Some notes on This American Life's retraction episode #Apple #China

The U.S. public radio show This American Life yesterday announced it would retract its adaption of Mike Daisey’s storytelling show about Apple’s manufacturing operations in China. I’m taking notes while listening on WNYC to a broadcast of the show Retraction.

The podcast is available Sunday now (yesterday it said it would be held; now the link is here). Notes will accumulate below:

  • My original review of the monologue as performed on stage in Seattle about a year ago.
  • “The most powerful and memorable moments in the story all seem to be fabricated.” –Ira Glass
  • Fact checking 101: If the best part of your story can’t be verified, and if there’s a lot of material there, and your “reporter” can’t help verify—kill the story.
  • Daisey admits that he misled TAL on the name of “Cathy” to prevent them from finding her, Glass says.
  • The Marketplace reporter Rob Schmitz’s first clues were things I chalked up to storytelling exaggeration: the guns. But the question of laborers at Starbucks did bother me. Where was the money coming from?
  • From the transcript: “Cathy Lee: I think that if she said she was 13 or 12, then I would be surprised. I would be very surprised. And I would remember for sure. But there is no such thing.
”
  • Another falsehood/exaggeration I caught immediately: When Daisey said “There are no iPads in China.” This doesn’t really minimize the power of the scene in the full narrative (beyond the TAL excerpt). This mixed purpose seems to be the real trouble.
  • Nice that Schmitz notes Cathy’s memory wouldn’t necessarily be fully clear.
  • Daisey bears down on the girl who said she was 13; that exchange is pretty damning:

    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 very good. You’re telling me that they were speaking English to you, in a way that you could understand? [This resonates with me, especially for a worker so young. -gw]

    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.

  • “I really do believe that stories should be subordinate to the truth.” –Daisey. Definition of truth seems important.

Act II, in which Ira Glass speaks directly with Daisey:

  • Glass, citing n-hexane, asks why Daisey didn’t take the opportunity of their queries to acknowledge that some of the details were dramatized. “I think I was terified,” Daisey says. Glass: “Of what?” Daisey: “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 acknowledges he did think about the fact that others—TAL—were vouching for him.

  • KEY QUOTE from Daisey: “My mistake, the mistake that I truly regret is that I had it on your show as journalism and it’s not journalism. It’s theater. I use the tools of theater and memoir to achieve its dramatic arc and of that arc and of that work I am very proud because I think it made you care, Ira, and I think it made you want to delve. And my hope is that it makes – has made- other people delve.”

Ira says out loud what any editor should have said before running this story as journalism:

Ira Glass: I guess I thought that you were going to come in and say that more if it wasn’t true because, um, there are parts of it I just don’t buy based on what you’ve said. I don’t believe you when it comes to the underage worker. Like, it seems credible that your translator if she saw an underage worker, it seems credible that she says that she would remember that kind of thing because it’d be so unusual. That seems credible. And I don’t believe you when it comes to the guy with the twisted hand because your translator who was there doesn’t remember that he said he worked for Foxconn and doesn’t remember the incident with the iPad. And I might be more inclined to believe you but you admit to lying about so many little things – the number of people who you spoke to, the number of factories that you visited – you admit to making up an entire group of characters who didn’t exist, who were poisoned by hexane and the only person who was with you said these things didn’t happen. So when it comes to underage workers and the man with the claw-hand it’s like – I don’t believe that that happened.

Mike Daisey: Yes. And I stand by it as a theatrical work. I stand by how it makes people see and care about the situation that’s happening there. I stand by it in the theater. And I regret, deeply, that it was put into this context on your show.

My comment here, after Glass says he thought it was literally true on stage, is that Glass is not as clever as I thought he was.

More to come from another outlet.

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Since 2006, Transpacifica has been a blog, and collection of resources on East Asian politics and international relations in the Asia-Pacific, with a special focus on China, Japan, and the United States. Transpacifica is edited and primarily written by Graham Webster, Research Scholar and Senior Fellow for U.S.–China Relations, Yale Law School China Center. Get in touch, or follow Graham on Twitter.

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