This American Life Retracts Its Apple Exposé

Slate's Culture Blog
March 16 2012 2:44 PM

This American Life Retracts Its Apple Exposé

Ira Glass
This American Life host Ira Glass in New York City in 2011.

Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for The Webby Awards

In a surprising turn of events, This American Life announced this afternoon that it is retracting its exposé of the working conditions at Apple’s factories in China. The show will address the retraction in this week’s episode, in which they’ll devote an entire hour to the subject. The episode will go up tonight, a couple days earlier than most episodes, which are usually posted on Sunday. They explained the decision on the episode’s page:

Regrettably, we have discovered that one of our most popular episodes was partially fabricated. This week, we devote the entire hour to detailing the errors in "Mr. Daisey Goes to the Apple Factory," Mike Daisey’s story about visiting Foxconn, an Apple supplier factory in China. Rob Schmitz, a reporter for Marketplace, raises doubts on much of Daisey's story . . . Ira also talks with Mike Daisey about why he misled This American Life during the fact-checking process. And we end the show separating fact from fiction, when it comes to Apple's manufacturing practices in China.
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In a statement on his website, monologist Mike Daisey, whose one-man show provided the basis for the episode, explained that he was standing by his work:

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. It uses a combination of fact, memoir, and dramatic license to tell its story, and I believe it does so with integrity …

What I do is not journalism. 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. THIS AMERICAN LIFE is essentially a journalistic ­- not a theatrical ­- enterprise, and as such it operates under a different set of rules and expectations. But this is my only regret. I am proud that my work seems to have sparked a growing storm of attention and concern over the often appalling conditions under which many of the high-tech products we love so much are assembled in China.

In another statement on the radio show’s blog, host Ira Glass insisted, “Our program adheres to the same journalistic standards as the other national shows … in this case, we did not live up to those standards.”

But while This American Life has been putting out great work for years, the idea that it’s “essentially a journalistic . . . enterprise” seems debatable. The show frequently excerpts and reproduces fictional short stories, pieces of memoir, and stories told at storytelling events like those held by The Moth.

In fact, this isn’t the first time This American Life has been the subject of an unsolicited fact-check. Writing for Slate in 2008, Jack Shafer found that a Malcolm Gladwell story from The Moth, reproduced on an episode of This American Life, was “mostly bunk.” That story recounted (supposed) personal hijinks of Gladwell’s, and didn’t take on one of the world’s largest and most admired corporations, so perhaps different standards apply.

Those standards, in any case, continue to be debated. This American Life’s retraction comes amidst an ongoing debate about whether nonfiction storytellers, when they’re not calling themselves journalists, are bound to tell the truth. Creative nonfiction luminary John D’Agata has defended writers' right to fudge the truth in his book The Lifespan of a Fact, co-written with fact-checker Jim Fingal. (Dan Kois expressed mixed feelings about the book when reviewing it for Slate.) D’Agata’s book brought to mind, for many, the various partly true memoirs of the last ten years.

For more on this story, head over to This American Life’s press release. To read the investigation that led to the retraction, stay tuned for Rob Schmitz’s story for Marketplace. For more on working conditions at Apple’s suppliers, read the New York Times’s special report.

Forrest Wickman is a Slate staff writer.