The show’s weekend broadcast details inconsistencies in the highly popular Jan. 6 episode that was an excerpt from writer Mike Daisey’s critically acclaimed one-man show The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, which currently is at the Public Theater in New York.
“We’re retracting the story because we can’t vouch for its truth,” Ira Glass, the host of This American Life, said in a letter posted on the show’s Web site.
The New York Times said later Friday that it also had removed a questionable paragraph from the online archive of an op-ed piece Daisey wrote for the newspaper in October. Daisey also twisted the truth about his time in China during an interview with The Associated Press late last year.
In his monologue, Daisey describes meeting very young workers who put in very long hours and were forced to do crippling, repetitive motions at factories that make Apple products in China. Some he claimed had been poisoned by a chemical called hexane.
But This American Life says Rob Schmitz, a China correspondent for the public radio show Marketplace, interviewed Daisey’s Chinese interpreter, who disputed much of the artist’s claims. Daisey, under questioning from Glass, admitted in Friday’s broadcast that he didn’t meet any poisoned workers and guessed at the ages of some of the workers he met.
This American Life said in its statement that staffers asked Daisey for his interpreter’s contact information while fact-checking the story, and he said the cellphone number he had for her didn’t work and he had no way to reach her.
“At that point, we should’ve killed the story,” Glass said. “But other things Daisey told us about Apple’s operations in China checked out, and we saw no reason to doubt him.”
Daisey posted on his Web site Friday that he stands by his work and that what he does is theater, not journalism.
“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,” Daisey’s letter said.
Daisey spokesman Philip Rinaldi said Friday his client was “not speaking to anyone about this right now.”
Apple has been rebutting Daisey’s allegations for months, to little effect. The Times also wrote an investigative series in January on dangerous working and living conditions for people who make Apple products in China.
An Apple spokeswoman declined to comment Friday.
The original This American Life episode, “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory,” has become the most popular podcast in the history of This American Life with nearly 890,000 downloads.
Daisey also claimed in an interview with AP late last year that he met Chinese workers whose joints in their hands had disintegrated because they were doing the same motion hundreds of thousands of times.
“I know that people in charge know about these things and chose not to address them. And that’s hard to swallow when you see the damage it does and you know how little it would take to ameliorate a high degree of human suffering,” he said then.
The Times, which published Daisey’s op-ed piece following Steve Jobs’ death in early October, removed a paragraph from the online version that discussed conditions at Apple’s factory in China. The newspaper posted an editor’s note warning readers that the section had been removed because “questions have been raised about the truth.”
“The rest of the piece is his opinion as a performer and a thinker,” said Eileen Murphy, a Times spokeswoman. “If this were a news story it would be a different situation. It’s not. It’s an op-ed.”
In his original monologue, Daisey splices Jobs career milestones and the transformation of Apple from a David into a Goliath with more personal stories about his own connection to the computer maker.
He has said that when he saw four photos posted online taken by workers at a Chinese factory to test the iPhone but mistakenly not erased, he suddenly realized people, not robots, were putting the sleek devices together.
In interviews and on stage, Daisey has said he traveled to the Chinese industrial zone of Shenzhen and interviewed hundreds of workers from Foxconn Technology Group, the world’s largest electronics contract manufacturer, who suffered from their work.
“It’s like carpal tunnel on a scale we can scarcely imagine,” he said while performing the show in New York in October.
In this weekend’s This American Life, Daisey tells Glass he felt conflicted about presenting things that he knew weren’t true. But he said he felt “trapped” and was afraid people would no longer care about the abuses at the factories if he didn’t present things in a dramatic way.
“I’m not going to say that I didn’t take a few shortcuts in my passion to be heard,” he tells Glass.
Daisey has performed the monologue for some 50,000 people from Seattle to Washington, D.C., and it is now at The Public Theater until Sunday. Daisey was expected to take the show on tour, but its future is now in doubt.
In a statement, The Public Theater said the show would be performed in New York as scheduled and stood by what it called “a powerful work of art.”
“Mike is an artist, not a journalist,” the statement said. “Nevertheless, we wish he had been more precise with us and our audiences about what was and wasn’t his personal experience in the piece.”