This American Life retracted its “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory” episode, an account of Mike Daisey’s travels in China and meeting the workers who manufacture Apple products. Quite simply, the journalistic standards of This American Life require the account to be true – having now tracked down Mr. Daisey’s translator, Daisey’s story of personally meeting grievously injured workers is not wholly true. Daisey incorporated things that did happen and mixes in things that could have happened in his story. Methods of dramatizing, exaggerating, or incorporating events that happened elsewhere (n-hexane poisoning that occurred 1,000 miles away) are entirely acceptable in fiction, or things clearly labeled “a dramatization”, but such alterations, rightly, become unacceptable misrepresentations in the sphere of journalism. Daisey was right to apologize to Ira Glass, This American Life executive producer, and Glass right to apologize to the audience.
All that said, Mike Daisey is a gifted writer and a gifted storyteller. Daisey’s monologue, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs”, is a well crafted work. Even with the revelations about Daisey’s account not standing up to the requirements of journalism, it is still worth your time. Journalism isn’t the only medium that can prick the conscience. Fiction too has a longstanding role in shining a bright light on injustice, mistreatment, and our complicity in the same. In the “Retraction” episode, Glass concludes with a discussion with NY Times reporter Charles Duhigg on conditions in Chinese Apple suppliers’ factories – among the subjects an explosion caused by aluminum dust that killed several workers. I’m glad that amongst the self-reflection over Daisey, Glass and This American Life managed to wheel back around to the core of the subject: working conditions, known safety hazards, and what it means to consume products of substandard conditions.