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)

  • Steve Myers

    Steve Myers was the managing editor of until August 2012, when he became the deputy managing editor and senior staff writer for The Lens, a nonprofit investigative news site in New Orleans.


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