Hoards of hungry gadget-heads are currently turning on their new iPads to find out that This American Life has decided to retract their recent segment on the harsh working conditions at Chinese factories making the company's toys [PDF]. The problem is that the segment, which included large segments from Mike Daisey's one-man show The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, "contained numerous fabrications." In other words: Yet more good news for Apple, whose stock is currently trading over $580 a share.
This American Life is set to "devote its entire program this weekend to detailing the errors in the story," but most of them have already been laid out. The big issues involve exaggerations and conflations on the part of Mike Daisey that, while arguably acceptable on stage, are less so on a news show. As Daisey puts it in his response to the retraction:
I stand by my work. My show is a theatrical piece whose goal is to create a human connection between our gorgeous devices and the brutal circumstances from which they emerge. It uses a combination of fact, memoir, and dramatic license to tell its story, and I believe it does so with integrity....What I do is not journalism. 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.
So what'd Daisey get wrong?
Some of the falsehoods found in Daisey's monologue are small ones: the number of factories Daisey visited in China, for instance, and the number of workers he spoke with. Others are large. In his monologue he claims to have met a group of workers who were poisoned on an iPhone assembly line by a chemical called n-hexane. Apple's audits of its suppliers show that an incident like this occurred in a factory in China, but the factory wasn’t located in Shenzhen, where Daisey visited. ... Daisey's interpreter Cathy also disputes two of the most dramatic moments in Daisey's story: that he met underage workers at Foxconn, and that a man with a mangled hand was injured at Foxconn making iPads (and that Daisey's iPad was the first one he ever saw in operation).
Defenders of the harsh working conditions of Chinese laborers (and Apple, which has lately been trying to extricate itself from the mess) will probably take this news as vindication, while those paying attention at home will note that the core issue Daisey and others have been upset about remains: many of the wildly expensive electronic baubles that people the world over covet are being assembled under appalling conditions.
Update: And now The New York Times has removed this paragraph from an op-ed Daisey wrote for the paper after Steve Jobs died:
I have traveled to southern China and interviewed workers employed in the production of electronics. I spoke with a man whose right hand was permanently curled into a claw from being smashed in a metal press at Foxconn, where he worked assembling Apple laptops and iPads. I showed him my iPad, and he gasped because he’d never seen one turned on.