on a one-man theatrical show by actor Mike Daisey: “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.” The play and its attendant publicity, including the radio segment, have played a big role in pressuring Apple to allow outside inspectors at its contract manufacturing facilities in China, which are mostly owned by Foxconn Technology.
Daisey had also written an op-ed piece on the topic for The New York Times, and on Friday the Times removed a paragraph from that piece, stating that “questions have been raised” about its veracity. The Times itself also spotlighted working conditions at Foxconn factories in a recent series of stories.
Friday night’s edition of the “This American Life,” which is produced by Chicago radio station WBEZ and distributed by Public Radio International, detailed the factual inaccuracies in the earlier show and featured a tense back-and-forth between Daisey and the show’s host and executive producer, Ira Glass.
“We did factcheck the story before we put it on the radio,” Glass said in opening the program. “But in factchecking, our main concern was whether the things Mike says about Apple and about its supplier Foxconn, which makes this stuff, were true. That stuff is true. It’s been corroborated by independent investigations by other journalists, studies by advocacy groups, and much of it has been corroborated by Apple itself in its own audit reports.
“But what’s not true is what Mike said about his own trip to China.”
“This American Life” is one of the most popular and respected public affairs programs in the country, and news of the retraction was greeted with shock and chagrin in the media world. Many of the United States’ top journalism organizations have had to combat issues of fabrication, plagiarism and bias in recent years, which press critics say has undermined public trust in journalism.
The alleged fabrications on “This American Life” came to light after a correspondent for another radio show, American Public Media’s “Marketplace,” contacted Daisey’s Chinese interpreter, Li Guiden, who disputed much of what the actor had been telling audiences since 2010 and what he said on the radio program.
“Daisey lied to me and to This American Life producer Brian Reed,” Glass said in a statement.
Saying “what I do is not journalism,” Daisey defended his work in a blog: “My show is a theatrical piece whose goal is to create a human connection between our gorgeous devices and the brutal circumstances from which they emerge.”
Apple was contacted while the show was being researched and denied its allegations, including that workers were poisoned on an iPhone assembly line by a chemical called n-hexane, according to a source familiar with the situation.
Apple has not commented publicly on the radio program and the retraction. The company has consistently rejected allegations that Foxconn workers were mistreated, but last month the company for the first time agreed to allow independent monitors to inspect the facilities.
Both “This American Life” and “Marketplace” are part of the complex public broadcasting system in the United States, and both are separate from National Public Radio, the news producer most commonly associated with public radio. While taxpayer funds support stations that broadcast the shows, the programs themselves are not directly subsidized by the government.
In a form of cooperation that would be unusual in commercial media, Rob Schmitz, the “Marketplace” reporter, and Glass of “This American Life” jointly confronted Daisey about the truth of the original segment in the show that aired Friday.
In one exchange, Daisey acknowledged that he had not actually met or seen workers poisoned by n-hexane. He then apologized to Glass.
“Look. I’m not going to say that I didn’t take a few shortcuts in my passion to be heard. But I stand behind the work,” Daisey said. “My mistake, the mistake I truly regret, is that I had it on your show as journalism. And it’s not journalism. It’s theater.”
At another point in the program Glass presses Daisey on why he didn’t come clean when a “This American Life” producer pressed him on key facts.
“Why not just tell us what really happened at that point?” Glass asks. Daisey responds: “I think I was terrified.” Glass: “Of what?” Daisey: “That ... I think I was terrified that if I untied these things, that the work, that I know is really good, and tells a story, that does these really great things for making people care, that it would come apart in a way where, where it would ruin everything.”
Daisey’s explanation of his actions echoes a debate that has rocked the book publishing world over non-fiction “memoirs” that contain made-up scenes. Some writers have defended departing from the hard facts to tell a more compelling story, but most non-fiction writers and editors reject the practice.
“A program like “This American Life” wants to get at the truth, to be sure,” said Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple. “But it has an equal loyalty to the facts.”
On Twitter, the most common reaction from reporters and editors were “Wow” or “Whoa.”
The dust-up does not appear to have scared off “This American Life” sponsors, however.
Julia Yager, a vice president with Public Radio International, the network that distributes This American Life, said that her group had informed the show’s two sponsors, Toyota Scion and Reputation.com, of the issue on Thursday and that companies had decided to continue to advertise.
“The whole industry suffers a bit when something like this occurs,” said Dave Kansas, chief operating officer of American Public Media. “What’s important is to address is forthrightly, and that’s what This American Life is doing.”
Reporting by Ronald Grover in Los Angeles and Jonathan Weber in San Francisco; Additional reporting by Poornima Gupta in San Francisco, Jim Finkel in Boston; Editing by Gary Hill