[Editor: this piece was co-written by Charles Liu and Allen]
To the credit of “This American Life” – a popular program on Public Radio International – its producers over the weekend officially retracted its January airing of a version of Mike Daisy’s popular monologue titled “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” in which Daisy described first-hand terrible work conditions at Foxconn, a key supplier to Apple’s iPad and iPhones. There were simply too much distortion and fabrications of facts to ignore.
Both Allen and I actually heard the show in January. It made us sad and angry at the time – not because we knew something was wrong – but because we got the sense that the story was too sensationalized. Mike Daisy did know how to tell a story, but much of it sounded hollow to us. It was too dramatized. It was so gloomy – so dark – so unapologetically one-sided.
While this was apparent to us, it was not to producers of the American Life: the story apparently proved too raw and too tantalizing to pass up.
Here is an extended excerpt of a transcript of American Life’s retraction:
As best as we can tell, Mike’s monologue in reality is a mix of things that actually happened when he visited China and things that he just heard about or researched, which he then pretends that he witnessed first hand. He pretends that he just stumbled upon an array of workers who typify all kinds of harsh things somebody might face in a factory
that makes iPhones and iPads.
And the most powerful and memorable moments in the story all seem to be fabricated.
At the time that we were factchecking his story we asked Mike for the contact information for the interpreter that he used when he was visiting China, who he calls Cathy in his monologue. We wanted to talk to her to confirm that the incidents that he described all happened as he describes them.
And When we asked for her information he told us … he had a cellphone number for her but he said when he tried it, it didn’t work any more. He said he had no way to reach her.
That was a mistake.
I can say now in retrospect that when Mike Daisey wouldn’t give us contact information for his interpreter we should’ve killed the story rather than run it. we never should’ve broadcast this story without talking to that woman. Instead, we trusted his word. Although he’s not a journalist, we made clear to him that anything he was going to say on our show would have to live up to journalistic standards. He had to be truthful.
And he lied to us.
All this came to our attention because the China correspondent for the public radio program Marketplace, Rob Schmitz, who lives in Shanghai, heard the story and had questions about it, he had suspicions about it. And he went out and he found the translator.
Rob Schmitz: One of the big things that didn’t sit right with me came early on in Daisey’s monologue, when he talks about arriving at the gates of the Foxconn factory.
[CLIP] Mike Daisey: And I get out of the taxi with my translator. And the first thing I see at the gates are the guards. And the guards look pissed. They look really pissed, and they are carrying guns. I’ve done reporting at a lot of Chinese factories, and I’ve never seen guards with guns.
The only people allowed to have guns in China are the military and the police…not factory guards.
Later, Daisey meets with factory workers who he says belong to an illegal union, one that’s not authorized by the Chinese government.
[CLIP] Mike Daisey: And I say to them, how do you know who’s right to work with you? How do you find people to help you organize? And they look at each other bashfully, and they say well, we talk a lot. We have lots of meetings, and we meet at coffeehouses and different Starbucks in Guangzhou. And we exchange papers…
Wait, hold on. Rewind.
[CLIP] Mike Daisey: …we meet at coffeehouses and different Starbucks in Guangzhou.
Factory workers who make fifteen, twenty dollars a day are sipping coffee at Starbucks? Starbucks is pricier in China than in the US. A reporter friend of mine didn’t believe this, either. He said Chinese factory workers gathering at Starbucks is sort of like United Auto Workers in Detroit holding their meetings at a Chinese teahouse.
I talked to other reporters over here – we all noticed these errors – and it made us wonder … what else in Daisey’s monologue wasn’t true?
I decided to track down his translator, Cathy, who’s a big character in the story.
Her name is Li Guifen, but with westerners, professionally, she goes by the anglicized name Cathy Lee.
I tell her that Daisey put her in a stage show about Apple and Foxconn. I ask her if she knows about this. Nope. She knew Daisey was writing something, but that’s it. She hasn’t heard from him since 2010, when he hired her in Shenzhen.
So I fly there to see her and the next day, she takes me to the exact spot she took Daisey – the gates of Foxconn.
Rob Schmitz: The night before, I sent Cathy a link to the This American Life episode with Daisey. And I brought a copy of his script with me to the gates. Cathy Lee: You know, I listened to the radio of Michael Daisey. I think it’s ok he write things. But some of them he write is true, some of them he write is not true.
But he’s not telling the whole truth.
She says a lot of details were exaggerated…some of them were just plain made-up. We start with their itinerary: Daisey makes it sound like he talked to lots of workers – in interviews he’s said hundreds – but Cathy says it was maybe 50 people on the outside – they were just at Foxconn’s gates for two mornings.
And emails between Daisey and Cathy, which she gave me, show that the chronology of the story that Daisey tells on stage is a fabrication. In his monologue he says he visited Foxconn’s gates and then decided to pose as a businessman to get tours of factories. In fact, he visited Foxconn the morning after he arrived in Shenzen a factory called KTC technology that very afternoon. It was all set up in advance.
Daisey told Ira that he and Cathy visited ten factories, posing as business people. Cathy says it was only three.
And then, there’s the guns.
Rob Schmitz: did the guards have guns when you came here with Mike Daisey?
Cathy Lee: No. Definitely no.
Rob Schmitz: So he wasn’t telling the truth about that.
Cathy Lee: You know guns are not allowed to be carried by security guards. It’s illegal.
Cathy says she’s never seen a gun in person, only in the movies and on tv, so she’d remember it.
And there are more important parts of Daisey’s story that she says didn’t happen. The biggest is the children. Daisey describes meeting a worker from the iPhone assembly line.
[CLIP] Mike Daisey: And I say to her, you seem kind of young. How old are you? And she says, I’m 13. And I say, 13? That’s young. Is it hard to get work at Foxconn when you’re– and she says oh no. And her friends all agree, they don’t really check ages. I’m telling you … in my first two hours of my first day at that gate, I met workers who were 14 years old, 13 years old, 12. Do you really think Apple doesn’t know?
In fact, underage workers are sometimes caught working at Apple suppliers. Apple’s own audit says in 2010 when Daisey was in China, Apple found ten facilities where 91 underage workers were hired … but it’s widely acknowledged that Apple has been aggressive about underage workers, and they’re rare. That’s 91 workers out of hundred of thousands.
She’d be surprised, because she says in the ten years she’s visited factories in Shenzhen, she’s hardly ever seen underage workers.
Then there’s the meeting Daisey says he had with workers from an unauthorized union, a secret union. Cathy confirmed that this did happen.
Daisey told Ira that they met with twenty-five to thirty workers, in an all-day meeting.
Cathy remembers two workers, she says maybe there were two or three others, and it was couple hours over lunch, at a restaurant.
Daisey describes a birdlike woman who showed them a government-issued blacklist of people companies weren’t allowed to hire. She remembers the blacklist, but she also remembers that it didn’t have an official government stamp. Anything government issued in China carries an official stamp. So she wonders if the blacklist was real.
Here’s another part of that meeting with the illegal union, from Daisey’s monologue:
[CLIP] Mike Daisey: There’s a group that’s talking about hexane. N-hexane is an iPhone screen cleaner. It’s great because it evaporates a little bit faster than alcohol does, which means you can run the production line even faster and try to keep up with the quotas. The problem is that n-hexane is a potent neurotoxin, and all these people have been exposed. Their hands shake uncontrollably. Most of them…can’t even pick up a glass.
[PLAY SIMULTANEOUSLY AND THEN CROSSFADE INTO]
Rob Schmitz: ..shake uncontrollably. Some of them can’t even pick up a glass. Did you meet people who fit this description?
Cathy Lee: No.
Rob Schmitz: So there was nobody who said they were poisoned by hexane?
Cathy Lee: No. Nobody mentioned the Hexane.
Rob Schmitz: Ok. And nobody had hands that were shaking uncontrollably?
Cathy Lee: No.
So where did this come from?
Two years ago, workers at an Apple supplier were poisoned by n-Hexane. It was all over the news in China. But this didn’t happen in Shenzhen. It happened nearly a thousand miles away, in a city called Suzhou. I’ve interviewed these workers, so I knew the story.
And when I heard Daisey’s monologue on the radio, I wondered: How’d they get all the way down to Shenzhen? It seemed crazy, that somehow Daisey could’ve met a few of them during his trip.
Cathy suggests that Daisey saw reports about this in the news, and copied and pasted it into his monologue.
Which bring us to the most dramatic point in Daisey’s monologue – apparently onstage it’s one of the most emotional moments in the show. It comes at this union meeting. Daisey describes an old man with leathery skin who used to work at foxconn … making metal enclosures for ipads and laptops. … he says the man got his hand caught in a metal press, and that it was now a twisted claw. He says he got no medical attention, and then Foxconn fired him for working too slowly.
[CLIP] Mike Daisey: And when he says this, I reach into my satchel, and I take out my iPad. And when he sees it, his eyes widen, because one of the ultimate ironies of globalism, at this point there are no iPads in China. …. He’s never actually seen one on, this thing that took his hand. I turn it on, unlock the screen, and pass it to him. He takes it. The icons flare into view, and he strokes the screen with his ruined hand, and the icons slide back and forth. And he says something to Cathy, and Cathy says, “he says it’s a kind of magic.”
Cathy Lee: No. This is not true. You know, it’s just like a movie scenery.
Rob Schmitz: it sounds like a movie.
Cathy Lee: yeah. Very emotional. But not true to me.
Cathy does remember this guy. But she says the man never told them he had ever worked at Foxconn.
There are other details of Daisey’s monologue Cathy says never happened when she was with him: The taxi ride on the exit ramp Daisey says petered out into thin air 85 feet up off the ground. The workers with repetitive motion injuries. The factory dorm rooms Daisey claims they saw. Cathy says they never saw any dorm rooms. The emotional conversation between them, where Daisey touches her hand. Didn’t happen that way, she says. Even the conversation where Cathy warns Daisey that interviewing workers at the gates of Foxconn wouldn’t work….of course it would work, she told me. She’s taken other foreigners to Foxconn and other factory gates for years — it’s part of her job. It always works.
Now of course Cathy’s memory isn’t perfect. This was nearly two years ago – June 2010 – and neither she nor Mike took notes. On some of these things, her memory’s hazy. She didn’t seem mad at Mike at all.
Cathy Lee: He is a writer. So I know what he say is only maybe half of them or less actual. But he is allowed do do that right? Because he’s not a journalist.
Rob Schmitz: I don’t know. You’re right. He’s a writer. He’s a writer and an actor.
Cathy Lee: Yeah.
Rob Schmitz: However, his play is helping form the opinions of many Americans. Cathy Lee: Um….As a Chinese, I think it’s better if he can tell the American people the truth. I hope people know the real China. But he’s a writer and he exaggerate some things. So, I think it’s not so good.
It’s a week later. I’m in my tiny Shanghai studio talking to Mike Daisey, who’s sitting in This American Life’s studio. Ira’s there too – with questions of his own.
Rob Schmitz: How many factories did you visit when you were there?
Mike Daisey: I believe I went to 5.
Rob Schmitz: You told ira 10.
Mike Daisey: I know.
Rob Schmitz: OK.
Mike Daisey: But, now that I’m looking at it, I believe it was 5.
Cathy remembers three.
Daisey also revises the number of illegal union members he met. He originally told Ira 25 to 30. Now he knocks it down to ten. Cathy remember, said it was between 2 and 5.
I ask Mike about the underage workers. I explain to him that Cathy said there weren’t any. I tell him that foreigners often think Chinese people look younger than they actually are.
Mike Daisey: Well they did look young, but the girl I spoke with told me she was 13. So I took her at her word, and that’s what happened.
Rob Schmitz: Why would Cathy say that you did not meet any underage workers?
Mike Daisey: I don’t know. I do know when doing interviews a lot of people were speaking in English. They enjoyed using English with me and I don’t know if she was paying attention at that particular point. I don’t know. There was a lot of wrangling that Cathy was doing, talking to people and sort of pre-interviewing.
Rob Schmitz: So Mike, according to what you’re saying, these are migrant workers who are preteen, 13 or 14 years old, there English isn’t going to be verygood. You’re telling me that they were speaking English to you, in a way that you could understand?
Mike Daisey: Well, I only know – only one of them was really talkative and that was the main girl I was talking to.
Rob Schmitz: So you have a clear recollection of meeting somebody who was 13 years old?
Mike Daisey: Yes.
Rob Schmitz: And twelve years old?
Mike Daisey: Yes of the girl who was thirteen and her friends who represented themselves as being around her age and so the spread there is just an effort to cover the ages that I suspect they are around that age.
Ira Glass: Mike did somebody actually say 12, or did somebody say they were 13 and then you looked at group and you’re like OK, maybe one’s 12?
M: Yes one person said they were 13. The others with her, and those were the friends I talk about.
Ira Glass: But none said them said they were 12, right? Like, you have one who gave age who was 13, and the others didn’t actually give their ages and you’re just kind of guessing.
Mike Daisey: That’s correct. That’s accurate.
Rob Schmitz: Let’s talk about the hexane poisoned workers. Cathy says that you did not talk to workers who were poisoned by hexane and were shaking uncontrollably.
Mike Daisey: That’s correct. I met workers in Hong Kong going to Apple protests who had not been poisoned by hexane but had known people who had been, and it was like a constant conversation we were having about those workers. So no, they were not at that meeting.
Rob Schmitz: So you lied about that. That wasn’t what you saw.
Mike Daisey: I wouldn’t express it that way.
Rob Schmitz: How would you express it?
Mike Daisey: I would say that I wanted to tell a story that captured the totality of my trip. So when I was building the scene of that meeting, I wanted to have the voice of this thing that had been happening that everyone been talking about.
Ira Glass: So you didn’t meet any worker who’d been poisoned by hexane?
Mike Daisey: That’s correct.
Since he appeared on This American Life he’s been in the press constantly… in newspapers and magazines…he’s written op-eds, he’s been on television programs and online news sites … he’s become one of the most visible outspoken critics of Apple, and he usually says things like this, from an appearance on MSNBC a month ago:
[CLIP MSNBC ]
I saw all the things that everyone’s been reporting. I saw underage workers, I talked to workers who were 13, 14, 15 years old, I met people whose hands have ben destroyed by doing the same motion again and again on the line.
HOST: Making Apple products?
MD: Yes! [FADE UNDER] carpal tunnel on a scale you can hardly imagine. Making products
Rob Schmitz: Thing is, people believe he saw these things.
Talking to Daisey was exhausting. There were so many details that didn’t check out, and even when he admitted that he didn’t see what he claimed he saw, he’d qualify it with something. For instance he admitted that he didn’t go on the exit ramp with Cathy like he says in the monologue …. but insisted that the whole thing did happen … it’s just that Cathy wasn’t there.
He insisted that he did see the inside of workers’ dorm rooms, but admitted, no, there are no cameras there like he claims in his monologue. There are only cameras in the hallways.
It was never simple. He never just said: “I lied.”
The morning after this interview, Ira and I called Cathy, to see one last time if we could square Mike’s story with hers.
We asked her a bunch of questions: Were you and Mike ever separated at the gates of Foxconn? Could that have been when he met the 13 year old? She said no, she doesn’t remember any time when they were separated. Did Mike ever talk to workers in English? She said no, she doesn’t remember that, and it’s very unlikely the workers would speak English.
Cathy says some things from Daisey’s monologue were true: He was wearing a Hawaiian shirt. They did pose as business people in the factories they visited. And before they did that, Daisey did have a conversation with her about his plan. She says this conversation probably happened on June 2nd when she first met Daisey. He told her that he would pretend to be a businessman and he needed her help. Here’s how he tells the story:
[CLIP] Mike Daisey: And she listens to this, and she says, but you are not a businessman. And I say, that’s true, I am not a businessman. And she says, and you aren’t going to buy their products. I say, that’s true, I’m not going to buy their products. And she says, you will lie to them. And I say, yes Cathy, I’m going to lie to lots of people.
That part, says Cathy, was true.
The truly sad thing about this is that with so many people having downloaded the program (it’s the most downloaded of “This American Life” show), so many Americans now personally have a view of China.as this dark, sorrowful, inhumane place. This and one-sided coverage of China we see in the for-profit media reminds us of the ROC propaganda of Mainland China I witnessed when we grew up in Taiwan.
Unfortunately, while the retraction is a rare event, this type of fabrication and distortion does not appear to us to be all that uncommon in the West. Perhaps this is just part of activist journalism 1 by people who are ideologically unsympathetic to China. Perhaps there is a type of sinophobia. But from fabricated rich Chinese hunt polar bear story, to false claim of detained, imprisoned reporters, to stories based on the testimony of convicted child molesters, to fake Jasmine Revolution reporting, to Google hacking story with questionable technical details, to stories accusing China of state hacking that involves mistaking a 3rd rate vocational school that churns out hairdressers as “military hacker central” – we see a recurring pattern of distortion and defamation over and over again.
In the beginning of the retraction, Glass noted:
We did fact check the story before we put it on the radio. But in fact checking, 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.
Unfortunately, in our experience reports from journalists, including those from NY Times, as well as those by advocacy groups – many funded by the American government 2 – can generally also be very biased.
We in general have no problem with negative reports of labor problems in China – especially with regard to factories controlled in one way or another by multinational companies. Apple is a powerful multinational company and is notorious for forcing its suppliers to take razor-thin margins. 3 To the extent that multinational companies can afford to pay Chinese workers more, they should. The fact that many Chinese workers are willing to work long hours for low pay does not mean ergo that they must be paid rock bottom wages. Similarly, the fact that many workers (young motivated migrants who have traveled far from home to work) are willing to work long hours does not mean that companies should be allowed force all workers to work long hours. 4
On a personal level, one of us has been visiting China regularly for about 10 years, 6 years professionally sourcing electronic components. Even with that exposure, I note the progress and improvements in factory condition has improved dramatically recently. Though these factory tours are limited to small, medium sized PCB fabs in Shenzhen, as a highly polluting sector, the changes witnessed there seem reflective of the overall progress China is making.
For example, one of the first factories I visited has grown over the years from a foul smelling old factory lease that’s poorly zoned between residential buildings with the wet room so acrid that one can’t stay for 5 minutes, to a modern facility with necessary industrial facilities such as proper ventilation and pollution monitoring, within a well planned industrial park away from the city. The owner of the factory had invited me to an architectural review of their new factory (the SZ govt bought out their lease and incentivized the relocation), and I am happy to report seeing the plan had green space, basketball court, swimming pool, computer room for workers.
History will judge whether Daisy to be a champion of the plight of the Chinese workers – or a mere egotist who would do anything for fame and money. History will also judge whether the Chinese government is leading China to a genuine revival or merely taking short-term profits on the backs of Chinese workers.
We need not jump to conclusion. Let’s let the Chinese write their own history. In the mean time, we can all hope – as fellow human beings – the best for the Chinese workers.
Here is a copy of Daisy’s monologue The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.
- Interestingly, the ultimate justification Daisy gave for distorting and fabricating his story was because he really wanted “make people care.” “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.” ↩
- For example, China Labor Watch, is a dissident group on US government payroll (example of CLW receiving congressionally-funded NED grants can be found online.) This essentially makes CLW’s allegations US government propaganda, and NYT an Echo Chamber for repeating them. ↩
- As reported in The American Life’s retraction: <blockquote>Apple is known as being one of the most aggressive negotiators in terms of the prices that they’re willing to pay. … Apple has this enormous negotiating power, and they use it, I am told by our sources, very aggressively to come in and basically say, “Show us your entire cost structure, every single part of what you pay and what you… and piece of your, your, your internal economics, and we are going to give you a razor-thin profit margin that you’re allowed to keep.” Now, a number of companies and a number of activists outside of companies and other companies have said this is part of the reason why conditions are so harsh among Apple suppliers, is because they literally don’t have the money to pay for better conditions. That once Apple comes in and says, “We’re gonna give you a razor-thin profit margin,” that’s when companies start cutting corners, or they can’t afford to hire more people in order to work on the line, so that you don’t have to work these long stretches.</blockquote> ↩
- Many Westerners decry the working conditions at Chinese factories. These are not places they would themselves work. Yet everyday, 10,000+ applicants rush Foxconn’s Shenzhen factory for interview. Many peasants want to leave their unheated, unplumbed, Mao-era ancestral homes in rural China, to a modern factory with company provided dorms. They do so not because they are masochists, but because they see hope for a better life. ↩