How a Google Search Unraveled Mike Daisey’s Apple-Foxconn Story

Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg

A worker walks outside Hon Hai Group's Foxconn plant in Shenzhen, China, in 2010.

Mike Daisey, the monologist behind “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” created a “reality-distortion field” of his own.

But it didn’t fool Rob Schmitz.

The China bureau chief for American Public Media’s Marketplace publication uncovered that Daisey had fabricated several details in his accounts of Chinese factory labor at Foxconn Technology Group, which manufactures products for Apple and other electronics makers.

In January, an excerpt from Daisey’s monologue, which he said was based on many interviews during a stay in Shenzhen, China, was broadcasted on the public radio show, “This American Life.” Shenzhen is where Foxconn’s largest factory is located.

When Schmitz listened to the podcast, he was immediately skeptical, he said by phone from Shanghai early Saturday morning.

“There were quite a few things in the piece that struck me as a little unusual, and one of them was the beginning of the piece,” Schmitz said. He’s referring to Daisey’s claim that every electronics product is made in Shenzhen. “If you know anything about the manufacturing sector in China, you know that that’s just not true.”

As Daisey’s tale went on, other details stuck out to Schmitz. For example, Daisey had said that he saw security guards around the Foxconn perimeter holding guns. Schmitz knew that that couldn’t be true, he said, because only military and police officials are legally allowed to carry firearms.

“He evokes this image of a very sort of totalitarian state, and there is some broader truth to the things that he puts in his monologue,” Schmitz said, “but from what we found, there are many things that don’t just check out.”

After listening to that episode of “This American Life,” Schmitz’s most promising clue was found in a Google search.

In Daisey’s monologue, he refers to the translator who accompanied him only by her first name, Cathy. So Schmitz said he punched into Google: Cathy translator Shenzhen.

“I called the first number that popped up,” he said.

The woman on the other end of the line was Cathy Lee, who happened to be Daisey’s translator on his trip to China. Schmitz said he and Lee later met in front of Foxconn’s gates, where parts of Daisey’s story are set.

Schmitz asked Lee whether she and Daisey had actually witnessed the things that Daisey recounted. The guards with guns? The man whose hand had become deformed from the repetition of assembling iPads? The young workers aged 14, 13, 12? The factory-line crew that said they had been poisoned by a toxic cleaning substance?

Lee’s answer to each question: No.

“This American Life” host Ira Glass announced today that he is retracting the episode titled “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory.” It was the show’s most popular one. Daisey released a statement saying he stands by his work but that he regrets allowing it to be aired on the show.

“What I do is not journalism,” Daisey wrote. “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.”

Foxconn spokesman Simon Hsing didn’t immediately respond to a phone call or e-mail requesting comment.

“This American Life” said in a statement that Daisey misled editors in the fact-checking process. According to the statement, Daisey claimed his translator’s real name is Anna, not Cathy as he says in his monologue, and that her cell phone number no longer works.

“Our program adheres to the same journalistic standards as the other national shows, and in this case, we did not live up to those standards,” Glass wrote in a statement. “We’re horrified to have let something like this onto public radio.”

That’s not to say that everything inside the factory walls of Foxconn are rosy. The Fair Labor Association has reported about Foxconn’s labor conditions, which involve 11-hour work days, six days per week. In January, about 150 workers threatened to jump from a three-story building. In 2010, more than a dozen actually did attempt suicide.

With sobering facts that like, one wonders why any of this story needs to be fictionalized in the first place.

(Updates to correct that statement about Daisey is from “This American Life.”)

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