Presented with contradictions, Mike Daisey won’t admit lying about facts of Apple story

This American Life
In this weekend’s episode of “This American Life,” called “Retraction,” Ira Glass and Marketplace’s Rob Schmitz talk to monologuist Mike Daisey in an effort to separate fact from fiction in his now-retracted story about working conditions in Chinese factories that make Apple products. Schmitz summarizes:

Talking to Daisey was exhausting. There were so many details that didn’t check out, and even when he admitted that he didn’t see what he claimed he saw, he’d qualify it with something.  … It was never simple. He never just said: “I lied.”

At one point in the show, Glass says, “The most powerful and memorable moments in the story all seem to be fabricated.” (All quotes in this post are based on a rush transcript.)

Presented with all the inconsistencies, Daisey’s interpreter says, “He is a writer. So I know what he say is only maybe half of them or less actual. But he is allowed do do that right? Because he’s not a journalist.”

Glass asks Daisey if the reason he lied to “This American Life” staff about the name of his interpreter, and said he had no way to reach her, was that he feared she would reveal the untruths. “No, not really,” Daisey says. Glass presses him, leading to this exchange:

Mike Daisey: Well I did think it would unpack the complexities of, of like how, how the story gets told.

Ira Glass:  What does that mean, unpack the complexities?

Glass also describes some of the show’s efforts to vet Daisey’s account, reading an email from a producer to Daisey in which he wrote, “We wanted to make sure that this thing is totally, utterly unassailable by anyone who might hear it.”

Glass: You put us in this position of going out and vouching for the truth of what you were saying and all along, in all of these ways, you knew that these things weren’t true.  Did you ever stop and think, okay these things aren’t true and you have us vouching for their truth?

Daisey:  I did, I did. I thought about that a lot.

Glass:  And just what did you think?

Daisey:  I felt really conflicted. I felt… trapped.

Glenn Fleishman, a contributor to Macworld and The Economist’s Babbage blog, tweeted about the show, “Listening to Mike Daisey being grilled by Glass and Schmitz is like one of those 60 Minutes interviews from the 1980s.”

Schmitz describes some of the details in the original show that made him suspicious. One was the claim that guards at Foxconn had guns. Another one was that illegal union organizers meet at Starbucks:

Factory workers who make fifteen, twenty dollars a day are sipping coffee at Starbucks? Starbucks is pricier in China than in the U.S. A reporter friend of mine didn’t believe this, either. He said Chinese factory workers gathering at Starbucks is sort of like United Auto Workers in Detroit holding their meetings at a Chinese teahouse.

Turns out Fleishman had the same questions as Schmitz, but he didn’t know for sure that Daisey’s story was false. In a series of tweets Friday, he said:

I started writing about Daisey’s Agony & Ecstasy for an Economist piece 15 months [ago]. While writing it, I had to stop when I realized … details didn’t check out. He was in Shenzhen for a few days. He came back with an ocean of material. Implausible. But I certainly didn’t have the positive knowledge it was false. I almost wrote a piece in January 2011 about my dubiousness of Agony & Ecstasy, but I couldn’t affirmatively prove my concerns.

He tweeted later, “Here’s a story I wrote about Mike Daisey in 2001 about him being at the WTC on 9/11. I don’t know now if it’s true.”

Related: The Associated Press is reviewing its stories about Daisey to figure out what corrections are necessary (Associated Press) | The New York Times has removed a paragraph from a Daisey op-ed and added an editor’s note saying questions were raised about its veracity (The New York Times) | James Poniewozik says Daisey has now undercut the larger arguments that he was trying to make with his “truthiness” (Time) | Jack Shafer has three theories for why people who falsify works of journalism do so (Reuters)

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  • Anonymous

    I’m curious to the different treatment Mr. Daisey receives from the one James O’Keefe receives in another article by Mr. Myers.

    In that one, the word lie does not appear once.
    Mr. O’Keefe purports to be a journalist, Mr. Daisey not.

    Mr. Myers says:
    “It’s a credit to James O’Keefe that amid the diverse vocabulary in the English language, so many terms inadequately describe him and what he does.

    Is he a provocateur, a prankster, an activist, a muckraker, a citizen journalist, an investigative journalist? Do we call these shaky videos undercover stings, gonzo journalism, political theater, political art? Does he take after Matt Drudge? Michael Moore? Julian Assange?


    As a nod to O’Keefe, I will call this “entrapment journalism” because it’s provocative, it could help this post go viral, and it has a kernel of truth.”

    It’s really the difference in tone of the two pieces that strikes me. (and this is true of the other pieces on Mr. Daisey at Poynter). In Mr. Daisey’s case, he takes liberties in order to spread his message and he is bashed and treated with outrage.

    Mr. O’Keefe is treated with grudging respect.

  • russ

    Glad to see the OweBama PR office is working today.

    OweBama is killing your job. What are you doing about it?

  • Anonymous

    Thank you Poynter for your article “Presented with contradictions, Mike Daisey won’t admit lying about facts of Apple story”

    Thank you for your depth of investigation and reserving the word “lying” to refer to a performer’s one-man show.

    I’m so glad you didn’t waste it on unimportant things like the lead-up to the Iraq war or the financial industry’s shenanigans (especially as revealed in Greg Smith’s resignation letter).

    After all, the important take-away from the Greg Smith piece is that the directors at Goldman Sachs called their clients “muppets”.

    BTW, This American Life, in response to criticism in the past, has said that what it does is storytelling, not journalism. So, they are closer to performing than journalism. I am not sure why Mr. Glass changed tack in this instance.

    Thank you also for putting more effort into covering Mike Daise’s
    transgressions than the Apple’s. Thank you for not mentioning that other
    investigators have found myriad problems at Foxconn.

  • Anonymous

    This American Life has always had reports that seemed too good to be true. If it turns out that they aren’t true, it has savagely hurt its standing. Ira Glass has been forthright above all expectation on the peelback. But the show’s great storyteller tone only works if the stories are true.

  • Mockingbird

    I am just stunned by the Retraction episode of TAL.  Stunned by three things; (1) Mike Daisey’s brazen lies to a trusted former collaborator, Ira Glass; (2) Daisey’s ballet-dancing attempts to characterize lies as “theatre” or to otherwise refuse to accept responsibility and just admit he lied; and: (3) Ira Glass’ obvious pain, and integrity demonstrated through the pain, in what must have been the most difficult show or event of his life.  I appreciated the depth and candor of this episode. I loved the way they left all the awkward pauses in real-time, not sugar-coating anything.   As usual, it is not the lies which matter, but the manner and integrity with which they are addressed–not the lie, but the cover-up.  My repect and admiration for Ira Glass–and NPR– has risen to even greater heights.  We would NEVER get this depth of truth-telling from any entity such as Fox News (I still just can’t put those two words together without laughing).  As for Mike Daisey–may we never hear from him again.  P.S.  This episode made my renew my membership to NPR, which I have been remiss in keeping up. 

  • Anonymous

    I just finished listening to the show (Saturday morning @11 on WGBH-FM Boston) and it was one of the most surreal interviews I can remember!  “TAL” left in ALL of the pauses between the questions and the answers, or more appropriately non-answers.  It was almost a philosophical examination of how we both perceive and manufacture reality…in other words, this was an ACTUAL reality show.